How to run your first retrospective

Last week my friend and words-with-friends nemesis asked me for some advice on how to run a retrospective.

She’d heard about them and wanted to take her team through one for the first time.

What is a retrospective?

Retrospectives are a technique used by teams to uncover dysfunctions and find better ways to work. Often when people are busy with their hectic, business-as-usual routines they notice issues and problems; small niggles and inefficiencies.

Or worst calamities happen but the team culture is to fix it quickly and move on rather than address the cause of the issue, inviting a recurrence.

Retrospectives should be a regular event in the teams schedule. You are taking time out of your routine to examine what worked well and what didn’t work well in the last period — I’d recommend having an hour retrospective every 2 weeks.

This is an important point. You can’t have a single retrospective once and hope for any improvements. For sure, your first retrospective is going to be a stressful event for both the facilitator and the team. The first retro will feel like an unusual event.

It’s only through regular practice and building trust in the team that results will show through.

As you invite the team to their first retrospective make it clear that this is a routine.

Most of all you are instilling a learning culture in the team. The value is partly in the output of the individual sessions (but possibly not the first one). There is a huge amount of residual value in having a team that is invested in self-improvement and that feel empowered and capable of making changes.

What equipment you’ll need.

You might need the following for a successful retro:

Lots and lots of wall space.

Optionally a pack of Post-It meeting charts. Not absolutely required because you’ll be writing on Post-It notes which can stick straight on the wall. I like the Post-It meeting charts because it allows you to rearrange the room quickly by

With the meeting charts you can lift and move sets of notes as you progress through the meeting. Notice how the post-it notes written in biro are hard to read at any distance

You’ll need lots of Post-It notes, colour unimportant but having a variety of colours makes it a bit more visually interesting. Each participant (including the facilitator needs a pack or half-a-pack)

You’ll need pens — thick pens for the facilitator, a pen each for the participant. Make sure you have the appropriate type of pen for the whiteboard (don’t commit the cardinal sin of writing in permanent pen on a wipeable board)

For the participants a fairly fine headed sharpie is great. Often biros aren’t heavy enough to be read once stuck to the wall. Buy some sharpies for the team.

Biscuits??? Something to play some background music on.. some of the exercises involve thinking for 5 minutes at a time and music makes it a bit more fun. Chairs?

Setting the room up

There are a couple of good tricks for keeping the session running smoothly.

You’ll want a space on the wall to keep as your main area and some extra spaces for your “Parking lot” and “Working Agreements” area. You might also choose to keep an area free for the “Schedule”

The Schedule

Have you ever been invited to a meeting where you had no idea what to expect, but you had a vague sense that you probably would be better off somewhere (or anywhere) else? That’s possibly how your team feel about their first retrospective meeting.

To show that you have a plan to make the most of their time keep an agenda and rough timings visible on the wall. This confirms a few things to the team:

  • They know where they are in the meeting; it’s going to be an unfamiliar process the first time they run through it
  • They know the meeting has a definite end when they get to the last part of the schedule
  • They know the facilitator has a plan and they aren’t about to observe an aimless meeting going off the tracks.

Keep the schedule simple. Columns for “TO-DO”, “DOING” and “DONE”. Move a card across as you finish an activity

The Parking Lot

(Excuse the obvious American-ism.. The “Car Park” sounds a bit naff in this context)

In these sessions you hope that conversations will flourish, but you also hope to get safely to the end of the session in one piece. For this reason you’ll need a tool to control the conversation if it starts to go off topic

This is the purpose of the Parking Lot. It’s when you need to say “Hey, this is a great conversation, and I don’t want to lose track of it. Lets put it on the Parking Lot and I promise we’ll find time to discuss it properly in another meeting”

The only thing about the Parking Lot is.. for it to have any credibility you have to follow up on the promise to not lose items in the parking lot. After the meeting distribute some notes or photos and schedule those conversationa about parking lot items.

(Yes — in the past I have placed ridiculous subjects in the parking lot and never followed up)

Working Agreements

This is a critical part of the puzzle. Retrospectives are great at unearthing issues and seeing whats wrong. That means nothing unless you have a mechanism for actually delivering the change.

In fact having scheduled retrospectives without a method for change is harmful. “We know what the problems are… we just never do anything about them”

Working Agreements are the method for you to deliver change. They are a highly visible set of actions that the team commit to. The team control the working agreements (with some influence from their manager/leader) and therefore should feel obliged to try and stick to them.

When things go wrong it should be possible to point to the working agreements and say “But we said we wouldn’t do this!” and hold each other accountable.

Have wall-space free to convert the discussions about problems into actionable working agreements.

An example of working agreements as defined by the team during retrospective sessions

Working agreements might also apply to behaviour in the meeting itself. For teams starting with retrospectives I’d start by asking the team to agree with 2 initial agreements

  • Phones off during the session
  • Lets assume that, whatever has happened in the past, everyone works and acts to the best of their ability and without any other agenda (Or something). Lets find a better way to work.

Just to reiterate. Working Agreements are the primary focus and artifact of retrospective sessions. In future sessions you should be validating “Do we still need this working agreement” or “How did we do against this working agreement — did we stick to it”

Retrospectives without using Working Agreements to close the loop are flaccid and limp and ineffectual.

Which exercises to do in the retrospective

The facilitator should try and vary the exercises used in the retrospective to stop them becoming repetitive and boring. But as this is your first team retro I’m going to take the liberty of dictating your schedule

You’ll be running through the following exercises — add them to the “TO-DO” column of the schedule part of the wall

  • Welcome and initial working agreements — 10 minutes
  • Knowing me, knowing you — 30 minutes
  • The retrospective starfish — 60 minutes
  • Agree on working agreements — 15 minutes
  • How was the retrospective? — 5 minutes

Welcome and initial working agreements

Get everyone sat down in the room, issue post-it notes and pens, explain that they’ll need them later on.

Explain the purpose of the meeting — to find a better way of working together. Explain the schedule and timings and reassure them that you’ll end the meeting on time. Can they give their full commitment to the session if you promise that if it’s rubbish the pain will only last for 2 hours :-)

Explain the parking lot and your need to keep the meeting on track. Any conversations that go off-course or look like they’ll break the schedule will be safe in the parking lot

Explain the working agreements and that they’ll form a set of rules that the team have control over.

Knowing me, knowing you

Explain that having a good team that can feel safe in point out problems and problems means that they have to have some level of trust in each other.

You’re not going to do some hippy-dippy-lets-fall-into-each-others-arms shit but we have a quick exercise in order to get to know each other better.

Also that the main exercise — the retrospective starfish — needs some careful thinking so we’re going to use this first exercise to warm up.

Your intention here is to get every participant in the meeting to standup, speak and feel like they are involved.

For the exercise you’ll need a grid with a row for each participant and three columns: “Where I grew up”, “My first job”, “One thing you didn’t know about me”

This isn’t supposed to be a deep meaningful exercise — stay away from areas of possible emotional tension and keep it light.

Give the team 5 minutes to write their name on the post-it note, and one post-it note for each of the three subjects. Make sure you turn some music on so the 5 minutes doesn’t drag on.

Take the remaining 10 minutes to have each person standup — walk up to the board and take the group through their 3 areas.

The retrospective starfish

Moving on to the main event. Draw the following diagram onto the whiteboard

The retrospective starfish

Explain to the team that you’d like to aim for 2 post-it notes from each of them for each area, but one will do, or none is fine if they can’t think of any. Quality rather than quantity.

The facilitator should have a couple of examples to post up whilst explaining. Say to the team to standup as soon as they have a couple written down and just go and post them on the board. Don’t wait until the end.

Set the timer for 10 minutes and play some music. Hopefully the team will engage and you’ll start to see post-its being collected on the board.

After the 10 minutes ask for a volunteer to come up and read out all of the post-it notes in the “Keep doing” area. Don’t feel tempted to do that yourself, no-one wants to hear you speak for two hours!!

As the post-it notes area being read out your job is to look for some recognition or consensus. If you think that there is agreement from the team gently prod and massage the conversation. You are aiming to get a potential working agreement onto the board. You might have to rewrite the original post-it note to get it into the right language for a working agreement.

Work around the starfish until each area has been covered.

Read more about the retrospective starfish here

Agree on working agreements

Once you have a collection of working agreements you want to drop the list down to two or three of the most helpful, high-impact working agreements. Explain that the team isn’t going to transform overnight and this is the first of a schedule of working agreements. It would be a mistake to attempt to adopt 15 working agreements in one session.

Get some consensus on the working agreements using finger-voting or some method. Read about the fist-of-five here.

These working agreements should reappear in written format (Word or Powerpoint) after the meeting as a living document for people to refer to.

How was the retrospective?

It’s really important to close the loop on how the retrospective was run. A retrospective-about-the-retrospective so to speak. You could possibly ask the team to think of one postive point, one negative point and one interesting point about the 2 hour session. What can improve next time?

There you go Lana — no-one else on the Internet will read this far down!! Good luck tomorrow xx