Retrospective Meetings: Continuous Team Improvement

Teamwork Module 10 · Parabol Resources · 6 Minute Read

Even with a clear mission and great teammates, it’s often difficult to feel a sense of momentum and achievement. With a never-ending list of things that need doing it’s all too easy to feel trapped on a treadmill leading to nowhere. Of course, it’s not true: We only need to take a moment to pause, reflect, and look behind us to see the expanse of terrain we’ve actually covered. We work in cycles precisely so that we can pair each cycle’s beginning, Sprint Planning, with an ending to celebrate our accomplishments and find ways to improve the team before beginning the next. We call this cycle ending ritual a Retrospective.

Conducting a Retrospective is simple. Like other meetings in our way of working, it is lead by a facilitator and consists of the following phases.

  1. Check-in: build awareness of teammates' personal context
  2. Reflect: share anonymously what did/didn’t work, for you
  3. Group: review reflections and discover common themes
  4. Vote: select which topics deserve the team’s attention
  5. Discuss: propose and capture team improvements

Retrospective meetings are often conducted in-person at a location with plenty of wall space and a pack of Post-It® notes. Recently a number of applications to make them even easier to do. Once again, we’ll show example output from our Blockbuster Youth Engagement team. While we’ll give instructions that can you can use to conduct a retrospective using Post-Its, the screenshots are from one of our favorite team collaboration applications, Parabol.

It’s important to establish the meeting roles and have the Facilitator share the purpose and rules of the meeting before conducting the check-in round. They are identical to the Action Meeting, you can find a list of roles and rules here.

How Long?

For teams of 6 or fewer people, 60 minutes is often sufficient to conduct a Retrospective. If your team is larger, you may want to give yourself 90 minutes.

1. Conduct the Check-In Round

Just like beginning an Action Meeting, the Retrospective meeting begins with a quick Check-in Round (see here for more detailed information)

Why it’s important: to signal a clear start to the meeting, prime introverts to be vocal, and give everyone a chance to gather a sense of each other’s emotional weather

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The Facilitator provides each participant with a moment to answer the questions, “What’s on your mind? What has your attention?”

Their answers might sound like, “nothing, I’m fully present.”, or “I’m stuck against a deadline, I’m really frazzled today” or, “I’ve got a sick kid at home, I’m not completely here.”

  • Prompt: What’s on your mind? What has your attention?
  • Purpose: serves as a roll-call, a head-clearer, and group empathy builder
  • Time: Around 30 seconds per participant

2. Reflect

The Retrospective process begins by giving teammates a chance to write out their observations from the previous work cycle.

Why it’s important: each team member’s experience offers a unique viewpoint. By offering everybody a chance to offer reflections, we benefit from the team’s diversity and offer the possibility of surfacing valuable data

To reflect, the Facilitator gives the team a series of prompts to generate reflections. After the prompt is given, the Facilitator starts a timer for 3 minutes, and then the team begins offering their reflections digitally or on clearly-written sticky notes. (Pro-tip: if writing reflections by hand, use all-capital letters for legibility)

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The first prompt is, “What’s working on the team?” The Facilitator can further clarify this prompt by adding, “What should we keep doing?” “What went well?” “What were our high-points?”

After the timer has elapsed, the second and final prompt is given, “Where are we getting stuck?” This prompt can be elaborated by asking, “What should we stop doing?” “What were low moments?” “What process do we need to add or change?” “What process is getting in our way?”

After this second timer elapses it’s time to move on to the next phase, grouping the reflections.

3. Group

In this phase the team works together to read over each other’s observations, discover patterns among them, and group them into themes.

Why it’s important: if multiple people are sensing the same patterns, grouping them together may signal a broader theme that needs more immediate attention while preserving the nuance of each other’s unique vantage points

The Facilitator informs the team that everyone can participate in grouping. Related observations are clustered together. Optionally, somebody may title the group with an overarching theme.

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The process is often dynamic. The Facilitator can call and end to this phase when consensus around groups begins to emerge, or, when it’s time to move on to save time for discussion. Ideally, the Group phase should conclude before half of the meeting time is consumed.

4. Vote

Now it’s time for team members to offer their opinions on which topics deserve further discussion.

Why it’s important: the first step in creating change in behavior within a group is for a significant portion of the group to acknowledge that a change must be made—voting validates that multiple group members acknowledge and value the offered observation(s)

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The Facilitator informs each team member that they have 5 votes to spend voting on a group. More than one vote may be given on a group. If a reflection is ungrouped, it may still be voted on. When all votes are spent, or the Facilitator calls time, the Vote phase is concluded

5. Discuss

Finally, an agenda is made for each group or observation that received votes. The team begins discussing the items that received the most votes. When that discussion is concluded the team moves to the item receiving the next-most number of votes, and so on until all items are discussed or the meeting runs out of time.

Why it’s important: the discussion is the heart of the retrospective meeting. It allows the team to center its dialog on real observations and process steps to improve by change its behavior

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Facilitating discussion takes practice. A good pattern the Facilitator can offer is the following:

  • Read the observations aloud and ask, “can anybody offer similar observations?”
  • Attempt to discover the root cause by asking, “why might observations like these be happening?”
  • Try a change by asking, “what might we try next time?” or, “what change could we make?”

The scribe records the output. If new tasks are created, they are added to the team’s Kanban Inbox.

Tips

  • Retros get more valuable with practice: new teams take time to gel, don’t expect a team’s first retro to clear deep-seated tensions. Keep the ritual, keep the conversations safe and open, and soon you’ll be able to make deeper, more honest improvements. Remember: the only wrong way to do a retro is not to hold one.
  • Retrospect a process: if you find a particular team process is causing tension, consider scheduling a retrospective to go deep on making improvements. You can even include outside stakeholders if that process involves others!
  • Check up the reflection prompts: there are many ways to conduct a Retrospective, change up the prompts to keep the process fresh and explore new dimensions of your team

 

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