There is great philosophical and factual validity behind the concept of empathetic reflection affecting positively people’s lives and interactions with others. Throughout history, people have focused their actions and reactions around this idea both subconsciously and consciously. A famous and often used example of this is the Examen as originally defined by St. Ignatius; the concept of through thoughts, words and deeds, reflecting on where you have been (further what brought you elation, sadness, stress, confusion, etc.), where you are, and aligning these things with where you want to go; continuous improvement of the self.

Here at the EMC Dojo, as our name literally implies, we practice “the way.” A large portion of this form of enlightenment is no doubt found in reflection as practiced through Retrospective, or an exercise our team knows as Retro. The exercise is practiced as explained in the aforementioned example as a form of continuous improvement of our methodology. We use the time to align everyone’s perspective and to ensure we are on the same page in terms of action items and overall goals.

Retro is done every Friday without failure. It is about an hour long and is attended by everyone who plays a role in the Dojo’s operations. Even when members of our Dojo family are working off-site, we ensure that a Google Hangout session is available so that they are virtually in attendance, as this is arguably the most important “meeting” all week. It is the time and space for every employee to speak his/her mind and do so with assumed positive intent, so that feedback can constructively be given and received.

The concept is simple: as a whole team, we are living out the mantra we preach. We are learning by doing; generating weekly action and reaction to our development process through empathetic honesty.    

The person running the exercise for the week (this is not assigned per week, but rather a spur of the moment volunteer) will draw on a white board three columns signified by a smiley face (things that went swimmingly), a neutral face (the so-so items), and a sad face (as your teacher used to proclaim “areas for improvement”). Then all members will add topics/items for discussion from the week to each of these columns as he/she sees fit. These items do not need to be evenly distributed by any stretch of the imagination. That is, no person or team collectively must add the same number of items to the smiley face column as they do to the neutral face column and/or the sad face column (this is part of the honesty piece).

The leader of the exercise will then address each topic/item on the board one item at a time from left to right or right to left (we do this to ensure that we are not making the retro top heavy in any one of the columns). By addressing the topic/item, we mean that the leader will ask the team who wrote the item on the board and why. This is where the importance of this exercise comes to play.

No matter the topic of discussion, in order for the exercise to work and for the team to reap all of its benefits, team members must be completely and empathetically honest about his/her contribution. By doing so, the team learns to navigate conflict by having uncomfortable, but necessary discussions. As with anything, with practice comes perfection. And by perfection, I mean the unattainable kind; something that we are still reaching for 🙂 All kidding aside, it’s true – with every week there are steps back that we learn from paired with giant steps toward our overall goals and methodology.

With the addressing of each topic, the team decides action items that are recorded on the spot. This allows us to ensure that we are offering more than an end of iteration wrap-up, and instead generating real actions and change to ourselves, our team and our organization. We are assessing our ability to break down and solve problems and make improvements –measuring, building and learning constantly in our development process (sound familiar?).

While the exercise was nearly impossible to complete during the birth of our DevOps culture, it is now something that we could not live without. Team issues are no doubt as challenging, if not more, than the technical issues we face. Luckily this exercise allows us to face both and do so with our core value of empathy at its center. We not only are then able to end the week (and iteration) on a high note, but also go into our weekend and following iteration rejuvenated. Retros Rock!

One Comment

  1. Brian Verkley says:

    I love retros. After learning them from the dojo, we do them all the time now.
    I too dislike the saying “practice makes perfect”. I teach my kids that practice makes better. Perfection is not attainable and should not be a goal. Improvement is attainable and valuable. That should be the goal.

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