How to Run a Really Good Retrospective

November 13, 2017 Nicola Rushton

Everyone should do retrospectives — not just agile software teams.

Agile retrospectives. If they have a reputation at all, it’s not for being very exciting. Not many people think: You know what? I freaking love retro! It’s just a meeting, right?


Why? Because great retros make great teams.

And great teams are the ones that communicate with each other. The ones that consistently make small course corrections to stay on track. The ones that trust each other, boost each other, share in each other’s successes and failures equally. The ones that know, without a shadow of doubt, that they’re all working towards the same goal.

Great retros are an amazing tool to get teams there.

Retros came from the world of agile software development. That’s where you tend to see them happening. But the more I speak to people about the retro process, the more I see the good word spreading. I have friends who are counsellors who do retros. Primary school teachers who do retros. Recruiters who do retros. I even have a friend who did a “marriage retro” with his wife.

For any group of people doing something creative or productive together — great retros will make you do it better.

So. How can you run your own great retro?

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • The immediate team in the meeting
  • A whiteboard + whiteboard markers
  • Cheese, wine, or snacks of your choice — trust me, this is important 😊

Step 1: Invite the team

Retros need to happen regularly. I recommend once a week. Last thing on a Friday works well. Invite the immediate team earlier in the week.

Pro tip: Only include the immediate team who work together. Retros are a safe space to talk about everything, even things that aren’t going well. So don’t invite anyone who may compromise that feeling (think stakeholders and managers) — have them sit this one out.

Step 2: Snacks! 🍷🧀

Ya, life is tough.

A great retro is one where everyone feels relaxed, open, and up for a good chat. After a long week, consciously switching up the vibe can really help to take the team from normal mode to retro mode. Snacks, drinks, music — they all help.

The courage to speak truths, pleasant or unpleasant, fosters communication and trust. Wine helps.
Kent Beck & Nicola Rushton

Step 3: Happy, wondering, sad?

You don’t need brilliant artistic skills to make a retro board.

Draw three columns on the whiteboard.

The first is the happy column. The second is the wondering column. The third is the sad column.

Now it’s time for everyone to take a whiteboard marker, come up to the board (together), and silently write in the columns.

Prompt your team. What went well this week? What questions do you have that we should talk about? What’s puzzling you? What was hard? What was just downright bad?

You can also have everyone write on sticky notes and just use a wall, if you’re missing a whiteboard.

Step 4: Talk about each item

Now, talk through everything written on the board, item by item. If you’re running the meeting, it’s your role to direct the conversation by picking which item to talk about next.

Pro tip: If it’s important enough for someone to have written it on the board, then it’s important enough to talk about. A great retro is one where everyone’s voices are heard equally.

Step 5: Create action items

During the conversation, listen out for action items.

Ask: Is there something we can experiment with next week to fix this?

Write each action on the whiteboard as you come up with them. Give each action an owner. A good action item is actionable and ownable.

If there are things on the board in the sad column, focus hard on coming up with actions to address them. If something isn’t working, think about what you can experiment with to try to fix it. Remember, the whole reason you’re here is to iterate on your process and keep getting better, one baby step at a time. That’s only going to happen if you actually make changes.

A good action item is actionable and ownable.

In next week’s retro, you’re going to check back in with that person. Did they complete the action? If they did, check it off the list. If not, it stays.

Step 6: Don’t forget to drink the wine.

Like you’d forget.

GIF by UI8

Step 7: Actually change things

So, a single retro can feel great — to air out feelings, to come up with some things your team can try, to talk about things that aren’t working.

But don’t forget the purpose of retro: to mindfully iterate on process. That means that you need to actually do the action items you wrote down. Nothing kills team morale quite like having the same old junk come up over and over again and doing nothing to fix it.

Take action to make changes. Listen to your team. Talk to each other. Be kind. There! You retro’d.

How do you do retros? Did this help? Let me know in the comments or on twitter!

Change is the only constant, so individuals, institutions, and businesses must be Built to Adapt. At Pivotal, we believe change should be expected, embraced and incorporated continuously through development and innovation, because good software is never finished.

How to Run a Really Good Retrospective was originally published in Built to Adapt on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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