Retrospectives are periodic team based reviews focusing on what went well and what went wrong so that lessons can be learned and processes improved.

Retrospectives are a key element of establishing feedback loops and the Bubble Up practice in delivery teams. We recommend that Retrospectives are held at the end of each sprint/iteration, phase, lifecycle or other time box at project, programme and portfolio level. Retrospectives are appropriate for agile/iterative and continuous flow teams.

Retrospectives answer 3 questions:

  • What went well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What should we change?

As a result, retrospectives become the driving engine of team based continuous improvement in an organization leading to organizational improvement. “Retros” are also excellent vehicles for driving process change as they create a “pull change” on team behaviors.

Retros will be familiar to agile teams, especially those using Scrum. We’ve found considerable success with running facilitated retros, where an independent mentor, coach or simply someone from an unrelated team guides a team retrospective and then presents back the results. Retros work especially well for cross-team improvement as they provide an opportunity for people to talk about the integration problems directly, not through plans or reports.

Running a retrospective

We recommend using a whiteboard (or virtual drawing canvas) split into three columns: happy, sad and change. Give the team a few minutes to write their thoughts on some post-it notes, with happy smiley, sad face or change icon.

Any comment should be welcome and everyone in the room should have an equal voice. Comments must be received without judgment or criticism.

Once the team members have finished writing each member can come to the board and place their post-its, explaining them to the group as they are placed. Often team members will highlight the same or similar comments and so can overlap their post-its, theming comments as the board is built up.

The end result is an understanding of the team’s strength of feeling on individual issues, the weight of “happy thoughts” vs. “sad thoughts” and suggestions for improvement that can be added directly to the team’s backlog. We’ve found that it’s normal for teams to focus on the negative. Teams tend to identify more that went wrong or could be improved than celebrate what went right – especially in cynical cultures. We find it useful to frame retrospectives in this context so teams don’t feel “down” based on the number of negative comments.

We recommend that facilitation of a retrospective is rotated amongst team members members if not facilitated independently.

Issues that the team feels should be escalated can be done so via the Bubble Up practice.

The Bubble Up practice is a method for capturing key feedback messages at retrospectives throughout the organization and guaranteeing their esclation to, as well as a response from, Business Leadership.