Planning The Retrospective


Who’s the Retrospective Audience?#

Before having a retrospective, it’s important for you to identify who the retrospective is meant to be tailored to. This section provides guidelines around having a retrospective for a team after a major project is completed or after an event.

Team Retrospective#

Team retrospectives occur at a regular cadence (e.g., biweekly). While working on a project, regularly cadenced retrospectives give the team an opportunity to inspect what went well and what didn’t go so well. From there, teammates work together to create and execute on an improvement plan.

Project, Project Milestone, or Event Retrospective#

The team(s) involved in completing a project, project milestone, or running an event (e.g., company conference) may want to have a retrospective to reflect on what went well and what didn’t go so well throughout their progress on the project. This retrospective is more holistic in nature and enables the involved team(s) to consider the good, the bad, and everything in between, from a macroscopic view. Thus, it’s recommended for the involved team(s) to have regularly cadenced retrospectives and one final retrospective to reflect on the entire deliverable from beginning to end.

Other factors to consider#

Audience Size#

Sometimes, the facilitator may have to run a retrospective involving larger teams. An example of this is an entire project team consisting of multiple delivery teams. In this scenario, the facilitator may also focus on a longer timeframe than the usual project delivery timelines.

One of the biggest challenges in effectively running a retrospective for a large team is ensuring all voices are heard. Consider breaking the large group into smaller groups to run mini-retrospectives. Later in the retrospective, the facilitator can combine the data and distribute the findings to everyone.

Before the retrospective, the facilitator should consider letting the team document topics of discussion they would like to explore during the retrospective. This gives the team additional reflection time and may make time for more discussion during the retrospective.

Below is a sample template for the Lean Coffee style of retrospective. The topmost card in each column provides clear instructions to team members, especially if the facilitator decides to send the retrospective board to the team beforehand.

Retro Board

During the retrospective, keep in mind that the larger the group, the more topics there are to discuss. Organize discussion topics by removing duplicates and combining those that are thematically similar.

Choosing a retrospective style#

Some retrospective styles are more appropriate for certain situations than others. The following are some ideas of retrospective styles and general best practices on when they are the most appropriate:

Retrospective Style Name When Should I Use This Style? Description
Lean Coffee Retrospective Anytime! This simple style is useful when the facilitator wants the team to have an open-ended conversation that is entirely owned and directed by the team.
Sailboat Retrospective For conducting project retrospectives when the team has more than just 2 weeks’ worth of data. This style helps the team to define a vision of where they want to go, identify risks along the path, and identify what inhibits and aids them to achieve their objectives.
Speed Car Abyss Retrospective For reflecting on the past and looking forward. It’s especially useful when used a few weeks before a team’s milestone or release. This style is a mix of a retrospective and futurespective to uncover risks.

Links to more retro styles and instructions for the facilitator can be found here.

Facilitating Retrospectives Based on Team Member Locations#

Since there are slight nuances between facilitation of a co-located and a distributed team, here are some tips and tricks to help you get through your retrospective as smoothly as possible, no matter where team members are located.

Co-located Teams#

While facilitating a retrospective for a co-located team:

  • Be mindful of your position in the room. Your physical presence can help drive the discussion one way or another. For example, if you want to get the team’s attention, you can stand up. If you don’t want to be involved in a discussion topic, you can pull yourself away from the rest of the team to take an observational stance.
  • Find a suitable space—location, location, location!
  • Make sure everyone can fit in the room comfortably.
  • Pick a room that isn’t too hot or cold.
  • Consider changing the space periodically to ensure team members don’t start attaching their emotions to a room or priming themselves.

Distributed Teams#

While facilitating a retrospective for a distributed team:

  • Ensure any tools for gathering retrospective insights (e.g., Trello board) are visible to the whole team.
  • Ensure the team is aware of screen sharing, camera, and microphone etiquette.
  • Facilitators should share their screen with the team.
  • Facilitators should share their camera so participants can see them
  • Participants don't always have to be on camera, but when they're speaking they should try to be.
  • Participants should mute unless they're about to speak.

Any Teams#

While facilitating a retrospective for any team:

  • Use a timer to timebox. This makes everyone aware of the time limit. Consequently, you won’t have to interrupt or cut anyone off.
  • For a co-located team, you may consider using a physical timer that is visible to all team members in the room.
  • For a distributed team, you may consider using a browser extension that is visible to the full team ( via screen-sharing).
  • Begin the retrospective by going through an icebreaker activity. This reduces team tension and gets people in a more talkative mood. Examples of icebreaker activities: Two truths and a lie, first job, fun fact, a country you’d like to visit, etc.
  • Set ground rules at the beginning of the retrospective, such as:
  • Don’t interrupt people
  • Decide on and say a “safe word” when the discussion gets off-topic
  • Everyone should speak up but no one should dominate the discussion.1

Setting the Retrospective Agenda#

The goal of establishing an agenda for the retrospective is to ensure the entire team is aligned on what they want to get out of the retrospective and what activities they will do to meet the intended outcome.

Each activity is assigned a timebox. A timebox is a fixed, maximum unit of time for an activity. The goal of timeboxing is to define and limit the amount of time dedicated to an activity.

The benefits of timeboxing include:

  • Forcing prioritization
  • Avoiding unnecessary perfectionism
  • Motivating closure on discussion topics

Retrospective Agenda: Best Practices#

For a small-to-average sized team (between 5-9 people), the retrospective has a total timebox of 60 minutes.

For a larger team, the retrospective has a total timebox of 90 minutes.

In any case, if the team has more topics to discuss, the retrospective can be extended.

These are suggested timeboxes for activities within a 60-minute retrospective:

  • [10 minutes] Reviewing the team’s metrics
  • [5-10 minutes] Idea generation for discussion topics
  • [2 minutes] Team votes on which topics to discuss
  • 5 minutes per discussion topic, with an additional 3 minutes per topic at the team’s discretion
  • [5 minutes] Teammates give each other appreciations2 for a job well done

If at any point, the team completes an activity before the end of its allotted timebox, the facilitator can step in and propel the team onto the next activity or discussion topic.

  1. Some teams have found success with having the role of “accountabilibuddy” on the team, whose job is to remind the team of a team agreement, especially when the team is at risk of breaking it.

  2. Appreciations are thank-you messages teammates write to each other to acknowledge the team member(s) who helped their colleagues get things done or to recognize team members who went above and beyond in their work. For example, appreciations can be read aloud by their writers before the facilitator concludes the retrospective. This boosts team morale, especially after an emotionally charged retrospective discussion, and reminds the team of all the good they’ve accomplished.