Download the retrospective checklist from this video.
Retrospectives are the single reason why the digital product agency I worked for became number one in The Netherlands.
In this video, I will show you how Retrospectives helped us increase team happiness from a 6.4 to an 8.2 (*measured with OfficeVibe), improve productivity, and have better business outcomes as a result.
And to make it easy for you I have created a cheatsheet with the 5 key principles which you can download via the link below to have a quick overview of the lessons and principles in this video.
What is a retrospective?
But first, a really quick definition of what a retrospective is. A retrospective is a moment that takes place at the end of a period of time, in which the team reflects on what went well and what could be improved.
So that can be at the end of a project, where you might know it as a Lessons Learned.
But what's different about a retrospective is that you do it way more frequently, so that you can improve one small thing with your team every week.
In the agile world, this is called Kaizen which stands for continuous improvement, which is exactly the same principle that James Clear describes in his book Atomic Habits as getting one percent better every day.
I have made a video about a complete Atomic Habits retrospective that you can do in Miro, which I will put a link to in the description below.
But the main idea is that a retrospective is an opportunity for the team to get one percent better every day. You simply cannot solve everything at once.
Many retrospectives are done in real-time in meetings, but hybrid teams are adopting asynchronous (or partly) more and more. Saving them time and having better outcomes.
That's why you want to do a retrospective every week because it can be a quick team-building activity that allows you and your team to take immediate action and build a compounding effect of all the improvements you made.
And while that sounds really simple it actually happens quite often that retrospectives are misunderstood and teams don't get the most value out of it.
But actually, that is pretty easy to solve, once you understand these five basic principles of agile retrospectives.
They will help you retros that are fun, energizing, and help the team achieve results they didn't believe were possible.
5 principles you must know
Now, let's get to the five principles:
1. USE ONE FACILITATOR
If you're reading this then this is probably you, or you might be thinking about someone in your team that you want to support doing this.
The facilitator is one person responsible for keeping the retrospective on track and ensuring that everyone has a chance to share their thoughts. They should also be able to keep the team focused on the topic at hand.
You bring a lot of value to the team because your work makes the retrospectives fun, engaging, and valuable.
That helps the team to keep improving that one percent every day.
It's best if the facilitator is the same person for a longer period of time before you swap this role to someone else in the team.
To give an example, when I introduced retrospectives at the digital product agency where I used to work for, it was me who facilitated all the retrospectives for the teams during that time.
After a couple of months the teams really got the hang of it, and slowly over time started to prepare and facilitate their own retrospectives.
That's because facilitating a meeting takes skills where you need to be able to ask open-ended questions, master digital tools, and choose the right topics for your team to work on.
The more often you do this, the better you get.
If you want to speed up your learning journey you can find a link to our Run Retrospectives like a Pro course in the description below.
The bite-sized videos and ready-to-start Miro templates will enable you to run great retrospectives today.
2. CHOOSE THE RIGHT TOPIC
That course will also help you with principle number two: Choose the right topic to focus on with your team.
The topic you focus on depends on the needs of your team and what stage they are in.
Has your team just started working together and should you focus on getting to know each other and how you best leverage each other's skills?
Or is your team already working together for a long time and are they struggling to meet specific goals that were set and not met?
Whatever topic you choose it's important to keep the focus on continuous improvement so that the team can learn and grow together. So don't try to solve everything at once, and don't forget to celebrate the progress that you make along the way.
And involve the team in choosing the topic. One retrospective that I will never forget was with one of the teams at the agency.
Things became pretty heated and reflecting on that it was because I choose the topic for that retrospective by myself instead of involving with the team.
They felt there was clearly a more important issue to solve first, before working on the topic that I prepared.
If I had checked in with them one or two days before the retro, we could have made a decision about the topic then, and made sure we were aligned for starting the retro.
In this case, we threw out the plan and focussed on the issue that the team felt was more important.
3. MAKE IT A CHALLENGE:
Now one of the best ways to define a topic is with principle number three: Make it a challenge.
You might be familiar with How Might We-questions from Design Thinking, and this format is also great for retrospectives.
It helps you to keep the team engaged and focused on the topic of the retrospective.
Instead of writing down a problem that might feel difficult to solve, turn it into a How Might We question.
Instead of "we're being distracted all the time", turn your challenge into "How Might We have long blocks of productive focus and meaningful collaboration?"
Instead of "we have some many things to do at the same time" try asking "How Might We have less work in progress and improve our outcomes?"
This helps the team brainstorm possible solutions and improves their problem-solving skills.
It allows them to come up with lots of ideas and then experiment with the ones they think are best for the next week.
4. FOLLOW THE STRUCTURE:
And now that you have a great starting point with your HMW challenge, we have principle number four to get the most value out of the retro itself: Follow the structure.
If not done well, retrospectives can go on for hours without actually improving anything.
It's important to set a time box so that everyone can stay focused, and this also ensures that the meeting doesn't drag on and that everyone has a chance to share their thoughts.
There is actually a great formula to retrospectives that's from this book from Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. I have extended the formula with two steps, which I have applied to all the templates in the Run Retrospectives like a Pro course.
In a nutshell, you first clarify the goal of the retro, then break the ice, before you quickly follow up on the action items of the last retro.
Once you have done that you gather data for the topic of this retro, so you can generate insights and then decide what to do.
And finally, you do a quick check out to see reflect on the workshop itself and see how you can improve it the next time.
You can also find an overview of these steps in the Retrospective cheatsheet.
In these steps, you can vary activities based on the retro's goal and the needs of the team.
5. END WITH ACTIONS:
And that brings us to principle number five: End with actions.
If you spent thirty to sixty minutes talking about problems and ideas but don't have a plan how to apply it the day after, your retrospective was a waste of time.
Because then next week you will have the exact same discussion again, with no progress made.
The only exception to this is if you were able to solve the problems or try out new ideas in the Retro itself.
So make sure you always take five to ten minutes where you take the insights from the data that you gathered and turn them into actionable items for the next retrospective.
You can use this template to write them in such a way to make it as easy as possible to get started.