How to run an organizational Pulse check

Blake Kohler
Mar 9 · 7 min read

Every organization needs to take time to reflect on how it has been doing. This time of reflection and retrospection can propel an organization to greater heights. Taking time out of your day to day to talk about how things are going can be a daunting task. However, the work to adequately reflect and adjust as an individual and as an organization before issues grow too large to handle can bring immeasurable value.

At Pulse for Good, we’re a fan of organized retrospectives. Part of this comes from our tech roots that are grounded in the Agile movement of which ‘retros’ are a key component. We try to retrospect often — and discuss both process and cultural challenges. It has been a critical ingredient to our growth and success.

We want to share how we conduct our retrospectives or ‘Pulse checks’ in hopes that it can help your organization improve as well.


Preparing for your first retro

Messaging your first retrospective

Doing your first retrospective can be an intimidating thing for both your organization and the people directly involved. Especially if this type of introspection is new to your organization. Regardless, helping your team know that retrospectives are journeys of positive discovery and not a device to place blame is the foundation of a successful retrospective.

This idea is so integral to a retrospectives success that Agile software development practitioners have borrowed from the Star Trek universe and come up with their own Prime Directive. (for those who are unfamiliar with the star trek universe, the prime directive is the guiding principle of the protagonist space force) In Agile the prime directive is just as foundational:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

Help your team understand the prime directive before starting the retrospective. Retrospectives need to be a safe place to share or else the most impactful and occasionally difficult things to address will not be brought up but instead stay just below the surface.

By setting the stage that everyone is safe to share without the fear of blame or retribution you unlock the power of collaborative improvement. Despite everything you will do to solidify this feeling in your team complete psychological safety will most likely not come until after you have a few retrospectives under your collective belt.

Inviting the right people

Retrospective can be exciting events and many leaders feel like it’s a great place to display the cultural or organizational changes they are undertaking by inviting many people to be involved. While tempting, inviting outsiders from the team can compromise the feeling of safety for the group. Making sure you include the right people in your retrospective can dramatically impact the success.

In general, the governing principle of who should be involved in a retrospective is best explained by an old business fable of the Chicken and the Pig:

A Pig and a Chicken are walking down the road.

The Chicken says: “Hey Pig, I was thinking we should open a restaurant!”

Pig replies: “Hm, maybe, what would we call it?”

The Chicken responds: “How about ‘ham-n-eggs’?”

The Pig thinks for a moment and says: “No thanks. I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved.”

Inviting “Chickens” to your retrospective might at first seem like the right idea but as they are only contributing and not truly committed to a project like the “Pigs” are. After all, it’s their bacon that’s actually on the line.

At the end of the day If you have a question about if you should invite someone to the retro the best option is the ask your team. On these matters, your team will rarely be wrong.

Setting up

After making sure you’ve invited the right people and messaged out the purpose of the retro the next step is to make sure you’re ready for the actual meeting. You will need a few things including markers, sticky notes, and an hour blocked out of your calendar. (If you are a Pulse customer including your printed Pulse report can add an amazing discussion item — print one for each person.)

After gathering all the needed materials try to find a comfortable place to meet as a team. Conference rooms work great! Book the room for an hour to make sure you’re not going to be interrupted.

If possible, on a whiteboard make two columns, one labeled ‘What went well’ another labeled ‘What needs improvement’.

As you get more advanced you might want to switch up the topics you discuss to help bring other things to light. When you get to that point we recommend: https://retromat.org/ which gives you more ideas to help discussions.

Conducting the retrospective

Once we are ready and your team has arrived welcome them and spend a little bit of time reminding them of the goal.

Set the timeframe that you are looking to retrospect on and also the amount of time you’ve scheduled to talk about each discussion item and we recommend literally using a stopwatch (the one on your phone is just fine)to make sure you don’t go over time.

What went well

Start by distributing a stack of sticky notes and a marker to every individual. Ask them to take time to write down anything they think that went well over the time frame you are considering.

As your time expires ask every person to place their sticky notes under the column on the whiteboard. Let everyone take a moment to read what everyone else has written. You can ask people to explain each of their sticky notes as they place them on the board.

Remember that these are very individual and something that goes well for someone could be something that didn’t go as well for someone else. There should be no debating about these as they are meant to be a reflection of that person's experience.

What needs improvement

After spending time writing down what went well do the same exercise with the difficulties you’ve encountered. Anything is a viable addition. Follow the same format where when the time expires you ask everyone to add them to the appropriate column and offer some explanation.

In your retrospective, it is often powerful to remember that you and your team are the protagonists in your story. Every person is doing the best with the tools, situations, and experience they have. Just like protagonists in most stories do not have a straight path towards victory your path towards process and organizational improvement is bound to have some bumps and bruises. These crucially are not to be ignored! The difficulties are what cause our protagonists to become Heroes — we cheer them one because of the difficulties they have to overcome not in spite of them.

Grouping

While conducting this next step it is helpful to frame your needed improvements as the stepping stones towards your own victory. As you discuss with your team things that didn’t go so well and things that did consider ways these issues influence each other.

Ask team members to look for patterns and attempt to group the sticky notes in similar categories. For instance, if I have a sticky note that mentions our organizations ‘need for more client feedback’ and another that says ‘client surveys’ you might group those in a feedback category.

Every person is doing the best with the tools, situations, and experience they have.

Next steps

After you have grouped your notes take time as a group discussing each category. In both the ‘what went well’ and ‘what could improve’ columns discuss the various groups and talk about ways you could continue what is going well and improve what isn’t

If you have a large list of groups consider allowing everyone three votes to for the ones they want to talk about and narrow down your conversation to only groups with votes.

As a team come up with a list of action items, keep it fairly simple 2–3 items you want to work on. Assign owners for the action items and pick a time and place to follow up (following up during the next retrospective works well!).

After the meeting print out the action items and hang them somewhere everyone on the team can see them.

The power of retrospecting often

Your first retro might feel a little awkward. It might feel forced and it might be a little annoying. But when you keep doing them they will start to feel more natural.

As you get better at conducting and participating inside of a retrospective you are slowly implementing a cultural change — you are helping your organization open themselves up to critique in a way that is healthy and productive.

As we open ourselves up we find not only ways we can improve but also ways we can help others with the things they struggle with and have opportunities to allow others to help us with our issues. This organic pairing of issues and solutions helps strengthen your organization without triggering issues with egos or personalities.

Eventually, retrospectives will become as commonplace as any other meeting but their influence will carry a far greater effect. They will help your organization adapt, grow and strengthen from within while preserving and strengthening the psychological safety and trust for each other that your teammates feel.

Do not be surprised is this trust bubbles out into other meetings, projects, and initiatives.

When we are vulnerable with each other we open tremendous doors of opportunity for long term excellence because we’re no longer spending so much time trying to project an image of perfection.

Retrospectives will help you do all of that and more. Regularly checking your organizational Pulse is a foundational step towards greatness.

Pulse For Good

Capture feedback from your clientele using secure kiosks.

Blake Kohler

Written by

Working to improve the quality of services offered to vulnerable individuals @ Pulse For Good.

Pulse For Good

Capture feedback from your clientele using secure kiosks. Improve your services & engage vulnerable populations.

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