Mar 242015

Retrospective Meetings What Goes Wrong2

Too many retrospective meetings receive cursory planning or inadequate facilitation and are thus unable to reap the potential benefits. Too many retrospective meetings are held to “check the box” on the process meetings template, rather than to focus on real improvements. Too many teams never implement or revisit the action plans coming out of retrospectives. Disguised as retrospective action planning, too many teams seek to shift blame and responsibility for action to others. In too many organizations, retrospective meetings don’t deliver the promised return on time invested (ROTI). It’s time for a change.

Jake (an inexperienced Agile coach) and his colleagues attended a ScrumMaster certification course. They learned about the power of retrospectives to foster continuous improvement (or kaizen), but they didn’t learn an effective way to tap into that power. The course taught them to lead the team in making lists — one list for what the team did well and another for what the team would like to do differently next time. Once they created the lists and read them out loud, the retrospective ended. This format rarely leads to lasting improvement actions.

In this style of retrospective, team members look at the lists and nod knowingly. “Yes,” they think, “that about captures our situation.” Team members feel satisfied that they have described their dilemmas or impediments to product quality or effective work. (As if making the lists alone will magically cause things to change!) However, if the meeting stops there, without a plan for addressing the issues, how will the team achieve any improvement goals?

What Works?

Fellow Cutter contributor Esther Derby and I have developed a more effective framework for planning and designing a retrospective meeting that more frequently leads to action (see Figure 1). Designing a meeting flow for Agile retrospectives includes five stages:

  1. Set the stage.
  2. Gather data.
  3. Generate insights.
  4. Decide what to do.
  5. Close the retrospective.

Figure 1 -- A flexible framework for leading Agile retrospectives: the work of the iteration or sprint flows into the opportunity to make improvements.
Figure 1 — A flexible framework for leading Agile retrospectives: the work of the iteration or sprint flows into the opportunity to make improvements.

When the meeting leader (i.e., coach, outside facilitator, or any team member) designs a series of group activities following the Agile retrospective framework, the team collectively learns about its current state, analyzes the implications for its effectiveness, decides on an improvement action (or develops an experiment), and begins implementing its plan. This flow of learning, thinking, and making decisions together supports this core of work by including group activities that fosters efficient meetings. In recent years, sources have multiplied for effective group process activities that fit into the five stages of the Agile retrospective flexible framework.

Why Do Leaders Support Retrospectives?

Leaders ask why they should encourage coaches and teams to hold retrospectives. Don’t they just take away from time spent on the development effort? In an informal survey of a dozen or more organizations that encouraged holding regular retrospectives as a routine part of project expectations, managers reported gaining several benefits. Anecdotally, they found improvement in the following areas:

  • Team productivity
  • Increased team capacity
  • Team member capability
  • Product quality
  • Team morale and collaboration skills

These impressive outcomes follow from managers’ and leaders’ investments in creating an environment for team learning and success. Continuous team improvement implies change, and change requires organizational backing in the form of support, relevant information, and helpful structures. Leadership behaviors provide support, information, and structure, such as investing in time, space, and supplies for meetings; setting optimal conditions for team learning; modeling continuous learning and improvement in management; identifying structured roles and tasks for team improvement; recognizing improvement outcomes; and, in general, staying open to new ideas for beneficial changes in their organizations.


Diana Larsen

Diana Larsen is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium’s Agile Product & Project Management practice. Deeply in tune with how work teams adapt, develop, and perform, she works with organizations worldwide to design high-performance work systems, improve project team effectiveness, and support leaders and enterprises in their transitions to Agile methods.


 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>