Effective Team Retrospectives

posted by Matías E. Fernández

In my experience team retrospectives are the single most powerful practice to enable Kaizen, i.e. continual improvement process. I structure team retrospectives in four phases:

  1. What is going well
  2. What should be improved
  3. Clustering the findings and discussing them
  4. Define tasks, responsibilities and deadlines

A team retrospective is a workshop that should be done on a regular basis. It requires a facilitator, pens as well as green and red sticky notes. I recommend timeboxing the workshop.

What is Going Well

As the facilitator in the first part of the workshop I give each participant 2, max. 3, green sticky notes. I then ask the participants to write down things that went well since the last workshop, 1 thing per sticky note. I usually give the participants 5 minutes time to write the keywords on the green sticky notes. Then every participants presents his sticky notes by pasting them on a whiteboard and giving a short explanation.

The goal of this first exercise is to put your mind in a positive mood and start appreciating things that are working out well. Discussions are not allowed during this phase of the workshop.

People new to team retrospectives tend to find this exercise difficult.

What Should be Improved

In the second part of the workshop I give each participant 2, max. 5, red sticky notes. I then ask the participants to write down things that should be improved in the following weeks, 1 thing per sticky note.

There are three important aspects that need to be pointed out here:

  1. Participants should write down things that should be improved. This is not to be confused with things that went badly. In this workshop you want to focus on improvement, on actionable things, no complaining or even blaming.
  2. Improvements should be feasible with the time and means available to the team. You don’t want to talk about big changes that require you to ask management for funds. We focus on Kaizen, continual improvement, as opposed to Kaikaku, radical change.
  3. Improvements should be feasible by the team itself. This exercise is not about asking others to change things.

Here again I usually give the participants 5 minutes time to write the keywords on the red sticky notes. Then every participants presents his sticky notes by pasting them on a whiteboard and giving a short explanation.

Limiting the number sticky notes per person is important so that you can finish the workshop within a reasonable time and because you want to force the participants to choose the topics that really matter. Again, discussions are not allowed during this phase of the workshop. People usually find this part of the workshop much easier than the first part.

Clustering the Findings and Discussing Them

After all the green and red sticky notes have been posted to the whiteboard. I start clustering them in topics, i.e. grouping them together. This is an interactive process with the group. The clusters may consist of red and green sticky notes. The clusters will give you a visual clue of what topics are most relevant.

Clustered sticky notes after a team retrospective
Clustered sticky notes after a team retrospective

Now the team needs to discuss which of the topics should be taken care of in the next couple of weeks until the next team retrospective. Always focus on things that a feasible within the available time and ressources. It will be the teams responsibility, and the team’s responsibility only, to implement those improvements.

Define Tasks, Responsibilities and Deadlines

In the last part of the workshop it is important to agree on concrete tasks, responsibilities and deadlines. Focus on the most important tasks, less is more. It has to be clear to everyone, that implementing the agreed improvements is at least equally important to daily work. Following through on these tasks is absolutely crucial.

I recommend documenting the output of the workshop in team Wiki and creating respective tickets in your Kanban board or in your task tracking tool.

I recommend reserving 10% to 20% of the team’s working capacity for improvement tasks, on average.

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