Think small The big power of working in short sprints and "heartbeats"

What’s a “sprint” or “heartbeat?”

It’s simple: take a big goal, then break it into small pieces or “sprints” or “heartbeats” that help you get there.

The practise comes from agile development (and its various funnily-named flavours like “Scrum“), but the underlying goal is simple: break big jobs into small time-bound sprints, then design a process and ritual for unpacking:

  • What you accomplished in the last sprint.
  • What you learned from it.
  • What you’re going to tackle next.

This can help create a stable, predictable rhythm in your team for co-ordinating and getting stuff done, as opposed to the ad hoc “make it up as you go along” / gazillion emails and meetings / Bataan Death March of Multi-Tasking that often takes over by default.

Why “heartbeat?”

Many of us have found that replacing the word “sprint” with “heartbeat” is helpful in explaining the value to colleagues. It implies a steady, healthy cadence or rhythm — as opposed to endless “sprinting” and panting against a series of (arbitrary) deadlines. Heartbeats can create a great sense of ebb, flow and purpose in your team. They can be any length — a week, two weeks, a month. It’s really just about bringing people together in a regular, predictable way to make sure everyone’s on the same page, headed in the right direction, and feeling like they’re learning and accomplishing important things together.

How to do a retrospective at the end of your Heartbeat

Doing a “retrospective” at the end of each heartbeat can help unpack what you all learned together, and where you want to improve next. Good retrospectives can be dead simple. At the end of your heartbeat, ask each team member to share:

  1. What went well in the last heartbeat?
  2. What could have gone better?
  3. What do we want to improve in the next heartbeat?

(Then maybe vote or limit those proposed improvements to your team’s top one or two, so that you don’t take on too much at once.)

Good retrospectives generate surprises

When we do a good retrospective, I feel like I leave the meeting feeling surprised.

I leave knowing something I didn’t know going in. I’ve had my perspective changed in some way — particularly around what our priorities should be in the next heartbeat, or a key learning someone shares that helps me understand the work in a new way, or spot a fresh opportunity.

In particular, retrospectives can help to:

  • Re-prioritize. Maybe stuff that seemed urgent a week or month ago isn’t so urgent anymore. That’s great! It means we can consciously de-prioritize it or set it aside. By the same token: little things that didn’t seem important can suddenly reveal themselves as highly leveraged in the coming week or month ahead, like little keys or springboards that emerge out of the woodwork.
  • Punt. What can we afford to push out to the next heartbeat, so that we can narrow our focus in this one? Retrospectives make you more conscsious of time, and the value of phasing: doing the right things at the right time. Not everything needs to be done all at once; it’s liberating to push stuff out.
  • Do less work! Great retrospectives should help you do less work. Less work means faster, better work. Spend your time on the stuff that matters. Ruthlessly eliminate the clutter and little distractions that are slowing you all down. Kick the sandbags out of the hot air balloon together.
  • Unpack learning. You’re learning great stuff as you go that you didn’t know when you began. Retrospectives are a chance to share and write these learnings down. Without a ritual or formal invitation to do this, this almost always slips to the bottom of our to do lists. And people like sharing what they learned; it generates meaning and pride.
  • Pull up. Good retrospectives invite an altitude adjustment. Let’s go back to our original strategy / roadmap and remind ourselves what we said was important. The goals that matter. How are we doing? How has our thinking changed? How do we re-connect our big picture goals to our day-to-day tasks?
  • Re-energize. Most of us walk around feeling guilty and stressed about how behind we are. It’s easy to feel like you’re drowning and not making real progress. Retrospectives remind the team that you really are accomplishing and learning a lot together — as opposed to just feeling like hamsters on a treadmill.
  • Continuously improve. Get better at getting better. Small improvements add up to powerful change over time, like compound interest.

Bland retrospectives become boring status updates

Bad retrospectives or heartbeat meetings start to feel like a waste of time. They become rote, and more like status updates, as opposed to really stepping back and doing some fresh thinking together. This becomes a vicious cycle over time; there’s less and less value, so people start to question their whole purpose. Eventually someone says: “should we just cancel these? We have too many meetings already.”

Some common pitfalls:

  • Not enough time. Everyone hates meetings, so it’s easy to make heartbeat meetings too short to do real retrospectives. Or to just skip the retrospsective piece altogether, and focus on what’s next. But: this should be the one hour every week or month that you invest to save *dozens* or *hundreds* of mis-spent hours going forward! It’s a penny-wise / pound-foolish scenario.
  • Not enough trust. People are afraid to say what they really think in front of colleagues or senior leaders. Or it becomes a defensive exercise to prove that everyone is busy.
  • Agile without agile. Every org says they want to be “agile” now, but most don’t mean it. You can’t do agile without meaningful retrospectives, or some ritual for continuous learning and re-prioritizing. And ideally: giving more agency to your best staff.


One comment

  • Lovely post! I really like your definition of “heartbeat.” I might supplement it with: in an ideal heartbeat, the team has defined something they want to learn from it, and the success of the heartbeat can be determined by whether the learning happened.

    I like your three bullet points under “ritual for unpacking,” though in some cases, I’d pull out the “what you accomplished” and “what to tackle next” into a meeting separate from the Retrospective. Something like a Demo (or “Review” in scrum parlance). That way the Retrospective can focus entirely on the process, rather than the product.

    Love the idea of successful Retros being those that lead to a surprise. And I second all of your common pitfalls. To avoid Retros becoming rote, I think sometimes it’s useful to deviate from the standard template, and create an agenda that speaks to the events of the particular heartbeat. Was the heartbeat notable for some particular success or failure? Was there tension amongst the team? Whomever is facilitating the Retro can design an agenda that will surface those issues in a productive way (and perhaps modify the invitee list to create a safe space). Breakthroughs can happen with skilled facilitation and team members who trust one another.

    And sometimes it’s just fun to mix it up a little. One time I designed an entire Retrospective with a sci-fi time travel theme.

    One last thing I’d add—for me, the key output of a Retrospective is between one and three process “experiments” that the team has agreed to try. Framing these as experiments encourages people to suggest more dramatic process changes than they might otherwise. Most people are willing to try anything if it’s “just for one heartbeat.”

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