Continue, stop, start retrospective framework

Continue, Stop, Start: Rethinking retrospectives

Main illustration: Aimee Brooks

When faced with a problem or new process at work, most people usually don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, they look for patterns and frameworks that are widespread and valuable.

A common challenge for many teams is how to run retrospectives. There are plenty of solutions, and one of them is Start, Stop, Continue – a framework to structure a retrospective for a team, career or project.

For example, at the end of a sprint, you think about what else you should do, what you should stop doing and you should continue to do. Or at your performance review, you might wonder what you should start doing to get a promotion, what is blocking you and what you are currently doing that works well. Start, Stop, Continue can be an actionable, motivational and straightforward way to critically think about how you are working.

Experimenting with your retrospectives

I experiment a lot with retrospectives, usually mixing different exercises that share the same goal but differ in structure. Recently, during a discussion about what else my team could start doing, I heard a bold statement that starting new things is less important than continuing what’s successful. When I reflect on that, I must say that I fully agree.

Start, Stop, Continue allows you to kick off a retro session motivated and energized with a head full of ideas of what else you could be doing. If you think about your career growth by beginning with what you should start doing, you instinctually ask yourself, “What else should I do to get promoted? What else should I do to get a director role?” You want to take actions, invest and get a profit.

But I’ve always felt that there was a problem with this technique. Every time I use it, I feel overwhelmed with amount of things we should start doing. All these ideas easily make me feel I’m not doing a good job and missing so many opportunities. The fact is the order of Start, Stop, Continue is broken. The best sessions should begin with Continue, progress through Stop, and finish on Start.

The best order – Continue, Stop, Start

Continue shows what you or your team are doing best. What is the real foundation of your success? Asking what your team should keep doing highlights the positive things that are deep in the culture of your organization that are necessary for future success.

Asking what your team should keep doing highlights the positive things that are necessary for future success

To grow sustainably, either as a team or a career, you need to have a strong foundation, and you need to keep focus on it. Begin your retrospective with this focal point to align everyone with what you are doing great, what is essential and what you can’t trade off when under pressure.

Stop highlights the things you may not even be aware of that are blocking your full potential. One common example is meetings. You might be a huge help to a department other than yours and it usually works well but it potentially blocks you from being more focused on your most impactful projects at the moment.

Sometimes you might think that there is nothing to stop and that everything is essential. Well, almost always that’s not true. Go through everything you and your team are doing and challenge it all.

Start is usually where you would begin a retrospective, but I recommend that you end with it instead. Every new thing to start doing means that you need to make a trade-off. You can potentially distract yourself or unknowingly stop doing something that is core to how you or your team works. What would you stop in order to start this particular item? How does it impact everything you want to continue to do (i.e. the foundations of your success)?

In the engineering world, one of the things that a lot of engineers would like to start doing is taking on tech debt or delivering something well scoped that they think is reasonable to ship. However, working on these things always means you need to say stop to doing something else. You can try hard to not drop any ball and still deliver. In the background though, you will need to stop doing something less measurable, like leadership, that can impact your career.

On the other hand, starting something new is an excellent way to learn. Be open to new things, but question if this particular thing is the most impactful of all the things you can do.

How to balance actions and make trade-offs

When your team decides to start doing something new, a trade-off will almost always need to be made. It’s vital to be deliberate when starting new things. It’s tempting to add one more thing into your schedule, but you should make sure you understand the consequences.

Start with expectations

To make informed trade-offs, you need to clearly understand the expectations, both for your team and your career. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What does your department or organization expect from your team?
  • What do team members expect from the team?
  • What are the definitions of your current and next role?

If you can’t answer these questions, the whole exercise is biased and almost doomed to failure. It will be driven only by current biases, without long-term objective.

A few months ago during a retrospective I pushed the team to start using Github projects as a way to track our execution. Everyone was supposed to create tasks, describe them and own their lifecycle in the Github project. It was totally biased by my experience in more process-heavy companies and the fact that I wasn’t used to Intercom culture yet. It took time and distracted my team from their work just to do the same thing they do in our morning standups. Moreover, it impacted our flexibility when working on ambiguous product problems while a lot of things were changing. Reflecting that back to Github was a nightmare.

What we should have done was to highlight our team expectations on moving fast and shipping great product. Therefore what we needed to do was continue our standup rituals and find ways to improve them. Starting to use a tool that was not crafted for our needs did not help meet our expectations and instead, confused and negatively impacted the team.

Focus on impact

If your team decides to start doing something new, you should ask your team, “What is most impactful thing to start doing that aligns with our expectations?” If you’re evaluating your personal goals, what is the most impactful new thing to focus on for your career? You can do a thousand small things that won’t give you much progress as one key project.

Look for opportunities, look for impact and make sure to avoid busy work.

Thinking critically about frameworks

Overall, Start, Stop, Continue is an excellent way to think retrospectively, though not the only one. When using this particular technique, remember to consider what order makes the most sense for you and your team and to make sure that everyone is aligned on what the labels mean. Don’t underestimate Continue – this is the most important piece to understand.

Last, but not least: frameworks are constructed to help solve common problems. But not every problem is the same and therefore, you shouldn’t rely on pre-crafted frameworks without considering whether they’re useful for your current circumstances. Don’t reject a framework if it doesn’t work immediately, but also don’t accept it blindly. Consider adapting a framework to suit your current needs.

If this sounds like the sort of environment that you would enjoy, we are actively hiring – check out our openings.

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