The value of a project retrospective

A project retrospective provides an opportunity for everyone involved to intentionally look back at a project and discuss what worked, what didn’t, and where improvements can be made. Under the agile approach to development, retrospectives are often done weekly or at the end of each sprint. Here at Agathon, we’ve found that doing one at major milestones or the end of each project can be especially valuable. The frequency of retrospectives may vary depending on how your team works, but the value of them remains the same.

“If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
~ Isaac Newton.

To be clear, Agathon didn’t invent the retrospective; however, we’ve adapted this process to fit our team and values. We love to celebrate wins as well as examine where things didn’t go as expected, all with the goal of growing and improving as we move forward: “What should we learn from this project that we might otherwise forget?”

A project retrospective is valuable because it:

  1. Captures the things that went well,
  2. Captures the things that didn’t go as well as hoped,
  3. Examines the things that still puzzle us,
  4. Provides an opportunity to stop and celebrate our successes, and
  5. Reinforces our culture of continuous improvement.

The ingredients of a successful project retrospective

1. A willingness to be honest.

In order for a retrospective to truly bring value to our team, everyone has to come to the table ready to honestly assess and share both their successes and failures. Just as importantly, each team member must be willing to offer constructive feedback to one another.

To facilitate a culture that allows for this level of honesty and transparency, there must be trust among the team. We also invoke the “cone of silence” during retrospectives, assuring each person that as we process through our thoughts, they can share freely and honestly without blame or consequence.

2. An opportunity for everyone to share their thoughts.

In a team full of introverts, it can take time for everyone to process these thoughts. However, it’s imperative that every team member has a chance to contribute. Providing notice of the retrospective ahead of time allows the team to prepare, especially for those that like time to gather thoughts. The moderator is also responsible for ensuring that everyone shares their thoughts, even if they’re reluctant to speak up.

3. A time for creating action items.

Without action items, a retrospective simply becomes another meeting that wastes everyone’s time. Celebrating the wins and talking through what happened throughout the project has value, of course. But the real value comes from those action items that are created at the end of the retrospective.

As with goal setting, the action items you set should be small, defined, and measurable; they should be able to be checked off when done. Examples of action items might include:

  • Meet every Monday for 15 minutes to review XYZ.
  • Create an accessibility checklist to follow.
  • Schedule meeting to review status of stories.

4. A template to follow to make sure the right questions are asked.

Following a template helps the moderator keep the retrospective focused and moving forward so you can get to the point of creating action items. We’ve been using the same template for five years now. That consistency means everyone knows what to expect during the retrospective, which removes any nervousness around the process itself and allows everyone to focus on contributing.

Taking the time to look back and identify things that have gone well as well as areas where we’ve struggled is an important part of growing as individuals and as a team. Project retrospectives provide the framework for us to do that in a safe, structured environment.

Looking for a template to use for your next project retrospective?

Download a copy of our template here.

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