Project Retrospectives: The Basics Project Retrospectives: The Basics Mar. 4th, 2013 Andrew Gerdes
Elephants in rearview mirror

Project Retrospectives: The Basics

March 4th, 2013

When we wrap a project at Four Kitchens, we are always sure to schedule a project retrospective. Getting together to remember what happened over the course of a project can be helpful to celebrate successes, understand missteps, and explore the causes of both. It’s important to learn from past projects so you can repeat the things that lead to success and change the things that lead to mistakes. Taking the time to explore projects through a retrospective is the best way we’ve found to accomplish this.

We’ve tried a number of approaches to project retrospectives, but the majority of them boil down to the following steps:

1. Icebreaker

Sure, your team all knows one another. The point of this exercise is to get everyone talking early. If you give everyone a chance to open their mouths early in the meeting, they are more likely to be vocal and participate.

The icebreaker can be as simple as asking everyone to answer a silly question such as: “If you were a car, what car would you be?” Sometimes, I ask the team to briefly state what they hope to get out of the retrospective.

2. Gather data

Next, we use a game to help jog the team’s memory and gather data. Since projects or project phases are usually several months long, it can often be tough to remember events from months ago. As the facilitator, you can tailor your data collection exercise to what you feel needs to be learned. Deciding in advance what categories need to be discussed can both help the team remember events and help focus the conversation to the most important areas.

A game I frequently use to help people recall is a timeline of feelings. Using post-it notes, team members record events that made them feel happy, sad, or confused (or “mad, sad, or glad”). They then attach each post-it on a timeline on a wall or whiteboard. While reading out each event, I’ll cluster similar events and use this as a guide to determine what events to discuss in greater depth.

At the end of the data-gathering portion, the team needs to decide what is most important to discuss in depth. Depending on the length of your retrospective, 3-5 in-depth topics are usually sufficient. We usually handle this with a simple vote.

3. Generate insights through discussion

Once you’ve decided what to focus on, take about 10 minutes to discuss each event. Try to answer these questions:

  • What happened?
  • What caused the issue to take place?
  • How can we avoid it in the future?

Take note of any important ideas or action items that arise during the discussion. As the facilitator, try to make sure that everyone has a chance to speak before moving along to the next topic.

4. Decide what to do

Now that you’ve talked in depth about each important topic, it’s time to decide what to do next time. This is also your chance to list out any action items that have come out of the meeting. Try to keep the goals for future projects tangible and attainable. If your goals are too vague, they will be very hard to implement.

5. Close on a positive note

Depending on the mood of the retrospective, it can be important to try to end on a high note. One closing exercise I like to do is to have everyone in the room give a “thanks” or “kudos” to someone else on the project. This shifts the mood in a more positive positive before closing the meeting.

Project retrospectives have been an important step in helping us improve our process, and they are always effective for learning something that can help us improve. If you’re interested in reading more about project retrospectives, Agile Retrospectives by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen is a great place to start.

Do you have an approach to project retrospectives that works for you?

Photo credit: Brian Snelson

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