What's a retrospective?#
A retrospective is a structured meeting that typically runs for 60 to 120 minutes on a biweekly cadence or after completing a large-scale project. It allows teams the opportunity to examine themselves and create a plan to improve how they work together moving forward.
A retrospective is meant to create a safe space for team members to share their honest feedback about what’s going well for the team and what could be improved. Retrospectives generate discussions around how to improve team collaboration, with actionable items that are documented and can be followed up on in the future (e.g., in the next retrospective).
Why have retrospectives?#
Retrospectives help a team establish a practice of continuous improvement of their interactions and processes. This is achieved through reflecting on “how” a team delivers versus “what” the team delivers.
Retrospectives create transparency and trust. They compel a team to discuss both problems and success stories. Being honest and transparent about the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between builds trust among team members.
Retrospectives enable the team to discover risks early. They allow the team to uncover blockers as early as possible. If team members feel comfortable, they will raise concerns sooner rather than later, giving the team more time to react.
Retrospectives empower team members. Team members define and own their actionable items and changes. Since team members are empowered to act on collective decisions, there will be little resistance to follow through on these changes. Thus, this gives power back to the team.
Role of the facilitator#
The facilitator’s role in the retrospective is different from the other participants. You may be used to a certain level of participation in meetings, but that will change if you take on the role of facilitator.
The facilitator does not voice their own ideas in the meeting. They encourage the group to speak up and keep the discussion on track. This requires enough cognitive load to make it difficult to perform this role well and attempt to contribute personal thoughts to the discussion. For a successful retrospective, it is helpful to have a designated facilitator that is not also trying to participate in the discussion.
The role of the facilitator is to:
- Serve the team objectively.
- Encourage people to speak up and ensure everyone is heard.
- Clarify insights and challenge the team with thought-provoking questions.
- Help the team see different perspectives and different options.
- Keep everyone on time and on track. Cut off tangents and stop people from dominating the entire meeting.
- Be the champion for continuous improvement.
- Try to speak as little as possible. You should be a shadow that guides discussions, not a presenter who takes over the meeting. If the facilitator dominates the retrospective, this runs the risk of the team not paying attention and falling silent.
The facilitator does NOT:
- Make decisions.
- Take sides. If the facilitator takes sides, team members might feel attacked and might stop contributing to the meeting. Do not comment on what people say, even if you are trying to give positive feedback. It may make the speaker feel validated, but it might also make others feel worse about what they have to say or discourage them from contributing something that counters what you said. For example, if someone says they think team collaboration went very well throughout the project and you make a comment like, "Love the positivity," it might make other participants feel as if they can't say something negative.
You can find additional facilitation tips in our Postmortems Guide.
Role of the Participants#
The role of participants is to:
- Speak up and voice their ideas. They should be involved in the discussion.
- Come up with action items.
- Be receptive to ideas different than their own.
- Work with the facilitator to generate insights about the team, come up with alternative options, and challenge their own or their team’s underlying assumptions.
Participants do NOT: - Dominate the meeting. - Convince their colleagues to change their perspectives.
The Differences Between Retrospectives and Postmortems#
You may have already read PagerDuty’s Postmortems Guide, which left you wondering “How is a retrospective different than a postmortem?”
Postmortems are also structured meetings that provide teams with an opportunity to reflect, but they differ in several important ways. The biggest difference is meeting purpose: postmortems are for reflecting on the response to an incident, while retrospectives allow teams to reflect on their progress, pace, and delivery on a regular cadence. Key differences are summarized in the following table:
|Purpose||To conduct analysis on the incident, including: identifying superficial and contributing factors, considering technology and process, and obtaining buy-in for action items.||To facilitate and encourage continuous improvement at regular cadences. To review a team’s progress, pace, and delivery. To think of ways to improve team collaboration. To have a safe space where the team can discuss anything that affected their work over the last cadence. To get a “health check” or “temperature reading” of how the team felt over the last cadence.|
|When it occurs||After an incident||Typically at a regular cadence (e.g. every 2 weeks)|
|Style||Discussion between the teams directly involved with the incident. A sample incident postmortem agenda can be found here.||Typically, an informal discussion between team members. Can be facilitated through a wide variety of styles.|
|Discussion Topics||Review a summary of the postmortem report, which details incident contributing factors, timeline, resolution action taken, customer impact, etc.||Reflections on areas of strength and areas for improvement, the team’s sentiments over the last cadence, and surface areas of concern or questions.|
|Who participates||The Incident Commander, Incident Responders, Subject Matter Experts involved, Service Owners, Engineering Manager(s) of impacted systems, etc||The team. Any other necessary roles. Minimize the number of unnecessary attendees. Avoid having management present.|