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Lessons Learned vs Retrospective (The Differences)

As a startup that develops software for team development and retrospectives, we are often confronted with interesting definitions of retrospectives – for example ”Aren't reviews and retrospectives the same thing?”. Ehm no.

A legitimate question is whether lessons learned workshops are synonymous with retrospectives. The answer here is a bit more difficult.

Lessons Learned vs. Retrospective

Differences Lessons Learned & Retrospective

What connects both formats: It is about reflecting on past events in order to learn from them and, if possible, derive measures from them.

In lessons learned workshops one reflects on a frame of reference such as a project or a go-live. Lessons learned workshops are therefore one-time events.

In retrospectives, on the other hand, the frame of reference is general teamwork. The format is established as a regular routine in the team. The aim is to capture all the impressions and ideas of the team members. Therefore, as a rule, no restrictive focus on a single topic is given in retrospectives.

Retrospective facilitators use open questions and even rotate different retro formats to stimulate the reflection of the teams.

Lessons Learned Workshop Retrospective
Focus A concrete event (e.g. project completion, or go-live) Continuous improvement of cooperation
participants Team members and ideally also stakeholders Usually only the team itself
termination One-time / occasion-related Recurring routine

When Do You Use a Lessons Learned Workshop and When Do You Use a Retrospective?

Occasion-related Lessons Learned Workshops at Events

A Lessons Learned Workshop is therefore used for special events such as the completion of a project, an event or a go-live. 

In such a Lessons Learned workshop, questions are asked such as:

  • What went well in the project, what didn't go so well?
  • What would we do differently for the next project?

After that, however, the project team may split up. In this respect, the questions also serve as a quality measure and quasi-psychological project conclusion. Everyone can give final feedback before diving into new topics.

Retrospectives as a Continuous Routine

A retrospective, on the other hand, is used as a recurring routine for the continuous development of teamwork.

The retrospective takes place on a weekly to monthly basis. Especially agile Scrum teams use retrospectives at the end of each of their sprints.

However, the trend is (rightly) emerging that retros are also used in other contexts (agile HR management, agile sales etc.) – because they can add great value to any team that wants to improve.

Conclusion: Retrospectives & Lessons Learned Are Almost the Same

Lessons Learned Workshops are one-off formats and retrospectives are a continuous format.

In terms of agenda and procedure, the two meeting formats are very similar.

While retrospectives in agile teams often cover the need for separate lessons learned workshops, in less agile organizations lessons learned workshops are often one of the few ways to specifically reflect on the collaboration.

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