Overwhelmed and wondering how to lead in 2021?

2021 is likely off to a dark start, according to Steven Pearlstein at the Washington Post: “With COVID-19 deaths heading toward 4,000 a day, overwhelming hospitals, don’t be surprised if much of the country will be forced to shut down for a month or two. That could mean a first quarter with negative output growth and a significant jump in the unemployment rate as more schools and businesses close, consumer spending falls and cash-strapped governments are forced to lay off employees and curtail services.” Instead of focusing on the crisis on hand, focus on learning and take your team on a retrospective.

So, who is going to weather this “whipsaw economy” and enjoy the summer resurgence we’re all hoping for? We predict it will be those who learn—and know how to learn—from their darkest moments in 2020.  

2021 will require better training, better processes, better communication, and greater accountability. A narrative retrospective is one of the best meetings leaders can have with their teams in order to develop all of these competencies. A successful retrospective requires and also encourages openness, honesty, and constructive dialogue that drives continual improvement. This article gives you a window into how and why we at Leadership Reality run successful retrospectives that help our clients through hard times and create lasting change.

Defining a Retrospective

In a formal retrospective, participants reflect on a past project, sharing and sorting their learning. If we treat 2020 like a massive project—our progress marked by peaks, valleys, and plateaus—we have plenty of opportunities to learn from it. There will also be plenty of temptations on the part of leaders to tell their people exactly what went wrong and what they need to do differently. It’s important to resist this temptation at all costs, otherwise, the biases of the few will negatively influence the work of the many, and in the worst cases, a retrospective can devolve into a fit of finger-pointing and blame passing. This is an opportunity for leaders to learn from their teams, and avoid these ugly outcomes.

Retrospectives help a team self-educate. Concepts, problems, and opportunities bubble up to be solved by the teams themselves, without being told how they’re “supposed” to fix them beforehand. Rather than assigning blame for perceived shortcomings, these meetings focus on the future and ask how the company can evolve its communication and problem-solving skills. Typically, teams sort their experiences into three categories: 

  • New Approaches they’d like to take, 
  • things to Continue Doing, 
  • and things to Discontinue Doing. 

Why Meetings Matter?

Including a facilitator or coach in these meetings can also help achieve a balanced focus on positive and negative, past and future, that allows collaborative and forward-looking learning to take place (Hoffmann, Meeting Design, 195-198). 

Because the goal of a retrospective is team self-education, it is important that participants in these meetings not presume core problems upfront or claim to know in advance what is important to the teams. Research in the field of Emergent Learning (EL) shows that such approaches lead to repeated mistakes and missteps that will inevitably be “rediscovered”—even by the same teams—in later projects. Instead of cultivating behaviors that produce different results, diagnosing key issues too quickly often leads to these mistakes being internalized in reactive ways. No actual learning takes place, and problem-causing behaviors go unchanged because teams are more focused on avoiding negative outcomes rather than pursuing positive ones (Darling, Parry & Moore, “Learning in the Thick of It,” 2005). Retrospectives informed by EL encourage an environment of behavioral change, refusing to boil accountability down to blame. Rather, teams literally and collaboratively make an account of what worked and what didn’t, telling themselves a common story and adjusting their approaches to the future (cf. Hoffmann 189). 

Executives and the Retrospective

Research surrounding EL also suggests that retrospectives are opportunities for executive leadership to glean new insights into patterns and problems through a multi-agent, hands-off approach. As defined by Darling et. al, “Emergence is a process by which, through many interactions, individual entities or ‘agents’ create patterns that are more sophisticated than what could have been created by an individual entity. And, as a corollary, no one entity…could have envisioned the entire solution a priori” (“A Framework for Whole-System Strategy,” 60). The proper executive role in an Emergent retrospective is observational, allowing multiple “agents” (i.e. your teams and people) to create patterns through the process of self-education. By observing and capturing these patterns, rather than assuming them, executives are given more data to work with while building their organizational strategies.

This need not translate to a low level of executive control—it’s all about how you define it. EL predicts that, if executives interpret “control” as taking away from team agency, they pick up on fewer patterns within their organizations. This leads to fewer opportunities for innovation and a higher likelihood that mistakes and negative patterns will keep repeating. But where executives use their control to expand the circle of agency, EL predicts adaptations and experimental procedures that have the potential to become “orders of magnitude faster,” than business as usual, producing better and smarter results in less time (Holland, Hidden Order, 1995). Such an expanded field of agency encourages experimentation around strategies and supports whole-system learning, which requires shorter, faster, more rigorous real-time learning and more cross-pollination among peers” (Darling, et. al., 2016, 59). 


Retrospectives informed by EL thus propose a shift in the locus of strategy, away from (merely) driving results and towards producing the conditions of possibility for a company culture that develops adaptive, agile solutions—solutions that naturally produce results at a higher level and at a faster rate. Executives can encourage these developments by providing flexible opportunities—such as the retrospective itself—for employees to compare experiences and ask questions that matter to them. “An Emergent Learning design focuses on posing questions that invite a wider circle into the thinking process, making thinking visible to encourage a learning dialogue, deliberately testing out hypotheses in the work itself, and sharing insights across the community” (Darling, et. al., 2016, 64).

Using the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

While executive strategy and humility are crucial to an Emergent Learning environment, team participation is also vital. While executives can use their power to expand agency, those invited to the table must also make use of their agency through engagement and group collaboration. At Leadership Reality, we facilitate this engagement using the assessments provided in Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team.

The Five Behaviors assessment, along with the DiSC profiles on which it builds, use psychological instruments to measure abstract qualities (intelligence, extraversion, honesty, etc.). The instruments are internally tested for reliability and validity, standing up to several standards of stability and internal consistency (see the Five Behaviors Research Report v.2, 2014). These assessments reliably provide accurate and useful data pertaining to those teams that utilize them. 

The Team Assessment portion of the Five Behaviors report aggregates individual responses and DiSC personality profiles in order to paint a picture of team dynamics across five behavior categories: 

  • Results
  • Accountability
  • Commitment
  • Conflict
  • Trust

Your Organization

Because each individual DiSC profile contributes to the final Team Assessment, individual team members can be confident that their contributions have been accounted for and that the report accurately reflects their team culture. Just as individual contributions are vital for producing this report, individual contributions will be vital for producing the Emergent Learning environment that will improve these behaviors. Individual team members should feel empowered toward confidence and transparency while collaboratively forming the retrospective narrative. 

By making the transformation of the whole organizational culture a priority, leaders can facilitate the necessary conditions for transparency and forward-thinking in their teams. Assessments such as DiSC and Five Behaviors provide clarity and vocabulary for addressing intrinsic, individual abilities and propensities in the workplace—behaviors of conflict, accountability, etc. Aided by these reports, we encourage individuals to speak up and identify problems while assuring that these conversations do not reduce to circuses of blame and accusation. 

Summing Up: The LR Process

In our retrospectives, Leadership Reality aims to identify behavioral problems and opportunities for improvement by taking a balanced approach to the positive and the negative, the past, and the future. Rooted in research on Emergent Learning, we expand the circle of the agency with the goal of identifying multiple patterns that may be used for faster, better problem-solving. Rather than placing blame, a successful retrospective authors an account—a narrative of “What Happened”—that will allow problems to emerge through team self-education. An expanded circle of agency increases the chances of identifying interrelated problems, and therefore the likelihood that they will be properly diagnosed and addressed. This approach helps avoid personalization, blame, and the impulse to avoid negative outcomes—all of which have been proven to lead to repeated mistakes and the misrecognition of core issues. Instead, we focus everyone involved on tasks of collaborative storytelling and behavior change that lead to improved processes and communication across the board. 

Your Retrospective Outline

Start your own retrospectives by allowing teams to sort their experiences into three categories: 

  • New Approaches they’d like to take 
  • Things to Continue Doing
  • Things to Discontinue Doing

Proceed with the meeting by setting the following baselines and expectations with absolute clarity:

  • Embrace a positive spirit of continuous improvement that will guide and motivate their sharing. 
  • Avoid personalizing issues as they are raised, and avoid taking them personally. 
  • Focus on total behavioral improvement, not on placing blame. 
  • Clearly set the boundaries of the discussion up-front, and will resist the urge to reach for or diagnose issues that exceed the scope of the retrospective.
  • Listen and share with an open mind, understanding that every shared (and unshared) experience contributes to better and more comprehensive knowledge of work patterns and culture. 
  • Be as willing—if not more willing—to identify positive outcomes and behaviors that they would like to see continued, as they are willing to identify behaviors they would like to discontinue. 
  • Take time to acknowledge one another’s accomplishments, understanding the negative feedback and blame rarely leads to improvement or behavioral change (Berinato, “Negative Feedback,” 2018). 

By working with a trained facilitator, teams can increase their chances of:

  • Reflecting on the past year in an objective fashion, without influence or bias. 
  • Sharing and sorting their learning from 2020.
  • Bringing concepts, problems, and opportunities into plain view.
  • Solving problems as they arise.
  • Self-Educating.
  • Allowing all invested parties to participate fully without distraction or bias.

At Leadership Reality, our retrospectives are built on key insights from Emergent Learning theory:

  • We believe no one person has the whole solution. Through many interactions, collaborators create more and better ideas and patterns than one individual thinking and acting alone. Continuous improvement requires curiosity, and the willingness to admit that insight never comes from one place. Solutions and changes emerge from this process. 
  • We admire problem-solving through multiple agents. This means more experimentation, more strategizing, and more whole-system learning. This leads to shorter, faster, more rigorous real-time learning and more peer-to-peer sharing. 
  • We believe in strategizing for change and acceleration, not just “getting results.” We want to make thinking visible, encourage dialogue, test hypotheses, and share insights across whole communities. 
  • We value giving participants a voice for affecting their systems and environment. Relational change accelerates trust and leadership elevation. 

We take seriously the stakes of inefficient retrospectives that don’t hold their biases in check: 

  • Teams that do not self-educate are more likely to repeat past mistakes. 
  • Teams and executives who assume too much too quickly about problems and pain points often target the wrong behaviors. This leads to reaction rather than learning, which may lead to repeated mistakes. 
  • Accountability does not mean “blame”; blame leads to negative reinforcement, at best. Productive accountability means taking stock of what worked, what didn’t, and what behavior / environmental changes are necessary for future success. 

Within 10 days following the retrospective, provide a concise and clear summary presenting key findings, action items, and next steps. Present these as goals to your teams, and make them visible throughout your organization in order to create a vision, build alignment, and champion execution in 2021. By facing the past with an eye on your future, you can turn the traumas of 2020 into an unprecedented learning opportunity for you, your teams, and your organization! 

For examples and testimonials of successful retrospectives, and for further resources on strategic planning and team cohesion, contact Leadership Reality and set up a consultation with us today. We are also proud vendors of Everything DiSC, 5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team, and many more assessments and resources to launch you into the new year.


Berinato, Scott. “Negative Feedback Rarely Leads to Improvement” in The Harvard Business Review (January/February 2018). 

Darling, Marilyn, Heidi Guber, Jillaine Smith, and James Stiles. “Emergent Learning: A Framework for Whole-System Strategy, Learning, and Adaptation” in The Foundation Review, 8.1, p.59-73 (2016). 

Darling, Marilyn, Charles Parry, and Joseph Moore. “Learning in the Thick of It” in The Harvard Business Review (July/August 2005). 

Hoffman, Kevin M. Meeting Design: For Manager, Makers, and Everyone (Brooklyn: Two Waves Books, 2018). 

Holland, J. Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity (New York: Perseus Books, 1995). 

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