Software Teams generally follow the practice of Agile methodology to promote continuous iteration of development and testing throughout the software development lifecycle of the project.
After every iteration, these teams conduct a Retrospective meeting.
However, a Retrospective meeting can benefit any team, irrespective of whether you follow Agile or not.
This guest post by Ketaki Vaidya gives an overview of conducting retrospectives efficiently. This can also be applied to our personal lives.
What is a Retrospective?
When we say retrospective, here’s what we have in mind: a special meeting where the team gathers after completing an increment of work to inspect and adapt their methods and teamwork.
The goal is simple: Reflect on the previous work increment and come up with a plan to improve the next one.
The duration of a retrospective is around 30 mins-1 hour. Each team member is supposed to answer 3 questions:
- What went well?
- What did not go well?
- What can be improved?
As the team reflects on the previous work increment with respect to these 3 questions, they discuss not only work-process-related issues (technical aspects of work) but also team-related issues.
The outcome of the Retrospective meeting: Meeting notes and Improvement action plan for the next work increment.
Why should you have a Retrospective?
Any team (usually with a size of up to 10 members), with interdependent work, need to focus on problems that affect their capability to contribute as a team. Only the team members should attend a retrospective. During retrospectives, teams discover real solutions that they can implement without waiting for management’s permission. Since experiments and changes are chosen, not imposed from above, people are more invested in their success.
Even if your team isn’t using Agile, having a retrospective after every project milestone can lead to substantial improvements in the productivity of the individuals and the team.
Conducting a Retrospective:
By now, you have understood what a retrospective is and why your team should have it. Let’s now look at the key to conducting an effective retrospective. We will split up the meeting into three sections:
Before, During, and After the Retrospective.
Before the Retrospective:
- Working Agreement: Every team is different and there is a set of characteristics that work for one team which might not work for another. Consequently, it is important for every team to have a working agreement. If your team does not have one, schedule a separate meeting to jot down the working principles that all the team members agree to. The working agreement can then be adjusted or revisited based on the discussion during the retrospective (if required). For example, a simple agreement like “Mobile phones on silent during meetings” can go a long way in setting the stage for the meeting and helping everyone focus on its agenda.
- Gathering Relevant Data: It may seem silly to gather data for every work increment (or project milestone). But when someone misses even one day of work (due to any reason), they’ve essentially missed a significant share of the events and interactions. Even when people are present, they don’t see everything, and different people have different perspectives on the same event. Gathering data creates a shared picture of what happened. Without a common picture, individuals tend to verify their own opinions and beliefs. The person who drives the Retrospective can collect the following data (or delegate it to someone) before the meeting:
- Event-related Data: Meetings, decision points, changes in team membership, milestones, celebrations, adopting new tools, or work processes.
- Metrics: Deliverables completed vs. Deliverables committed, Burndown charts (a visual measurement tool that shows the completed work per day against the projected rate of completion for the current project release), the velocity of the team
- Other Artifacts: Team calendars, etc.
During the Retrospective:
The person driving the retrospective can do a quick review of the above data with the entire team and ask the team to scan the data and comment on patterns, shifts, and surprises. Generating insights allows the team to step back, see the big picture, and delve into the root cause of various issues.
The nature of a retrospective demands meeting notes. One team member should be assigned to take notes and share them with the team after the meeting (The notes of each retrospective can be maintained in one place).
All team members should be given an opportunity to speak and voice their perspectives. There are always some team members who are more willing to voice their opinions and experiences than others. The person who drives the retrospective should prompt those who might not speak up easily. Ask the member about the deliverables that they were involved in and how they went. Help them think through each point and draw insights from it. Everyone’s experience helps shape the improvement action plan of the team. A successful retrospective empowers every team member, to be honest, and vocal about their experience of the previous work increment.
Three questions can be used to drive the retrospective session:
- What went well?
Set the session off on a positive note by talking about the team’s successes during the last sprint. Celebrate accomplishments (and why they were successful), positive interactions, efficient techniques, etc. that you have experienced during the sprint. Ask why that specific event/process was successful, what about it is reproducible in similar future situations. It is imperative to note these for future reference so that you can make sure to continue doing the same thing going forward and replicate that success.
- What didn’t go well?
Next, start getting into the more difficult topic of what didn’t go so well. Most importantly, discuss why that event/process didn’t go well. Different team members might have different perspectives on the same event as to what in their mind was the cause of the issue. Collecting these different perspectives is a great way to really see a problem from as many angles as possible. The more “inconvenient truths” that the team can uncover together is a sign of the team’s strength and maturity. Team members should, of course, be respectful of one another and practice empathy while discussing what didn’t go well. Embrace a mindset of improvement, stay away from blame. At the same time, this is a good opportunity to take constructive criticism from team members. Don’t take feedback personally. It’s important to understand if something you’re doing is negatively affecting the team so that you can work towards correcting it, going forward. These points will feed into the next question about what can be improved?
- What can be improved?
Once the team has discussed the various aspects that they think did not go so well, it’s time to start thinking about how to make sure not to run into the same situation in the future. Brainstorm some steps the team can take (that are under their control) which can help mitigate the issues. These steps together constitute the improvement action plan. For instance, the team members might point out that only one person on the team knows how to integrate client data with the corporate database which overburdens that person. The action plan might be something like the team setting up a pairing schedule that enables other team members to learn about the database and can eliminate the bottleneck. The plan should be specific, and the team members should all be committed to enacting the plan going forward.
After the above questions are answered, the person who is driving the retrospective can revisit the points of the last retrospective and track whether they were resolved in the improvement action plan of the previous work increment. If some of the issues are still open, they should be prioritized and added to the current improvement action plan
After the Retrospective:
At this point, the team has a list of potential experiments and improvements. Now is the time to pick the top items (usually no more than one or two for an iteration) and plan what to do.
- Help your team choose items that they can commit to. If your team is recovering from a change that was stressful, help them choose something less complex this time. Holding your retrospective right before the planning of the next work increment (or project milestone) is ideal so that the action plan can be implemented in right away
- Decide how to document the experience and plan for follow-up
- Help your team decide how they’ll retain what they’ve learned from the retrospective
- Adjust the working agreements of the Retrospective (if required)
Benefits of Retrospective:
- Helps the team to inspect and adapt their methods and teamwork
2. Retrospectives enable whole-team learning, act as catalysts for change, and generate action
3. Increasing empowerment and enjoyment for teams
4. Increased team productivity
Your Personal Retrospective:
Usually, Procrastination is the thief of our time. We often want to do a lot, but “can never find the time”. Define a personal task increment for yourself. This can be a day, a week, or 2 weeks (whatever suits you). Take 5 minutes at the end of every increment. Lock yourself in a room and reflect on what you did well and need to continue (You need to focus only on yourself when you do it). Make a note of what did not go well and could have been improved. It is implicit that these points need to be documented. The improvement action plan of your retrospective can translate to your to-do list for the next task increment.
For instance, I do my personal retrospective every day and jot down my improvement action plan in Google Keep. The practice of daily retrospectives helps me prioritize and track my personal goals. Somedays, there is a lot to do. In such a scenario, it is crucial to pick the most important thing and do only that. There might be days when you take a break and don’t want to do anything. That is totally fine. In the end, it is important that we are consistent in this practice so that we are aware of what we want in our life. A few days here and there don’t make a difference. What creates an impact is the will to constantly reflect and improve.
There’s more where that came from! Access more insights below
- Agile Retrospectives by Esther Derby, Diana Larsen
- About Retrospective meetings
- Three Hidden Problems That can Ruin Your Agile Retrospectives