16 September 2013
This week Gaslighters came together for two days at a cabin in the hills of Eastern Ohio to reflect on the year and talk about the future.
How to Retreat
Day 1 was a retrospective, and Day 2 was all about the future direction of the company.
Days ran from 9-5, and we had no problem filling that time. We took disciplined time-boxing approach on each topic of discussion, to ensure we could get around to talking about all of the things. Someone took the role of keeping, indicating, and either calling or extending time on a discussion. This worked well.
Also, with a group of fifteen, it was important to be disciplined and observe the rules of decorum when speaking. Someone took on the role of managing this by jotting down who had indicated interest in speaking (by raising their hand), and gave them the floor in kind. This approach promotes momentum and inclusion, but some worried hindered the ability to respond and delve deeply into a thread of discussion.
Determining the topics of discussion is another important retreat task. Some were presented beforehand and posted to a public Gaslight Trello board. Some retrospective topics were pulled from our last offsite retreat six months ago. But, by and large, the topics of discussion are determined on the spot during the first hour of the retreat, and the process for doing that is really interesting.
Post-its are Amazing
We gather, each individual gets a pen and a pack of sticky-notes. Ten minutes is spent quietly writing down any notable event relating to the company that one remembers about the past, one per sticky note. This is a brainstorming type exercise, the more things the better and there are no wrong answers.
When time is up, we put our notes on the board. There is a lot of overlap, and a couple group members spend some time organizing the notes into groups. The amount of notes in any one group may be an indicator of a hot topic, however it’s not always the case that it’s something that people are interested in hashing (or rehashing). Therefore, the next step of the process is to determine as a group what we’re interested in talking about.
We vote with stickers, each person gets six and spends the next ten minutes marking topics of interest to them. Interestingly, three of your stickers have a positive connotation (we had smileys), three have a negative connotation (stars). This is a cool spin, it can be really eye-opening to see what topics people have negative perceptions of.
This process doesn’t only apply to one kind of discussion, i.e. retrospectives. Jessica Ivans workshopped this same technique in her User Experience talk at QCMerge. We applied it to our Day 2 discussion of determining, as a group, Gaslight’s Core Values.
Core Values speak to what you stand for as a company. Regardless of the shifting environment, strategies, or changes in the landscape or shape of your business, Core Values are unshakable tenets and guiding principles that underly and inform any decision the company makes.
On the surface it’s hard to articulate the importance of a set of Core Values for a company, and the danger of not having them. Immediately they provide a sense of focus and purpose. Specifically, they can be the best informer of future business direction.
One goal of the retreat was to determine what Gaslight’s core values actually are and write them down. We discussed a lot of ideas about potential avenues of business that could substantially change what Gaslight is and how we operate. People and companies should know when to say “no”. If a business opportunity is at odds with the Core Values of the company, you can have confidence about not pursuing it. If those Core Values aren’t defined, it would be very easy slip into an irreversible situation that is harmful to the business, and antithetical to what made the company great in the first place.
We collected some really great ideas, and were able to gauge some of the things we all love about Gaslight, and what makes us unique. Focus on delivering, community, continuous improvement, independence, sustainable pace, teamwork, and having fun were things we seemed to circle around. When it came to actually putting the value statements on paper, it became apparent this was not something we could do through committee. Too many cooks dilute the broth, changing words here and there weakened the impact as the concepts become increasingly safe. We collected the cards and called it, our time box told us that this was not something we were ever going to be able to hash out in a day.
How to Do All of The Things
It has become apparent that we get easily caught up in doing too many things as Gaslighters. The majority of us are involved in the full time day-to-day consulting work of delivering valuable features to clients. The majority of us are also involved in one or more internal projects or initiatives at any given time.
We value external marketing and community initiatives like blogging, podcasting, speaking at conferences, hosting and organizing user groups, and planning and developing curriculum for training classes.
We put a high value on becoming the best at what we do. We do this by committing to and attending internal talks, lunches, book clubs, code reviews, and demos.
All of these activities are valid ways to spend company time. They feed our pipeline, build our reputation, make us more effective at what we do. Our consulting work is the most vital thing to our company and we enjoy doing it. Delivering incredible value to our clients is one of the most powerful forms of marketing we can engage in. But it’s not enough. Balancing and allocating time to build and strengthen the company from the inside was a big topic of discussion.
We’ve all always been independently-driven builders of things. We’ve consistently got an internal tool or product we’re building. Somebody builds something, brings it to the group, some individuals get excited about it and immediately converge on it to make it cool.
The problem is translating this independent spirit into an actual Gaslight-driven business initiative. Emotion and passion and motivation are awesome to put together a prototype, but those things don’t necessarily translate to business value. We’ve failed at actually driving these products like a passionate product owner would. We all know how essential that is in a successful software product. We fail to step back and develop a business case around the work. We fail to plan with this business case in mind. It’s not surprising that many of these projects have suffered from lack of momentum and general frustration.
We all agreed that we need to be more intentional to succeed in our internal projects, but a bright spot in the conversation was our switch to a Kanban style of project management. Kanban has helped us here, especially for internal projects. Holding daily stand ups around a company-wide Kanban board has increased the visibility into each project. It’s easy what the sate of the project is and where help is needed. We can specify different processes for different projects, and we can account for all of the non-development related things that need to be done.
The Promise Land
Another exercise for business success is envisioning the future. We talked quite a bit about what our “promise land” is for Gaslight, in terms of 6 months, 1 year, 5 years, and 15-30 years down the road (BHAG territory).
Immediately we all want a full pipeline with projects waiting in the wings. The medium term dream is for each decision to take on work to be difficult, as there too many awesome things to choose from. The promise land is a scenario in which clients line up at our door to pitch us on why we should take on their project.
We’re also interested in branching out and diversifying our revenue streams. In the short term this means having at least one additional revenue driving project in the works. Mid-term we’d like a revenue stream other than consulting to fund a full-time dedicated team within the organization. Long term, we’d like to invest in and support businesses spun-off from Gaslight.
We’ve known the importance of design and user experience, but it’s really within the past year of working with our design team that we’ve experienced the impact, enough to change how we do work. We’d like Gaslight to as equally known for excellent design, as well as excellent development. Long term, this could radically change what we do, with less of a focus on building things, and more of a focus on solving problems.
All of this is important. But as a business, it’s hard to quantify the value that comes from getting out of the office, communicating, cooking and eating food, playing games, breaking out the guitars, and generally hanging out.