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How to hold better IT retrospectives

Retrospectives are an important way to evaluate and improve your team's productivity and effectiveness. Try these best practices in your next retrospective.

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A retrospective is a meeting held by an IT team to review the past sprint or project and identify areas for improvement. The goal is to evaluate the team's process, communication, and productivity and make changes to increase efficiency and effectiveness in future work.

Why should you do retrospectives?

A positive retrospective allows a team to evaluate its processes and identify ways to improve, enhance successes, and maintain high performance. This can help keep the team motivated, engaged, and focused on continuous improvement.

Retrospectives are important because they:

  • Foster continuous improvement by identifying and addressing pain points and areas for improvement
  • Encourage open and honest communication among team members
  • Provide an opportunity for team members to voice their opinions and perspectives
  • Increase team collaboration and cohesion
  • Promote learning and knowledge sharing
  • Foster a culture of transparency and accountability
  • Help the team reflect on past successes and failures and make data-driven decisions for future work

[ Learn how to explain modern software development in plain English. ]

How often should you have retrospectives?

The frequency of retrospectives can vary depending on the team, project, and organization. Typical frequencies include:

  • After every sprint in agile software development
  • At the end of each project or major deliverable
  • ASAP—especially for long-term projects

Ultimately, they should be frequent enough to allow continuous improvement but not so frequent that they become a burden on the team's time and resources. The team should regularly evaluate the frequency of retrospectives to ensure they provide value and adjust the schedule as needed.

[ Read Better outage retrospectives for more insight about assessing what went wrong. ] 

Do you need a retrospective if everything went well?

It's still valuable to have a retrospective even if everything went well. Positive things keep the team motivated, confirm the team's worth, and sustain continued effort. This also provides an opportunity to reflect on the team's successes and identify areas for improvement, no matter how small. Additionally, retrospectives can foster open communication and help build team cohesion, even if there are no major issues to address.

This also gives you the opportunity to review action items from previous retrospectives, collect data and items relevant to the current retrospective, and check decisions made in past retrospectives, as they will help provide a comprehensive picture of the team's progress and inform future decision making. This helps ensure accountability, continuous improvement, and effective use of retrospective meetings.

Who can lead a retrospective?

Any team member or stakeholder can lead a retrospective. Choose a leader who can facilitate a productive and positive discussion, encourage open and honest communication, and drive actionable outcomes. The leader should be neutral and unbiased and not have a personal stake in the outcome of the retrospective. A third-party facilitator, such as a scrum master, is ideal to lead a retrospective, as this allows effective discussions between the leader and team members.

The team manager should not be present during the retrospective to ensure that the rest of the team feels secure to share honestly. If the team lacks someone to run the retro, any member of the team can be valuable.

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To involve people in a retrospective effectively:

  • Encourage active participation: Ask for input from all team members and create a safe and inclusive environment for discussion.
  • Ensure anonymity: To encourage open and honest communication, provide a method for team members to provide anonymous feedback.
  • Solicit input in advance: Send out a pre-meeting survey or ask for specific feedback ahead of time to ensure all voices are heard.
  • Provide a clear agenda: Clearly communicate the purpose and goals of the retrospective to ensure everyone is on the same page.
  • Use visual aids: Use sticky notes, whiteboards, or mind maps to help organize and categorize discussion points.
  • Make it interactive: Use games, activities, or other interactive methods to keep the retrospective engaging and avoid monotony.
  • Follow up: Check up on any action items or decisions made during the retrospective to keep everyone involved and accountable.

By involving all team members and creating a positive and productive atmosphere, retrospectives can be a valuable tool for continuous improvement.

What should you do after a retrospective?

A retrospective typically creates multiple action items and lessons learned. After each retrospective:

  • Prioritize and assign tasks based on the outcome of the retrospective.
  • Set clear goals and deadlines for each action item.
  • Ensure that everyone involved in the retrospective is aware of the action items and understands their role in executing them.
  • Document the outcomes of the retrospective, including the action items and any decisions made.
  • Regularly follow up on the progress of the action items to ensure they are being completed as planned.
  • Incorporate any lessons learned into future retrospectives and continuous improvement processes.

It is important to complete action items in a timely manner to show that the retrospective was a valuable exercise and to continuously improve the team's processes, communication, and overall effectiveness.

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Are there disadvantages to retrospectives?

There are some potential disadvantages of having retrospectives, including:

  • Time consumed: Retrospectives can take up a significant amount of time, especially if they are frequent or involve a large team.
  • Resistance to change: Some team members may resist new ideas or making changes that are brought up in a retrospective.
  • Emotional responses: Retrospectives can sometimes lead to negative emotions or conflicts if team members feel criticized or that their opinions are not heard.
  • Lack of objectivity: If the leader of the retrospective has a personal stake in the outcome, the discussion may not be neutral or objective.

To minimize these disadvantages, it's important to have well-facilitated and productive retrospectives, prioritize action items effectively, and regularly follow up on progress.

Wrapping up

A retrospective is a meeting held by a team to review past work and identify areas for improvement in process, communication, and productivity. The frequency of retrospectives can vary but they are typically held at the end of a sprint or project. The meeting can be led by a team member or facilitator. After the retrospective, action items should be identified and steps taken to improve efficiency and effectiveness. While retrospectives can bring many benefits, they can also have some disadvantages such as resistance to change or lack of follow-through on action items.

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Serhii Turivnyi

I joined RedHat more than three years ago as an engineer, where I worked with the OSCI team and led the gating guild. Then I was promoted to associate manager and began working for the CKI team. More about me

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