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Get Personal, Get Feedback, Get Better

One of our directors shared this article with the managers here at Pivotal Labs about having a personal retrospective. It immediately sparked a healthy debate, and I latched on to the idea because I think it fills a very real hole in getting feedback. We do great at gathering, weighting, and aggregating feedback from a pivot’s peers and delivering that in a constructive way. However, we don’t have a great way to get direct feedback on a level above the day-to-day pairing feedback. To see if it would be useful at our company, we needed to try it out so I volunteered. In addition to learning about myself the personal retro had several unexpected, positive effects. My experience was very personal and I’d be happy to talk about it in more details in person – what follows here are my findings on how to run one successfully in the hopes that others will find this tool useful as well.

I think there were at least four key elements to my personal retro that made it work well:

  • Be quiet and in the background. Have a facilitator, you can not host this yourself
  • Pick the right people and set expectations
  • Pick the right questions to ask
  • Be in a frame of mind where you really want this feedback (introspective, courage)

I initially thought, “I’m good at leading project retros, I should be able to lead a retro about myself.” I’m glad someone else suggested that I have a facilitator and that I listened. It was intense enough listening to feedback, I can’t imagine trying to stay impartial and lead discussion while soaking it all in. I asked one of our pivots who has not only led retros, but also facilitated inceptions – I knew he could handle the job and be professional about it. He took my questions and prepared his own notes ahead of time and asked me clarifying questions. Since I was doing my best to be quiet to prevent influencing opinions, he also made sure that before we moved on that I had the clarity I needed. I was on the opposite side of the room from the facilitator, so most times I wasn’t in the field of view of the speaker and they addressed me in the third person “…he does this very well”, or “Will always…”. This went a long way to making me feel more comfortable and hopefully made the reviewers more comfortable too.

Picking the right people was tough. I wanted to get feedback on all parts of my job. I’m a developer, a team lead (anchor), a manger, and probably another two less official hats. I wanted to know about how I’m doing as a pivot in all these areas. My review team consisted of:

  • My manager
  • A fellow manager
  • One of my reports
  • One of my team mates
  • and …

While I respect and value all four of these people’s opinions, I wanted to have someone in the room who saw me differently. Someone who I had a rough experience with. My experience has often been that you can learn a lot more when you disagree and so I wanted that person in the room too. She declined the retro so I invited a friend and rising pivot to be my fifth reviewer. I felt five was the right number because it was big enough for diversity, small enough to be productive, and odd numbered if any voting needed to take place.

In my invite I shared the above article. I shared my intended questions for discussion. I shared the invite list so that if someone didn’t feel comfortable reviewing me in front of the director of the office he or she could gracefully bow out. I made it clear that this was optional.

Not everyone was a match to give this kind of feedback in a group setting. As we do more personal retros I suspect we’ll get a better feel for who is well suited to giving feedback in a semi-public environment. The quantity of feedback I got seemed to be directly proportional to the seniority of the reviewer, but the less-senior pivots provided their own unique perspective and insights that I would keep if I was doing it over again; meaning that I appreciated the spread, but it would be folly to expect a greener employee to produce all the value, so set your expectations appropriately.

Picking the right questions for me was the most emotional part of this process. I wanted to be specific so as to provide direction to the group – “What do you like most/least about Will” was not going to cut it. I’ve gotten some feedback with my manager and I really wanted to focus in on what it would mean to make some of those areas better. Before I could do that, I had to share context and concrete examples with this group so they could paint me their own picture of how I am perceived through their eyes. If you want an exercise to get at these questions, you could probably stand at a whiteboard by yourself, create the three columns, and group them together and prioritize like you would in a normal retro. I wrote down my questions and sent out the invites at least two weeks ahead which gave me plenty of time to think about what kinds of answers I wanted from people, and what examples I had if they needed clarification. For me, I’m an introspective guy and these kinds of questions are always rolling around in my head, they’re what drive me to be better, but until now I only had myself to measure against. For most, it might be helpful to go through an annual review first to get some solid manager feedback and have a year of experience under your belt before embarking on a personal retro.

Once you’ve picked the right people, picked the right questions, the only thing to worry about is yourself. In order for this to be useful at all, you’ve got to want to know more about yourself, and you’ve got to be willing to listen to others even if you don’t agree with them. Humility goes hand and hand with the personal retro. I was called “brave” and “courageous”, which felt good, but I wasn’t there for praise, I was there to grow. It does take some steel-clad nerves to ask a peer to speak about you. It takes guts to show your boss where you and others think you can improve. And no one can call you chicken for shining this kind of light on some of the dusty parts of your personality, but I can assure you that I still had moments leading up to my retro where I wanted to smash the eject button and bail out. This. Is. Not. Easy. But the benefit far outweighs the cost for those who are willing to try.

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