“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
What is a Project Retrospective?
A project retrospective is an opportunity for project teams to reflect on the successes and challenges encountered during the project. It provides time for introspection, away from the frenetic demands of project delivery, during which the team can discuss and analyze the project’s challenges and identify actions to be taken to avoid these issues in the future. The retrospective is also an opportunity to build team cohesiveness and to celebrate the team’s successes.
In short, the goal of the retrospective is to improve team performance between one project and the next.
Organized as a structured workshop or meeting, retrospectives are typically held at the conclusion of a project, although they may also be held mid-project, following the completion of major milestones.
The following questions are commonly asked and answered during a retrospective:
Why Conduct a Retrospective?
There are a number of compelling reasons for holding a structured reflection on a recently completed project. They include:
1. Improved Outcomes
The discipline of openly and rigorously examining the team’s performance contributes to a culture of continuous improvement within the team and potentially across the organization.
2. Team & Individual Growth
The self-awareness engendered by the retrospective process contributes to the maturity and effectiveness of the team as a whole and fosters the personal and professional growth of its members.
3. Holistic Solutions
By engaging the entire project team, the likelihood of accurately assessing issues, identifying solutions and properly prioritizing those solutions is dramatically improved. This approach also encourages individual team members to become personally invested in the success of future endeavors.
4. Focused Action
Introspection is a powerful tool, but without action no improvement can be expected. The output from a properly planned and executed retrospective is a specific, actionable plan for implementing the highest impact lessons learned from the project.
Preparing for the Retrospective
Preparation is critical to the success of a project retrospective.
1. Gather the facts
The Project Manager/Lead should create a project report that includes the original project definition, its established success criteria and any KPIs relevant to the project’s outcome. This report should also include the project’s timeline, showing its major milestones and events.
2. Set the agenda
To get the most out of the session, it is essential to have a plan. See below for a typical agenda and feel free to refine it as needed to fit your project.
3. Schedule the session
Allow plenty of time! A good rule of thumb is to allow 20-30 minutes for each week of your project. For large and/or especially complex projects, consider holding short, mid-project retrospectives with a 3-4 hour “wrap-up” session at the end.
It is critical that team members be specifically asked to come prepared with their key insights, observations and ideas for improvement.
It is also important that they be given the time they need to properly prepare, so send the meeting invitations early. In most cases, 3-4 days advance notice should be sufficient, but this can vary dramatically based on the participant’s workloads and/or the “culture” of your organization, so be sure to account for these factors as well.
4. Identify a facilitator
This blog assumes that you are your team’s project manager. If so, you may be tempted to act as the facilitator for your project’s retrospective. Unless there is no other choice, you should avoid this temptation.
To begin with, you too have important experience and insights to contribute to the process and it will be difficult for you to fully participate if you are focused on facilitating.
Also, despite your best intentions, your contributions may be perceived to carry undue weight if you also serve as the facilitator. This can inadvertently influence the course of the conversation and even result in self-censorship by some team members.
The best practice therefore is to secure the services of a neutral, third-party facilitator. This can be an external consultant with experience facilitating retrospectives, or it can be someone from your organization. In the latter case, it is recommended that this person:
5. Stock up on supplies
If your approach requires sticky notes, pens, markers etc. be sure you obtain them ahead of the meeting. Also, it never hurts to have snacks available for in-person meetings!
Conducting the Retrospective
1. Welcome the Participants
First, welcome the team and thank them for the time and effort they have invested in the project. If your project team was large, people may not be familiar with everyone engaged on the project. Now would be a good time for a round of introductions, including name and project role.
Next, review the goals for the retrospective and describe the process that will be used to conduct the session.
Finally, and to my mind most importantly, emphasize that there is no room in the session for “blame games”. The Retrospective Prime Directive is widely quoted as a standard of conduct for retrospectives:
“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe 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.”
2. Review Project’s Performance
Unless your project was very small, it is unlikely everyone’s experience of it will be the same. Given this, do not assume everyone has all the facts required to fully understand the problems they will be asked to help solve.
Take this time to review all the relevant facts relating to the project’s performance. By reviewing these facts, you establish a common baseline understanding and increase the likelihood that participants can offer meaningful ideas and solutions.
Establishing this baseline can be accomplished in several ways. Two of the most common include:
Regardless of the approach used, do not rush this step. Everything that follows depends upon establishing this common understanding of the project.
3. Discuss the Team’s Insights
This is the meat of the retrospective, the time where participants share both the positive, and less than positive, lessons they learned during the project.
4. Identify and Prioritize Insights
It’s likely a great deal of feedback will have been received by this point in the session and it will be impractical to try to find a solution for all of it. Now is the time for the team to distill their feedback down to the 4 to 5 topics that are mostly likely to have the greatest impact on improving future outcomes.
5. Create an Action Plan
Once the team’s priorities have been established, develop a plan to address each of them. It’s important to be specific and to document who will do what. Set target dates and plan for follow-ups on progress.
6. Close the Session
When closing the session:
After the Retrospective
Even the worst, most painful project can provide useful insights if you are willing to forego the “blame game” and do the work required to examine its challenges openly and honestly. The project retrospective is a powerful tool in this endeavor.
Used consistently and effectively, project retrospectives can lead to the growth and maturity of your team, build the professionalism of your teammates and help to avoid the trap of doing the same thing over and over again while hoping for a different outcome.
Whether you need a seasoned facilitator to lead your project retrospective or a project manager to help manage your projects, Pivotal’s got you covered. Contact us today!
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