Building a high performance team with retrospectives

Urgh, meetings. They’re such a waste of time — this was definitely how I have been feeling when I first started my career as a software engineer, when I just wanted to do things, as opposed to merely talking about things.

Recently the unfortunate event of my team lead’s resignation has inspired me to look at things from other angles. One of the things I really started appreciating is how having retrospective meetings are helping the team’s performance.

What is the purpose of having retrospective meetings, other than to just follow the standard agile development process? They are there to make poor performing teams good, and to make good teams great. There is no such thing as “best team” in the world of growth mindset, so the fundamental purpose of the retrospective meetings is for the team to reflect and come up with achievable actions for next iteration that could improve the team on the whole.

Another purpose people often forget is to complement one another what great job they’ve done. “Sometimes you just got to beat the drums”, my dev lead says to me. This is important for 2 reasons:

  • Show that you appreciate your colleagues’ output so that you’re building a good rapport
  • To assert the good things you and your colleagues are doing, so that you can continue doing them in further iterations

Overall, the format of retrosepctive meetings should have the following structure:

  • Set the stage — this involves getting the team members ready to be engaged.
  • Gather data — create a shared understanding of what has happened since the last retrospective meeting. Even if it’s just been a week or 2 and things haven’t moved on very much since, everyone will still have different perspectives. It’ll be good to write those done to get the overview for the team.
  • Generate insights — this is where you ask the difficult “why” questions in order to identify the root cause of the problems mentioned in the previous phase.
  • Decide what to do — come up with a list of actions to take based on the generated insights. Typically those actions should be assigned to a team member as owner of the actions.
  • Close the retrospective — document the meeting experience and actions/owners to follow up on. Thank the attendees.

The book “Agile Retrospectives Making Good Teams Great” suggests a number of methods of running each phase. Each method serves the same purposes in slightly different ways.

Retrospectives empower teams to come up with ways to improve their performance by giving overview of their current statuses and identifying shortfalls. Plan well and give appropriate amount of time for discussion for each phase.