There is always a better way to complete a task. During the course of a job, plans can go wrong and strategies can fail, delaying project completion and increasing costs. Completing one big review at the end of a project might help, but it’s likely to miss underlying problem points and doesn’t help the already-finished venture improve. Retrospectives help solve problems in sprints before they become a big enough issue that they delay an entire project and increase costs. By understanding what a retrospective is, what a retrospective should look like in the workplace, and common pitfalls to avoid in retrospectives, your projects’ overall productivity will improve.
What is a Retrospective?
Retrospectives are regular meetings held near or at the end of each sprint in a project to discuss what went well, what didn’t go well, and what should be improved for the next sprint. One of the most important aspects of these retrospectives is that they are held regularly. If they only happen once in a while, your team won’t feel the full benefit and you won’t see the continuous improvement that is goal of holding the retrospective in the first place. Retrospectives help your team members see and get involved in the reasoning behind improvements and change in the workplace. This involvement in the decision-making process helps team members accept and support change in upcoming sprints.
What Should a Retrospective Look Like in the Workplace?
The basic structure of a retrospective is very simple. Meeting facilitators lead the team in going over which approaches went well, which methods didn’t go well in the last sprint, and which action items need to be created in order to improve the next sprint. Frequently looking back at how your team is interacting—both internally and externally—allows you to make course corrections as you work. Retrospectives allow you to look back through the eyes of the team members who have actually been working on the project and allow the team to decide what direction they want to go in future sprints to avoid previous issues.
Many variations on this basic model exist to fit different needs within a team. In the “start, stop, continue” model, team members write down what strategies they think should be started, stopped, and continued in the next sprint. The group then votes on the top strategies in each category that they’d like to see implemented in the next sprint. In the “5 Whys” model, the group suggests approaches that were problematic in the last sprint and then asks themselves a series of “whys” to get to the underlying cause of that problem. In the “mad, sad, glad” model, the team writes events from the last sprint that made them mad, sad, or glad. Each member of the team then has an opportunity to share why those events made them feel that way and gives suggestions for how they think those situations could be resolved. It is important to change strategies frequently to address different issues and to keep the retrospectives from becoming stagnant meetings where the same issues are always discussed.
An important part of having successful retrospectives is creating an environment where all members of the team feel comfortable sharing thoughts about the sprint and expressing opinions on how future sprints can improve. Always be aware of the personalities in your workplace. Different personalities have very different methods of approaching group discussion, and it is possible that some of the more dominant people in the workplace will take over the discussion. You could consider implementing talking-time limits so that all members of the group have a chance to share. Another factor in creating a safe sharing environment is limiting the involvement of managers in the retrospective. Some team members may not be comfortable pointing out problems they observed if their boss is there and the team member feels they may offend their boss. There are plenty of other team meetings where the management can get involved besides the retrospectives.
Once the retrospective is complete and the team members have decided on action points they want to use for the next sprint, it’s important that those action points aren’t forgotten when the new sprint starts. It's a good idea to post the action items in a place where the entire team can see them and remember what new strategies they should be using. You could also include the action items as part of a daily email blast or whatever other technology-based communications your team uses. Reminding your team about the action items is a good way to gauge the effectiveness of those new strategies because they will actually be implemented in your team.
What are Common Retrospective Pitfalls?
Starting to use retrospectives can be tricky due to the very open nature of the discussions that occur. However, the benefit of these types of meetings are so profitable that it is worth some rough starts. Having a very candid discussion with your team about some of these pitfalls before starting retrospectives in your workplace will help ease the transition into effective retrospectives.
Avoid letting retrospectives become a place where coworkers blame each other for mistakes made during the sprint. Team members can bring up parts of the sprint that didn’t work without pointing the finger at someone, even if that person was partially responsible for the less than desirable outcome. The retrospectives should be a place to review how the team as a whole is performing, not how the individuals on that team are performing their assigned tasks. Likewise, the retrospectives should have a positive atmosphere as often as possible. Even if the sprint wasn’t as much as a success as the team was hoping for, the retrospective can still look for the good in the sprint and ways to improve instead of lingering on what went wrong.
Another pitfall that haunts teams beginning retrospectives is trying to jump straight into creating solutions. Granted, creating solutions is the ultimate goal of the retrospective, but in order to get good ideas for solutions, the group should be allowed to discuss the issues and brainstorm before they are asked to offer solutions. Often, by taking the time to discuss all the issues of a previous sprint, an underlying cause that was creating more than one issue will be revealed and a solution to that cause will arise. Instead of treating the symptoms, taking the time to go through all the steps of the retrospective will allow better suggested solutions to the root cause of the issues. This will ultimately help the next sprint succeed as well, because it may be hard to predict what problems that main issue could cause in the future.
A big concern in retrospectives is the number of solutions or action items to implement for the next sprint. Create too few action items, and the meeting begins to feel pointless to the team members. Why should they come to this retrospective and make suggestions if they know only one idea is going to be implemented in the next sprint? It might seem better to let someone else come up with something so the retrospective can be finished already. Obviously, that is a scenario to be avoided.
However, in trying to avoid choosing too few strategies for the next sprint, be careful not to fall into the trap of choosing too many action items. If you try to change too many approaches too fast, your team members could begin to feel overwhelmed and unable to keep up. They may begin to question the necessity of changing so many tactics at once. In addition to this confusion, implementing too many action items after a retrospective could make it hard to track how the changes are affecting the sprint. Ideally, your team would pick two or three solutions to try implementing in the next sprint: enough that the team feels their ideas are being heard, but not so many as to overwhelm them or make keeping track of progress difficult.
Retrospectives are the ideal method of resolving issues within a project in a way that includes the entire team and stops those issues from affecting the project as a whole. They help create a more open environment in the workplace that leads to a more productive and healthy work environment. Self-learning and self-management are encouraged when team members recognize that their ideas can be implemented successfully in the project. Retrospectives help your team come to innovative solutions to problems that show up during individual sprints. By solving problems as they come up during the course of a project, the overall effectiveness of the project is increased and your team is more likely to complete the project on time and under budget. Using an understanding of what retrospectives are, how they should be implemented, and what mistakes to avoid, you and your team members can use retrospectives to significantly increase the productiveness of any project.