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The Importance of Retrospective Meetings and How to Run Them

Jenna Hasenkampf • May 10, 2022 • 8 minutes to read

The Importance of Retrospective Meetings and How to Run Them for Remote Teams

Retrospective meetings are an incredibly effective tool in company and team growth. By properly deploying retrospective meetings you can unlock efficiencies and clear roadblocks. Also, continuing in the same cycle of issues without resolution or improvement will negatively impact morale and productivity. At MKG, we manage work based on the agile project management approach so retrospective meetings are key to improving as we go.

What is a retrospective?

Retrospectives, aka sprint retrospectives or agile retrospectives, are meetings that use the power of multiple perspectives to uncover ideas and opportunities in a way that purely top-down decision making limits. Regularly using retrospectives empowers teams by bringing to light shared experiences, encouraging problem solving that builds on ideas and highlighting success/positives to invest in.

What is the purpose of a retrospective?

The purpose of a retrospective is to bring in stakeholders on a project/process/engagement and explore what happened, why it happened, what should have happened, and what can happen next time. By including multiple stakeholders you expand your view through different perspectives and give you the most opportunity to deeply understand a situation/project and find opportunities.

Let’s start with the basics. Do you trust your team? If you don’t trust your team this is not going to work with you and your time would be better spent digging into the’ why’ of that. The first requirement for a successful retrospective process is: TRUST YOUR TEAM. Retrospectives require investing in other people’s experiences and perceptions if you don’t trust that there’s no point. You’re going to need to come into this with curiosity, looking to understand rather than invalidate. You’re looking for patterns, things you missed, validation through shared experience, and opportunities you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. Come with the appetite to learn.

When should a retrospective meeting be held?

Retrospectives should be held anytime you want to have a deeper understanding of why something happened and be able to apply learnings to future occurrences. Here are three scenarios I have found retrospectives add value to:

  1. Something went really wrong.
    • Time is valuable so whatever you’re looking to improve needs to be significant enough to spend that time. Look for repeating issues (time adding up) or something that had a big impact on a deliverable or project that is costly enough to invest in this solution.
    • Another lens is did this make a significant impact on team members' relationships? Retrospectives are an opportunity to clear the air by providing perspective, intention, and impact through individuals' lenses. Building empathy and understanding rather than letting frustration grow into bias is absolutely a valuable use of time.
  2. Something went really well.
    • A common misconception is that retrospectives should only happen when things go wrong. Just like we seek to recoup future valuable time by resolving problems, we can spread valuable knowledge to improve output and efficiency from positive outcomes and experiences. Did something go really well with a big impact? Seek to understand it thoroughly so you can make it happen again and/or share it with other team members to incorporate into their own efforts.
    • A secondary benefit of this is celebrating your team’s success and recognizing it through a larger platform by using it not only as an example of success but the deeper individual contributions that created the success.
  3. You get stuck.
    • We like to say at MKG “no one is an island” and retrospectives are a tool you can use to activate this. You can use the right retrospective format to better understand the wall you’ve hit and by digging into other perspectives and ideas you can tap into collective brainpower to get moving again.
    • In this scenario, you’re digging into the “why” and “how we got here” vs the “what happened” to hopefully find your way forward.

What happens if you don’t regularly use retrospectives as part of your process?

You can look forward to repeating the same mistakes, not being able to replicate success in an efficient way, and your team getting saltier and saltier as they deal with the same challenges without improvement or opportunity for constructive input.

Who should attend the sprint retrospective?

Anyone who has significant involvement or impact on the project should participate in the retrospective. Team members who were preferably involved can be included in the takeaways but you want to make sure that everyone attending had a strong involvement or experienced a significant impact to support that accountability and valuable perspective gathering. You’ll also need a team member who can lead the retrospective, this person should not have a personal investment in what’s being discussed and can be a neutral moderator that the rest of the team respects and trusts since they will be asking clarifying questions and moving things forward.

How do you run a retrospective meeting?

There are a few key rules to follow with setting up your retrospective:

  • Give all attendees a task ahead of the meeting that lays out the questions you’ll be exploring in the retrospective. This gives people time to think about the project, look at references, and bring everything to the meeting that they need to address. I like to use a task program like Asana, a collaborative doc program like Google Docs, or miro (depending on the complexity, you may find value in using all three).
  • Consolidate the information ahead of the meeting from your team if possible. You can get away with doing this in-person in a room, but if you’re doing this remotely it’s crucial to have either the project lead or moderator consolidate the team input ahead of time. You don’t want to spend your retrospective gathering information, you want to spend it digging in and building on to get the most value out of your team’s time.
  • Have a clear owner of the next steps. Whether this is the moderator or someone on the project, someone needs to own how this information will be shared out and what the next steps are.
  • Consider if this would be beneficial to share with a wider audience. Sometimes this can be very helpful to share with clients a project that didn’t go well. It can be a big trust builder to show the thought and time put into understanding something that didn’t go well and the changes your team is making for the future. It also can be helpful or necessary to share with more people in your company. It can be something other teams can grow from or it can address an issue that provides clarity to the rest of the team what went wrong and how the stakeholder team is addressing it. It can be an important tool to control the narrative.

Sprint Retrospective Examples

Here are my favorite retrospective meeting formats:

  1. Structure #1 LOVED, LOATHED, LONGED FOR, LEARNED, and Actions.

    This is a great structure for exploring project flow or a more complex project. It is more time consuming to prepare for and conduct.

    • LOVED: what you loved about your work over the time period.

      This is what you want to keep doing or do more of, in the future.

  • LONGED FOR: what you wish you’d had. It could be more people, more time, more coffee. Nothing is off the table.
  • LOATHED: what made life worse back then. What do you hope will never happen again?
  • LEARNED: what you learned from your successes and your mistakes.
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes for everyone to add their own thoughts to each list.
  • Give everyone 10 minutes, as a team or in breakout groups, to discuss:
    1. One action you’ll take to remove something from your LOATHED list.
    2. One action you’ll take to amplify something from your LOVED list.
    3. Use your LONGED FOR and LEARNED lists to help shape your ideas for what actions to take.
  1. Structure #2 Good, Bad, Better, Best

    This is a good structure for a smaller to medium project or larger meeting that didn’t go well to explore the different elements.

    • Good

      Things that went well, i.e. areas where the team met or exceeded expectations

    • Bad

      Things that didn’t work well, i.e. areas where the team didn’t meet expectations or where unexpected problems occurred

    • Better

      Opportunities for improvement, i.e. suggestions on how to do something better

    • Best

      Things that deserve recognition, i.e. outstanding performances and people who went above-and-beyond

  2. Structure #3 What? So what? Now what?

    This is a great structure to explore a specific issue or a smaller process that there is room for improvement on or an opportunity to share out for more teams.

    • What?

      Describe what happened

    • So what?

      Describe why it mattered

    • Now what?

      Describe or collaborate on what we should do moving forward

Now it’s time for you to jump in and start having your own retrospectives. Your goal should be to start using these formats and getting your team comfortable with the process and setting expectations of the outputs and then to train team members to be able to run these themselves. Empowering your team to be able to press pause and address an issue or an opportunity with retrospectives will build leadership skills, bigger picture thinking, and accountability in a very impactful way. If you’re not sure how to bring this into practice, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Don’t forget to bookmark my retrospectives guide which includes three formats to use.

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