Agile Delivery

What is a Retrospective and 10 Tips on How to Run a Great One

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10 min read
Ben Willmott

What is a Retrospective?

A retrospective is an opportunity to learn and improve as a team. It doesn’t matter what type of team, the industry or methodology, a retrospective is an extremely valuable approach for continuous improvement. 

A retrospective can sometimes be called a Project Wash up, a Project Review or Project Retrospective but the overall principles are the same, what did we learn, what can we do differently next time and what should we do stop doing.

An Agile retrospective became popular through the Scrum framework as it’s a ceremony that is repeated at the end of each iteration or sprint.

This is typically every 2-weeks but a sprint in Scrum can be anything length between 1 and 4 weeks. 

Project retrospectives typically happen at the end of a project and will cover the whole project, not just the last few weeks. 

Who Takes Part in a Retrospective?

Depending on the project approach or framework you’re using, the attendees for a retrospective can vary.  

In Scrum, the retrospective attendees are the Scrum team only, so management, stakeholders and anyone else not in the Scrum team do not attend.  

The reason is that the team are less likely to fully open up and speak honestly about problems on the project if there is a manager or stakeholder in the same room.  

The chicken and the pig analogy explains this as the team are the pigs and everyone outside of the Scrum team are the chickens.  

This is because when you’re talking about bacon and eggs at breakfast, the chickens are involved as the provide the eggs, but the pigs are truly committed as they provide the bacon!

For project wash-ups, or project retrospectives the same rule can apply, but it’s more often the case that everyone involved is included in the review.   What some teams do to mitigate the potential impact of team members not speaking up, is to break the wash up into two. The first session is the team only, and second, everyone is together.

How to Run a Retrospective

The structure for a retrospective is straightforward as it follows these three steps;

  1. What worked well 
  2. What didn’t work well 
  3. What can we improve upon 

Or another example;

  1. What should we stop doing 
  2. What should we start doing 
  3. What we should we continue doing

Setting the Scene

Before you start any retrospective, you need to make sure the attendees understand what you’re trying to achieve from it. Like any meeting or workshop, you need to have a goal or outcome that you’re looking to meet.  

For a retrospective, the goal is typically to find areas that the team can improve on.  

Once you have the agreed goal and the team understand the approach and activities you’ll be doing in the retrospective; you’re good to begin.

What should we stop doing?

Everyone writes down as many things as you they can on what must stop on the project. This could be as a team, personally or outside influences. 

If in-person, the best approach is to place Post-it notes on the wall, or if you’re working remotely, you can use virtual white boards with tools like Mural or Miro.

You need to timebox this exercise as if you’re running this session for the first time; the team may labour on some of the points raised. 

Focus on getting the feedback on the wall before discussing them. This is a preferred approach as by getting all three sections complete first, it’s easier to see the linking issues and themes.

What should we start doing?

This is a really interesting section of the retrospective as the team will be full of ideas on what the team or project should be doing. 

Again, timebox it while the team write down their feedback either virtually or in person. 

If you’re the facilitator who is typically the Scrum Master or Project Manager you should be looking for patterns or duplicates as the feedback is provided. 

Group Post-its into themes or remove duplicates from different team members. This makes it much easier when you come to discuss them.

What should we continue doing?

This is the most positive part of the retrospective as the team highlight what is working well for the team.  

Encourage the team to think about everything from the tooling, process and to how they’re working together. This is an excellent opportunity for the team to share the praise of other individuals.  

Timebox the session, but if the team finish early, then move on to the review.

Review the Feedback

By now, you’ve collated lot’s of great feedback, and the team will be feeling positive about everything shared.  

You then need to discuss, but before you do that spend a few minutes organising the feedback into themes and removing duplicates if you haven’t been doing this already.  

As you go through the feedback process, the overall goal is to understand the points made not find solutions for everything. Once the point is made by the individual and understood by the team, move on to the next one.

Voting and actions

A retrospective is all about gathering feedback, but if you don't act on it, then it's a wasted exercise and the team will leave frustrated.  

By the end of each feedback cycle, you'll have far too much that you can take action on, so you need to prioritise. You can do this by voting.  

Each team member has three votes for the start and stop sections). Then in silence to avoid influencing the vote and at the same time, the full team vote on their top three from each section.    

The facilitator then takes the feedback (one from each section) with the highest votes and separates them from the rest of the feedback.  

Now discuss the top 3 actions for this prioritised feedback and assign owners. The owner doesn't default to the Project Manager or Scrum Master; it's the team's responsibility so any team member can take actions.

Wrapping Up

This is quick, just simply ask for some feedback on how the session went. Any improvements for next time raised needs to be noted by the Scrum Master or Project Manager.  

Take a picture or screenshot of all of the feedback gathered, save it on your team space and share it along with the prioritised actions and their owners.  

Thank the team and finish off the snacks.

Top 10 retrospective tips

  1. Give each attendee a different coloured Post-it note (physically or virtually) when providing feedback. Knowing who has added the feedback speeds up the review, especially when doing it remotely. 
  2. When voting and picking your prioritised improvements, if the team feel they could do more than what is agreed, then take the next most popular and assign an owner and actions. 
  3. Bring food, snacks or drinks as it's a great way to help the team relax and bond. If you're doing it remotely, encourage the team to bring a favourite snack, it’s a nice ice breaker.
  4. Get the team up and moving when discussing what they have raised or when placing Post-it notes on the wall.
  5. Try different approaches to how you structure the retrospective like the Sail Boat retrospective or the Car brand retrospective. 
  6. Post retrospective, take massive action on what was agreed. If you don't take action and deliver on what was agreed, the team will quickly lose interest in retrospectives. 
  7. Encourage debate; there is nothing wrong with disagreeing as long it's done constructively and for the right reasons.
  8. Always have a purpose for your retrospective even if it's just simply working out how the team can improve.
  9. If you're doing this in a room together, then use a different space each time. Pick a room that has lots of space and light where possible. 
  10. If you've run a few retrospectives, try to look for themes and patterns in the feedback. If you have a recurring theme, you may want to have a focused retrospective solely on this theme.

Additional Reading

A great book with plenty of retrospective techniques is Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Dian Larson

Or Looking for more ideas on how to run a retrospective, then has some great examples.

Plus I’ve created some guides on how to run the Sail Boat and Car brand retrospectives

Ben Willmott
Ben is Delivery Director at the London based creative agency Wunderman Thompson where he creates bespoke ways or working for his clients and teams. Ben is also the founder of The PPM Academy specializing in coaching Project Management, Agile Delivery and how to be more productive at home and work.

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