Retrospectives Don’t Run Themselves

I conducted a retrospective last week and thought I would share my experience. Retrospectives are valuable improvement opportunities when they are well planned and executed. But don’t assume the session will run itself. Spending a little time planning the session will result in valuable team improvement ideas.

My most recent retrospective closed out a consulting project and involved people at different locations, so we used a virtual retrospective tool called IdeaBoardz which offers free limited use.

The Setup

The most important part of a retrospective is getting the team members to attend and participate. I made a list of all the people who were involved with this project. I sent the client manager the list and asked if he could think of anyone else we should include. He added one more person who was not in our team but interacted with us during our work. Consider carefully who you would like to include, too many people might decrease openness but don’t exclude anyone who had a critical role.

I set up my IdeaBoardz before I sent the meeting invitations so that I would be able to include the link to the board. I wanted it ready to accept items from my team when they received the meeting notice. The great thing about a collaborative tool is people can add things before the meeting, when they think of them. This results in a more complete list. I find people are sometimes reluctant to add the first note, so I added one item under the What went well and What didn’t go well columns to get the team started.

Next, I reviewed calendars to find a date and time when everyone was available – not surprising, this is not a trivial task!  Finally, I sent out the meeting invitation with the link to the board asking everyone to start thinking about What went well, What didn’t go well, and Action items for the future. Even if my teammates didn’t go to the idea board to start adding items, I wanted to get them thinking about their experiences.

Before our session I imagined some possible conversations and created agenda notes for myself. Even the simplest meetings need structure. I wasn’t sure if everyone had experience with retrospectives, so I decided the first topic would be to briefly describe the value of this type of session and our desire to use this technique for all projects going forward. It was important for me to make participants feel their time would be well spent so our third column, the Action items would be the main deliverable.

Just before the session I checked our board and I was happy to see one of my teammates had added a few items! A couple of invitees were unable to attend so I reminded them they could post their thoughts for the group.

The Session

As attendees dialed in, I introduced the virtual board and explained how it worked. Even a very simple tool like this one needs a bit of introduction and training. I decided not to share my screen but rather asked each participant to login directly to the board so they could engage with it directly. People stay more attentive to a virtual meeting when they are physically doing some work. I told the group that after our session I would download the comments and distribute them.

I explained to the participants that I wanted them to add items to the board and to review other people’s items. I told them we would have 3 minutes of silence for them to read, write, post questions and give thumbs up acknowledgements to the items which they endorsed. At the end of the three minutes, I told them I would conduct a round robin. Each participant would be called on to either:

  1. Advocate for one of their Action items
  2. Further explain one of their items
  3. Ask a question about someone else’s item

It is valuable to give individuals time to read and write in silence and you should always set a specific time limit which doesn’t sound too long. These days anything longer than 5 minutes might cause some people to become distracted. Three minutes seemed short enough to get them to work immediately but not too long for the individual who had already posted his thoughts.

The remainder of the session we went around the group with each person picking a topic to discuss. The discussion flowed very freely and I didn’t have to do much facilitation. I made sure to call on each person (including myself) and listen carefully to make sure each topic was discussed before we moved onto the next. When someone brought up an idea that wasn’t on the board, I added the item to the board in the appropriate column.

Our last activity was to decide on next steps and assign the action items as needed. Some of them won’t be used until we start our next project, but there were a couple of things which needed to be addressed immediately. We decided who would handle these and all left the session feeling we had made good use of our time. I thanked everyone for their participation and celebrated the success of our project. Even successful projects have room for improvement and a retrospective identifies the improvement ideas.


As soon as the session ended, I exported the items and sent them to the team including the team members who did not attend the retrospective. I outlined our agreed upon next steps in the email message.

PMI calls these results “lessons learned”.  The SAFe Framework refers to sprints as “learning cycles”, each sprint ending with a retrospective resulting in changes to improve the process for the next sprint. Regardless of what you call the session, it is very satisfying to conduct a session like this. The team gets to celebrate their successes and collaborate on how they can be even more effective in the future.

Planning ahead about the details of how you will initiate, conduct and follow up on a retrospective almost guarantees success!

2 thoughts on “Retrospectives Don’t Run Themselves”

  1. Good day! This is my first comment here so I just wanred to give a quick shout out and say I truy enjoy reading through
    your posts. Can you recommend any other blogs/websites/forums that ccover thhe same topics?

    Thanks a ton!

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