Guide to Alignment Retrospective Meetings

Review is essential to managing alignment.

Managers cannot adequately address alignment issues if they don’t know what is going on and whether their team is aligned. Since alignment is a process that requires active management, it is not enough to simply communicate more and hope that the team is aligned. Managers need to actually validate that their team is aligned.

As a result, we recommend managers hold regular alignment retrospective meetings. Retrospective meetings are a time for teams to:

  • reflect on what they’ve accomplished since the last retrospective.
  • identify areas of misalignment
  • adjust their plan and align it to what they’re trying to accomplish.

Before holding an alignment retrospective, managers and organizational leaders must define an alignment strategy. This strategy should identify what their priorities are regarding alignment, which types of alignment to focus on, and what they’ll do to address misalignment.

A well defined strategy helps the team stay focused on alignment as a function of supporting an outcome, rather than aligning for the sake of alignment. Complete alignment is rarely the right goal, because total alignment is costly, time consuming and often has a low ROI versus “good enough” alignment.

Most companies should align around goals, strategy and purpose

Regardless of industry, most companies would be well served to align their people around specific goals, a clear market-driven strategy, and their organizational purpose. These are the basic building blocks for most alignment strategies and they’re representative of what most performance-driven companies should focus on.

Companies without a clearly defined strategy and purpose should start by writing those down first. It is difficult — if not impossible — to align people without having clear answers to:

  • where are we headed as a team? Where are we headed as a company?
  • why do we exist as a team and company? Why does it matter?
  • why is the work we’re doing important? Who does it impact?
  • what are we trying to accomplish? How will we succeed?

These foundational questions need to be answered prior to establishing goals. If your company has set goals without answering these questions, it is important to answer these questions and then revisit the goals that you have set — a common source of misalignment is the lack of congruency between goals, strategy and purpose.

Retrospective Meeting Agenda

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Here’s a sample agenda for a retrospective meeting:

0-5 minutes: team check-in. Every person should share a quick update about how they’re doing. Do not use this time to talk about specific contributions, but rather, use it to gather sentiment about the work being done and to check for potential issues individuals on the team are facing.

5-10 minutes: manager shares context and gives updates about the “big picture.” Since plans and priorities regularly change, managers should regularly inform their people about current business needs and issues that affect the team and the entire company.

Do not assume that telling people only once will ensure alignment. If change is frequent, it is natural for people to gravitate towards old habits and old notions of what is important. There’s no need to be pedantic about it, but regularly circling back to the big picture is helpful.

10-25 minutes: review misalignment, new information and updates from the team. This is the time to focus on the details and relate them back to strategy and purpose. New information should be discussed briefly (90 seconds max per-item). Conversations that need more detail should be conducted outside of the meeting, ideally by a written medium (like a company-wide blog, wiki, or alignment management tool).

25-30 minutes: wrap up the meeting and decide on an action plan for addressing misalignment. If there’s nothing to address, the meeting can be concluded up at this point.

We recommend teams hold alignment retrospective meetings every 1-2 weeks, depending on the velocity they work at. Teams that accomplish a lot of unique tasks in a short period of time should hold them more frequently, while teams that are exclusively focused on long-term projects and tasks can go longer without holding a meeting.

How to prepare for the Retrospective

In order to have an effective retrospective, both mangers and team members should do their part preparing for the meeting.

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Individual Contributors

Prior to the meeting, individual contributors should:

  1. Write down a list of things that they’ve accomplished. Alignment management software can help expedite this process, by automatically capturing the work that has been done.
  2. Connect their work to a specific goal, strategy initiative, or company purpose. Be careful of forcing a connection between work and context — the point is to identify misalignment, not hide its existence.
  3. (if applicable) Identify why something is misaligned. By definition, something is misaligned when it does not connect to the business context (e.g. does not connect to a goal, strategy, or purpose).

    Not all misalignment is bad. Sometimes, important work will start off as being misaligned to the business context. This is an opportunity for managers to evaluate whether goals and the business strategy adequately cover the work being done. Alignment is a two-way street and discoveries of misalignment at the frontlines can be instrumental in developing a more robust and clear strategy.

    If misalignment is caused by work that is not of strategic importance, it is important to clearly identify why it happened. Perhaps it was a request from a customer. Or miscommunication caused the wrong work to happen. Regardless of reason, identifying misalignment is not about blaming the person who is misaligned. Rather, the purpose of alignment is continuously improve the work that is being done by the team.

Be sure to communicate this information to the alignment manager at least a day before the retrospective. This can be automatically done using software or through a report that’s compiled by each individual contributor.

Managers

Managers play a crucial role in preparing for the alignment retrospective. Prior to every meeting, managers should:

  1. Review reports from their team. Software can help save time and make this process easier.
  2. (If applicable) Brainstorm ways to address misalignment. This can involve adjusting the strategy, updating task lists and product backlogs, or helping the team better understand the context behind the work they are doing.
  3. Escalate information where appropriate. While we generally recommend against strict hierarchical reporting systems, they’re still very common in today’s organizations. New information, especially information that impacts the strategy, should be escalated to key decision makers so they can address that information.

    Managers should use caution when pursuing this route, because it is easy for important information to unintentionally not receive the attention it needs. Managers play a critical role in not only communicating information, but also communicating why it is important.

Do not wait until the meeting to address serious alignment issues

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While a retrospective is a great time to discuss issues of alignment, managers should use discretion when deciding whether to address misalignment during the meeting or on an ad-hoc basis. Serious issues and important decisions should be addressed quickly, even if the next meeting is a week or two away.

It is important to not let process prevent agile decision making — leaders need to continue to default to action and make decisions in a timely manner.

Who should participate in an alignment retrospective?

Alignment retrospective meetings are a joint effort between managers and individual contributors. Since everybody in a highly aligned company is responsible for performance and executing the company’s strategy, contributors need to be part of the alignment conversation. Everybody in the organization should be able to answer the questions that we outlined in “most companies should align around goals, strategy and purpose.”

Integrating an alignment retrospective in an existing process.

We’re generally supporters of fewer meetings. Fewer meetings means less time spent discussing work that has been done and allows a team to spend more time actually accomplishing their goals. Whenever possible, alignment retrospectives should be integrated into existing staff meetings. For example, Agile retrospective meetings are a great complement to alignment retrospectives.