What is a retrospective?
Retrospectives are meeting routines, which allow you to reflect regularly on recent events in order to derive improvements for the future.
Especially agile working methods like Scrum, Kanban or OKRs are using retrospectives as a central tool for continuous improvements.
While retros have become especially popular in software development, there is no limit to their scope outside of IT, as every team can benefit from regular reflection processes!
Goal and purpose of a retrospective
The goal of a retro is to collect perspectives and experience of all participants to
- share and align different opinions,
- generate new insights, and
- define measures for future improvements.
Not every retrospective needs to result in a specific action item. Simply creating the space to align perspectives within the team is often an added value, creating trust among each other and encouraging team development.
Use cases for retrospectives
Iterative working methods often speak of “sprint retrospectives”. Specifically, these are about jointly reflecting on the work of the past sprint.
Other agile frameworks, such as “Scrum” have implemented “scrum retrospectives”, in which the focus is on the application of the scrum framework. Likewise, there are also “OKR retrospectives”, for example, in which the focus is on reflecting on defined OKRs.
Since teams rarely conduct separate retrospectives for each individual framework, retrospectives that relate to team collaboration are often referred to as a “team retrospective”.
Retrospectives do not have to take place at the team level. There are also retrospectives within the framework of agile working models such as SAFe, or “Scrum of Scrums”, which take place on a cross-team level in order to reflect on the interfaces and dependencies between teams as well as organizational framework conditions. In these cases, the individual teams often collect their topics in advance and each send individual team members to contribute their topics at the cross-team level.
Prerequisites for retrospectives
Focus of a retrospective
According to the original use cases of a retrospective, it is important to communicate the focus of a retrospective in advance. This way, all participants know which topics they can bring into this retrospective.
Participants of a Retrospective
It is also important that at least one representative from each team takes part in the cross-team retrospectives. This ensures that as many opinions as possible can be reflected and discussed.
Caution: The larger the team, the more demanding the moderation. Teams should not be much larger than 10 participants. If that is not possible, here are a few tips for moderating retrospectives in large teams.
Psychological safety in retrospectives
"Psychological safety” in the team is enormously important to ensure that all perceptions are brought up. If the psychological security is limited by the group of participants, set up an anonymous feedback channel to raise critical issues. This makes it easier to raise issues; however, the discussion of anonymously raised topics is then no longer anonymous.
Frequency of retrospectives
Last but not least, retrospectives take place regularly. Formats such as “Lessons Learned Workshops” or “Post Mortem Analysen” are often long appointments that are held at specific milestones or project conclusions. And this is exactly where retrospectives differ.
Retrospectives should be short and frequent. In agile teams, a rhythm of weekly to monthly frequency has proven effective. Retrospective frequencies beyond 6 or 8 weeks are rather unusual and should be viewed critically regarding their effectiveness.
Time scope of a retrospective
Depending on frequency, retrospectives can last between 45-90 minutes. If the frequency is longer, for example monthly, one would tend to use 90 minutes. Weekly retrospectives can also be 45 or 60 minutes.
For retrospectives, it is better to have “shorter and more frequent” than “longer and less often”. Short frequencies create quick learning loops so that teams can also reflect on the effectiveness of their measures defined in past retros as early as possible and adjust them if necessary (Good measures from retrospectives). With practice it will becomes easier to adhere to the time frame (Timeboxing in retrospectives), or even to shorten it.
Key questions in a retrospective
To diversify retrospectives, facilitators often vary the format with different metaphors. At the core, however, the questions always revolve around:
- What went well?
- What did not go so well?
- How can we improve better next time?
One of the popular metaphors for these core questions is, for example, the Sailboat Retrospective.
Moderation of a retrospective
The moderation of a retrospective should be as neutral as possible. Therefore, it is optimal if a neutral person (for example, an Agile coach) can conduct it.
If you do not have a team coach, you can either commission an external person to moderate the retrospective or, as a first step, you can act as the team’s leader and take over the moderation. However, the manager should enable the team as quickly as possible to conduct retrospectives without the manager (or at least without their moderation).
If there is no neutral moderator in the long term, it is worthwhile to simply rotate the moderation role within the team.
No matter if you are a newcomer or an experienced moderator: In this eBook, we have summarized the best practices for moderating retrospectives for you:
In sum: Retrospectives are for everyone!
As you’ve seen, retrospectives are a key tool for “High-Performing Teams” that can also be established in any team with a little practice.
So if your team is not yet working with retrospectives, try it out over 3 months, for example.
Tip: After each retrospective, ask the team about the “Return on Time Invest” (ROTI):
Via the ROTI, you have an immediate picture of how the format is being received by your team. After three iterations at the latest, come up with an average score around 8 / 10. If not, look at our eBook on moderating retrospectives.