I’m not alone in my love for the book Creativity Inc., written by Pixar President Ed Catmull. Others have called it “the best business book ever written” (Forbes) and “the most practical and deep book ever written by a practitioner on the topic of innovation” (Harvard Business School). I read the book several years ago and have returned to it lots of times, determined to figure out how to leverage more and more of Catmull’s thinking to make myself and my team not only more creative, but better in lots of ways. (I won’t, however, be incorporating all of Catmull’s past business practices.)
Of all the great ideas in the book, the one that struck me most immediately went I read it was something Catmull calls Notes Day, a day when all of Pixar’s projects stop, and all employees share their thoughts on how the company operates – and how they can do it more effectively. The need for this arose from what Catmull describes as an environment in which “more and more people had begun to feel that it was either not safe or not welcome to offer differing ideas.” He goes on:
Increasingly, we sensed that our people, having enjoyed years of success, were under a great deal of pressure not to fail […] As a company, our determination to avoid disappointments was also causing us to shy away from risk […] One of our greatest values – that solutions could come from anyone and that everyone should feel free to weigh in – was slowly being subverted under our watchful eyes. And only we could correct it. (p. 279 – 280)
Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a conference where Continuous Delivery expert Jez Humble was speaking. Jez said that, while we tend to copy the things successful groups are doing, it’s not the things themselves, but a team’s ability to problem solve that creates real change within an organization. When Catmull looked around, he saw teams of people who were suddenly afraid to problem solve. And so Notes Day was born.
I recognized my own team and situation in Catmull’s words. We were an organization that valued transparency, debate, creativity, and continuous improvement, and we’d incorporated lots of best practices into our normal operating rhythms, including daily standup meetings for each product team and retrospectives after each release. Still, it was inevitable that we’d have to find ways to revisit and reinforce these ideals – to get people talking about the things that weren’t working well. We were widely recognized throughout the organization as high performers, and nobody wanted to mess that up. To make matters worse, although I spent lots of my days working at a table with my team, I was still missing out on too many important things. People tend to “protect” the boss.
When I read about Notes Day, I wondered if it was something that could work for my team. When I approached key leaders in my area, they loved the idea – we hadn’t yet tried a Retrospective of Retrospectives with our team, but since we were all very comfortable with post-release retros, this felt like a great way to frame up the activity. In a Retrospective of Retrospectives, teams come together to share their successes and opportunities, focusing on how to improve performance across the entire team or overall program. It was exactly what I’d been looking for.
My cohorts and I started to frame up an offsite for our team (about 65 people at the time, including developers, product managers, system architects, BAs, QA analysts, project managers, and UX engineers), knowing that if we did it right, we’d both gather critically important information and give the team a shot in the arm. What we came up with was a two-day conference of sorts. It turned out to be one of the best work things I’ve ever done.
One of our two days was spent recapping the year, discussing new project ideas, hosting guest speakers, presenting “Lightning Talks” (5 minute presentations on anything the presenter chose), and participating in a Q&A session with our CEO. The goal of these sessions was to celebrate our successes, tie our work to company goals, learn new things, laugh together, and get pumped up for the new year. Our other day was dedicated to the Retrospective of Retrospectives.
The Retrospective of Retrospectives
Preparation for the Retrospective of Retrospectives started weeks before the event itself, with some pre-work – we asked each team member to bring a list of things that went well throughout the year and things that didn’t. On the day itself, we split the team into pre-determined groups of 8-10 people, ensuring that each functional area (devs, product managers, etc.) would be represented and that none of them would dominate the conversation. Then we asked each group to conduct their own, smaller retrospective, identifying successes and opportunities, voting on which opportunities were most pressing, and coming up with potential solutions. Finally, these solutions were presented to the larger group, and team members signed up for the opportunities they were most passionate about. We were careful not to gloss over the hard things – in order to be successful, this needed to be a warts-and-all conversation. We were looking for problems to solve and ways to be better. Over the course of the next year, each group was responsible for updating the entire team on their progress.
After just two annual meetings, we’re still tweaking the formula for both the retro and the followup. For the retro, the challenges include creating a structure that allows for cross-team sharing and finding the right areas of focus. For the follow up, the challenges include trying to find the right balance between holding people accountable and giving them the freedom to change course as new, bigger opportunities arise.
I know we’ll be refining our Retrospective of Retrospectives this year – our team has grown, and we need to find new ways to engage and empower people across multiple capabilities. But it’s only September, and the team is already looking forward to the event. We’re gathering our thoughts, reflecting on this past year’s successes and challenges, refining our roadmaps, and lining up guest speakers. Best of all, we’re getting ready to have hard discussions about what’s not working well and how we can improve as a team, warts-and-all.
I can’t wait.