Performance reviews are flawed. Harness the power of retrospectives instead.

Has it already been a year since the last one?

You make your way to a small meeting room. You find your colleague nervously watching the clock, waiting for your arrival. They nod as you list their shortcomings. You pepper in praise in hopes you don’t come off as a total ass. It’s performance review time and you both know you just need to push through.

Performance reviews stink… and we all know it.

No matter how sensitive a leader you may be, providing feedback is uncomfortable. How many times have you found yourself delaying the process? Or rushing through it? Or just skipping it altogether? It’s a process deeply flawed.

Retrospectives provide an easy and more authentic way of giving and receiving feedback.

Imagine adopting a process where your team comes together to improve. While performance reviews tend to be one-way dialogues, retrospectives encourage a multi-way conversation.

“What did we each learn?”

“What was our experience?”

“What will we do differently next time?”

“How can we make things better?”

New ideas and helpful reflections surface when teams ask themselves questions. Retrospectives create a space that encourages the free flow of feedback amongst team members.

Routine retrospectives create a cadence of reflection.

Unlike annual performance reviews, retrospectives reoccur throughout the year. They can occur once a week or once a month or once a quarter or at the end of a project. How often your team meets is up to you. Making them routine strips away the emotion (and dread) inherent in most feedback processes. Software teams often host retros at the end of their two week sprints. It’s an opportunity to assess what they’ve learned and to plan for the next two weeks. In my own team, we have different cadences depending on what we’re working on together. Our meetings have a comfortable, casual feel. We chat about what’s working well and what we can do differently going forward.

The Four L Retrospective: Liked, Learned, Lacked, Longed For.

Experiment by running your first retro. It’s easy. I recommend (and often use) the Four L Retrospective format. This approach works well in any size group creating a safe space for sharing feedback. Smaller groups can complete the process verbally. If you have a larger group, hand out post-it pads to capture and share ideas. Each post-it note holds a single new idea. To start, give participants a few minutes to come up with a list of responses to the following statements:

What I LIKED about X is…

What I LEARNED from X is…

Where I LACKED in my own performance during X is…

What I LONGED FOR during X is…

X is the period of time or project you are retrospecting on.

Next participants share their thoughts or post-it notes under each of the four “L” categories. Keep going until everyone has shared every idea they have. If any are the same or similar, group them together and create clumps of ideas around one topic. You will likely find big ideas and themes start to emerge. Then it’s time to ask the group two questions about everything they’ve heard.

SO WHAT? What are your big take-aways from everything you’ve heard?”

“NOW WHAT? What do we want to do with this information? What actions do we plan to take?”

A tip: The statement “Where I LACKED in my own performance during X is…” refers to the person answering the question. Ideal responses will sound like, “I could have done [this thing] better.” It’s not an opportunity to point fingers at others and tell them what they lacked. Slipping up here can quickly shift the energy of the room into one of blame and defensiveness.

Everybody is equal in the process.

Retrospectives give a voice to everybody in the room and create a multi-sided conversation. In a retrospective, we’re both giving AND receiving insights. As a result we’re more likely to be empathetic, less judgmental and more open — to show up as our best selves.

The power of one hour together.

I recently worked with a client team of about 45 people to help them learn and adopt the 4L process. We created six groups of about seven people. Each group went through the four Ls together. Every person in the room had the opportunity to contribute and be heard. After an hour, each group shared highlights with the whole room. The CEO and Founder of the company was an equal participant along with everyone else. With this brief (one hour) exercise, the team got a good sense of what was working and where things could be better. The insights came from the people living and breathing the work every day.

What if a grenade gets dropped in the middle of the room?

Sometimes there are big ugly issues. They may be raw and they may make everyone in the room super uncomfortable when unearthed. It’s in these moments that a neutral, skilled facilitator is key — someone who can honour the emotion and ask the right questions to get to the core of the problem. A good facilitator will diffuse tensions, keep ideas flowing, and create a sense of “we’re OK” in the room. After a few practice runs, someone on your team will be ready to step into the facilitator role.

“Wow that was a lot better than I thought it was going to be!”

People often come to their first retrospective with fear. They are afraid of being blamed and shamed. They are afraid of speaking their mind. Once they have been through the process they’ll see it’s easier than anticipated. People want to — and can — show up as their best selves when given space and the voice to do so.

Give one a shot. My bet is that you’ll find many different uses for this simple tool. I’d love to hear from you. Let me know how it goes.

Thanks for reading :-) If you found this info helpful, hit that clap button a few times. It would mean a lot to me and helps other people discover the story.

I blog to help Founder CEOs scale solutions to problems worth solving. In addition to my writing on Medium, you will find helpful articles and tools here. My latest book, Reinventing Scale-Ups can be found here. Be the first to receive new articles by signing up for my newsletter here.

The Scale Coach for Founder CEOs and co-author of Reinventing Scale-Ups: Radical Ideas for Growing Companies

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