Retrospectives are an extremely useful instrument to help teams improve their performance and collaboration from iteration to iteration. It is used in many agile processes like in project management with scrum or as reflection tool for management with OKRs and it is an essential part of the process for organizations that work with OKRs and similar frameworks.

A retrospective is usually carried out as a structured team meeting. During this team meeting the team members reflect on how they can become more effective and which concrete measures thus have to be taken to adjust behaviors and processes accordingly. Furthermore, one should also investigate opportunities for improving cooperation between team members. Organizations that allow for this alternation between reflection and improvement enhance collaboration within teams, drive continuous learning and position themselves to react quickly and effectively to the rapid changes and great dynamics of today´s markets and economies.

But what exactly should organizations do in their retrospectives so that their efforts can actually  materialize in greater efficiency, effectiveness and eventually in a better management as well as more flexibility and agility? That is what we from Workpath wrote down for you in this article.

What you should do in your retrospectives

The goal of a retrospective is to learn from the past what can be done better in the future. Therefore, your team should discuss the most important team and work processes in their retrospective. They should talk about the adequacy and adherence to timelines, about their meeting rhythms, Check-Ins and other rules. Those discussions should reveal opportunities to adapt and sharpen processes for better. It is each team´s opportunity to optimize the framing rules of their communication, work and collaboration.

It is important to not focus only on the facts you can find but also listen to your colleagues´ thoughts and feelings about the previous cycle. Only through the combination of those hard and soft factors you can truly gain valuable insights that let you comprehend what learnings can be drawn from the last cycle. To enable this you have to set the right stage though and think through how you want to structure your retrospective to create the right ambience for a smooth, trusting and open exchange of experiences.

How you can structure your retrospectives

1. The introduction and setting the stage

A thought-through introduction will help to go in the retrospective more frictionless. You want to steer your team's focus and create an atmosphere where everybody feels free to open up and at the same time shows respect for the opinions and thoughts of others. Some people do this with little team building tasks. Since each company culture is different and each team composed of unique individuals there are no hard and fast rules though. Try out different things and observe which introduction makes your team feel most comfortable.

2. Gather data

As stated above you want to collect all the hard as well as the soft factors that impact your processes. Therefore, allow and support your team to collect facts as well as thoughts and feelings. Do not disregard emotional reactions towards certain situations or experiences. They might give you valuable insights as well. One starting point can be to analyze and discuss what you are good at as a team and where you could still improve.

3. Generate insights

Try to prioritize your discussion topics. Not every little issue is a problem that needs dedicated attention. If you cannot decide on the most relevant and important topics use methods like point systems. What you really want to do in this step of the retrospective is find out the reasons for your problems. Because in the end you don't want to only treat the symptoms but get down to the root of the trouble.

4. Decide what to do

Surely you not only want to talk the talk but also walk the walk. Therefore, you must decide on concrete measures that you derived from your insights. Try to be really clear about what you want to achieve and make things measurable. If your organization is using the OKR framework, think of if you can pinpoint your measures in concise Key Results. Be careful to stay realistic though. Be honest with yourself with regards to what you can actually achieve in the next iteration. Rather do one or two things right than 5-6 half-heartedly.

5. Closing

As important as a good introduction is a proper closing of the retrospective. Provide your team members with the opportunity to settle with what was discussed, so that they can move back to their work as frictionless as possible. You can use quick feedback rounds or a closing question to round off your retrospective to reset everybody´s mindset.

Preparing your retrospectives

Each participant should take its time to mentally go through what they want to contribute to the retrospective. Note-taking will help you to not forget important points in the discussions later on. A rough agenda drafted by the facilitator or coordinator of the retrospective can help to make the meeting effective and focused.

It is important to schedule retrospectives in an adequate frequency, to work close to actions and to ensure that participants still remember the relevant events. Only through an appropriate frequency you can guarantee that the means taken stay measurable and that the desired flexibility and responsiveness materialize.

Common mistakes

Treat your retrospectives as integral part of your processes. Therefore, they should e.g. not be done on Friday afternoons since they will not yield useful results then. Further, it oftentimes happens that focus is lost in heated discussions or that retrospectives end up in open feedback or planning sessions. This will not help you to work towards your goal of process improvement to boost your performance.

Another common challenge is to create the right atmosphere and mindset for all participants. The retrospective should not be an opportunity to critique or blame others. It rather offers a setting where past performance can objectively examined, reviewed, reflected upon and next steps for improvement can be determined.

Conclusion

If one keeps the actual purpose of the retrospective in mind, focuses on a clear structure and creates the right environment for safe and open exchange, this tool is a key to boost your organization's performance and agility. The constant learning process that is fostered by the retrospective will allow you to understand and tackle the root cause of your current problems quickly and react rapidly to whatever changes your firm encounters. The discussions of the retrospectives will foster mutual understanding and promote better collaboration amongst your colleagues. And eventually, you will have established a process of continuous improvement.