Retrospectives are a tool to identify and reflect on significant moments — both positive and negative — during the course of a project. Thinking back through these moments can help teams celebrate accomplishments and identify challenges, contributing to valuable overall learning.
Regularly-scheduled team retros are an important part of Loup’s approach to distributed teamwork. Project retros — the focus of this guide — are a bit different because they take a broader view and will likely include stakeholders that may not have participated in the day-to-day work on the project, but will nonetheless have important feedback to share.
Why retros matter
Retros are a chance for team members to support each other’s learning and identify areas of broader importance for the team. They highlight successes — especially incremental ones — that contribute to larger cycles of improvement. Rather than examining individual performance, learning from reflection can reframe difficult experiences in terms of the challenges inherent to a team’s work.
Tips for a successful project retro
Do your prep work
A good retro is thoughtfully planned. Conduct it after the dust has settled on a project: two to four weeks after a project has ended is a good window where frustrations have faded a little and may be understood not in isolation, but as part of a broader pattern.
Schedule at least 1.5 hours for a retro, ideally 2 hours. If you are convening a group who hasn’t frequently met, anything less will feel rushed, even with a small number of participants.
Consider your guest list. A project retro should include stakeholders and key staff. If there are multiple external stakeholders, consider holding a separate, internal retro for support staff who were responsible for completing the actual work. Their insights will often focus on internal processes and tools, which may not be relevant to stakeholders. We try to limit our project retros to groups of 8, which ensures everyone will have a chance to participate.
Choose your technology. Retros are collaborative, and the tools you use should reflect this. We’ve fond it works best when everyone has their own laptop and can participate individually — otherwise attention tends to wander. Use interactive tools like Google Docs, Mural, or Retrium, which allow everyone to participate at once, and will leave you with a lasting record of what was shared.
Communicate the process. If collaborative retros are a new practice for anyone on your guest list, take the time to carefully explain what will happen. Inviting people to attend with an understanding, inclusive, and constructive frame of mind will improve the experience for everyone. Stress that everyone who attends needs to participate; retros are not a passive exercise. See our checklist for how we set up our retros using a series of emails.
A retro needs a facilitator! This person should guide the group, watch the clock, and ensure everyone is participating equally (this means creating space for quieter folks and intervening if people begin to dominate the conversation).
To encourage respectful participation, we facilitate retros by first framing why we’re there, and setting some ground rules:
- Understanding. Whatever we discover, we understand that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.
- Inclusive. We want to ensure all voices are heard, and that all participants listen and talk in relatively equal measure.
- Constructive. We’ll focus on key learnings, practical recommendations, and potential solutions — rather than simply dwelling on shortcomings. And we’ll strive to keep the conversation focused and high-level, rather than deep-diving into too much detail on any one topic.
We keep our questions simple, and limit ourselves to three per retro:
After everyone has had a chance to write down their answers individually, we synthesize them together by reading each other’s notes, grouping them into themes, and discussing themes with the most heat. The process of grouping into themes can be tricky to facilitate. You might provide some broad categories (e.g. Tools We Used, How We Communicated) both as prompts and as an organizing mechanism. Or you might assign people the task of grouping comments for a particular question. Whatever you decide, we suggest you think through some strategies ahead of time, because if poorly executed, this step of group synthesizing can result in a drop in energy.
Dedicate the bulk of your time to discussing the emergent themes. Try to identify achievements and learning — a retro should never become a clearinghouse for grievances. End this conversation by identifying next steps.
Close your retro by inviting participants to acknowledge someone whose work they want to appreciate. If this is the last time the project team will convene, it’s nice to end the work on this note.
Document the learning
A retro doesn’t end when the meeting concludes. It’s vital to document and share the takeaways with participants. Even if all you do is take a screenshot of the collaborative document where you worked, do it! Ideally you can summarize key themes in a short write-up.
Loup’s Project Retro Checklist
We’ve created a downloadable project retro checklist you can reference or remix.
New to retros? Let us help. Loup offers custom organizational design and guidance with a specialization in helping geographically distributed teams, communities, and network-building projects. Through training, coaching, tooling, and facilitation, we help establish healthy project management processes and practices for teams. Learn more about our services.