How to do team retrospectives

September 17, 2021

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The saying goes “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me”. Reflecting on our experiences and avoiding situations we don’t want to repeat is part of being human. It’s how we’ve learned, survived and evolved. This habit of regular reflection or "retrospectives" is a key component of Agile  - a process/ project management methodology adopted from the software industry that aims to minimise the chances of a project going wrong or failing to deliver the right outcomes in time.

Even though reflecting on things that have happened to us at the end of the working day or week may come naturally, we often try to silence our “reflective motor” in order to be mentally present outside of work and have a healthy work-life balance.

In other words, many of us focus on getting s*** done during our office hours and then try our best to switch off. Often this comes at the expense of reflecting which is one of the best ways to learn whether what you’re actually doing is effective or meaningful.

Not Tom Brady. A recent documentary about the New England quarterback shows him shows him re-watching old game film for days on end. He pauses and rewinds almost obsessively. He calls up a colleague and directs him to watch the exact second of game so they can discuss it later. Extreme fitness regimes notwithstanding, many believe Brady’s film studies have given him the winning edge. (Although The Patriots lost the Superbowl the point stands!).

Why are retrospectives important for teams?

The process of retrospectives is a way of improving our overall performance. It allows us to identify actions and behaviours that we will repeat, adapt and avoid. If each member of a team started reflecting individually the team’s performance would improve. In a real team, where everyone is working towards the same goals, sharing these reflections will improve your team’s performance faster.

Moreover, team reflection has been found to significantly impact effectiveness and innovation, two of the most sought after qualities of high performing teams.

Michael West’s report on developing team-based working in NHS Trusts found that the most important activity of team meetings was was collective reflection. West encourages team leads to set aside time periodically for reflection.

Team vs individual reflection?

Team reflection is both an individual and collective activity. If you gather the team into a room and order them to reflect on the spot you’re unlikely to get deep insights.

Instead, ask team members to reflect individually ahead and then bring their ideas into a collective process.

“The individual and group interconnect. Individual thought is respected and invited; collective thought is encouraged and developed”. Bernice Moore (here)

How to do a retrospective?

There isn’t a wrong way to reflect. It can be as simple as coming up with a Stop, Start, Continue based on what’s been effective and led you to successor where you’ve gone wrong. This is just as effective for individuals as it is for teams. It's a great way to agree actions that lead to change rather than dwell on negatives or end up playing the blame game.

You can periodically reflect on documented agreements, like your team purpose, goals, organisational principles or team behaviours /charter /norms.

Personally, I’m very forgetful so I reflect by looking at my calendar. Most of my work is recorded there so I can think about whether I’ve made efficient use of my time, what went well and what I’ll do differently. (It’s also a great way of checking whether I’ve done everything I said I was going to do).

But if your team is new to retrospectives, some more guidance can go a long way. Here are 7 questions for your next retrospective.

Example retrospective template from the Saberr platform

You can apply these questions to important events, specific projects, different areas of your team’s work or even processes.

Tips for making retrospectives a habit

Embed reflection into existing scheduled meetings

Rather than scheduling another meeting, add reflection into your existing team meetings. This could mean taking 15 minutes at the start to discuss your reflections from the past week. If you’re holding a quarterly team review, end it by reflecting on how you’ll run the next one.

Reflection works best if team members trust each other

Being truthful to yourself and to the team is the key. Some people may find it unpleasant or scary to speak out against groupthink and to question team assumptions. There are loads of great books and articles on how to encourage psychological safety in teams (see HBR’s article or McChrystal’s Team of Teams). Sometimes it just takes one or two members to show openness and some degree of vulnerability to dramatically improve trust throughout the whole team.

Remote reflections

If time differences prevent global remote teams from committing to weekly/monthly video call, reflections can be shared periodically on a #reflection Slack channel, Whatsapp group etc. Any communication method works as long as it allows for discussion and full participations (not one way process).

Find a time that works for you and make it a habit

You might find that’s when you go for a run, at your desk with a reflection journal, when you’re brushing your teeth or on Sunday mornings. For me Friday afternoon is the best time to reflect on work; I’m brimming with ideas on how to make the following week better than the last. I write them down to share with the team in our Monday morning meeting (when I’m feeling far less lively). In any case, doing it at the same time makes it easier to build a habit.

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