Guest Post by Christopher Avery: The Benefits of Retrospective Meetings at the End of Every Project Iteration

Christopher Avery teaching The Leadership GiftChristoper Avery, a leading authority on applying personal and shared responsibility for agility and performance, returns to Crisp in Stockholm April 29-30, 2013 to teach his public workshop Creating Results-Based Teams. Space is limited. Register now.

This classic blog post was originally posted on Christopher Avery’s popular Leadership Gift blog on November 1, 2010 — you can find it here.

The retrospective is a meeting in agile approaches that occurs at the end of an iteration in which the team reserves time and attention to discuss what worked well and what team members wish to improve.

Group of business colleagues during a meeting

The basic process for an iteration retrospective is to gather the team for an hour (more or less as required by the length of the iteration), ask the team to generate two lists (what worked well and what the team would like to improve), and then prioritize items on the list.

Then the team commits to one or two small changes during the next iteration that, in the estimation of the team, will generate a large difference in product or process.

This process is simple and powerful. It follows an old, continuous improvement process for meetings called “plus/delta.”

In the plus/delta process, the group will reserve the last five minutes of any meeting to list pluses — or things that worked well — for that meeting (e.g. facilitation, staying focused) and deltas, or things the group would change to improve (e.g., too noisy, missing key people).

There are a number of obvious benefits to the retrospective (and the plus/delta), as well as some more subtle benefits that are powerful.

The subtle benefits provide the real leverage

An obvious benefit to the retrospective is that it provides the team with a scheduled opportunity to reflect on the recent past and illuminate events, choices, procedures, and behaviors so each can be sustained or changed as the team desires.

Successes and positives can be pointed out, checked for relevance, celebrated, or reinforced. Mistakes and disappointments can also be called out and assessed. Team members can agree to course corrections while individuals who may have committed a faux pas can be granted a second chance.

In this way, the team and its members can claim ownership of how it executes its work, and it can exercise and reclaim that ownership during every iteration.

There is one situation that rises above all others in giving any team an opportunity to demonstrate team spirit — that place is team meetings.

Three related developmental benefits to the retrospective that are not so obvious:

1. Enactment: we create our reality by “acting as if.”

The retrospective is designed for members to demonstrate that they are a team. The iteration retrospective is designed for

  • high participation
  • every voice to count
  • individuals to combine and integrate their perspectives and interests and
  • to reach a workable consensus about how to go forward together into the next iteration — to commit individually and as a group.

The key is participation. If a group doesn’t act like a team in team meetings — because of controlling leadership, disengaged members, horrendous meeting etiquette, or lack of opportunity to be heard — then it’s not likely to act like a team elsewhere.

Encourage and make time for retrospectives and your team will be more likely to work well together. People who feel like their voice is being heard and that it matters are usually eager to do a great job and to support their team members to excel.

2. Reflexivity: the act of reflecting together for the sake of learning, correcting, and improving.

Individuals who create time, space, and permission to reflect are able to grow and develop faster than individuals who don’t.

The same is true with teams — in fact, some team experts consider reflexivity as one of the greatest predictors of team effectiveness. Any team that devotes face time to talking about how it is working together as a team is practicing reflexivity and will give itself a better chance to reach sustained high performance. Keep doing retrospectives well, and your team will be more likely to develop, grow, and be a learning team.

3. Closure: it’s difficult to start something new when something else remains mentally or emotionally unclosed.

Win or lose, all teams (and all people) need closure. If a project or initiative abruptly ended without warning and you were expected to report to work the next day and “continue” with your work as usual, it probably felt awkward. That’s because you felt incomplete.

So while an iteration may be a short period of time, it’s still a whole cycle of intention and deserves to be completed. The retrospective is an excellent place for people to say what needs to be said — win, lose, or draw — so they can let it go and move on to the next iteration.

Claim All The Value Retrospectives Offer

Retrospective meetings are extremely valuable, not just for the obvious reasons of looking back with an eye for improving operations in the future but also for the contribution they make in developing the cherished qualities of team spirit. You won’t be sorry to invest time in retrospective meetings — they create trust, goodwill and cooperation, and respect for individuals — three key predictors of high performance.

I recommend Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larson to my clients for a useful and practical book of tools for keeping retrospectives fresh and engaging.

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