Tips for running effective retrospective sessions
What are retrospectives?
Retrospective session, retro, is a meeting with a specific structure that allows teams to spend time reflecting on a period of time or a completed project. It invites everyone to analyse what worked and what didn't, to identify improvement areas and successes. Retrospectives are key for establishing a culture of continuous improvement and learning.
How to make retrospectives effective?
The specific structure of a retrospective is equally important as having the session in the first place. With a predefined framework guiding the discussion you can ensure everyone gets heard, all perspectives are covered and documented and that the learnings are taken forward to future work.
The world is full of different approaches, templates and ways of running retros. To help you find the best one for your situation, we decided to share our favourite frameworks here.
🪁 Fly High – excellent for identifying obstacles and challenges and whether help outside the core team is needed to solve them.
In a nutshell: This framework borrows its metaphor from kite-flying experience. In it the good work that has been done is seen as the kite. Firstly, everyone documents in sticky notes what the good work has been and what is wished to be continued. Secondly, the team identifies challenges in the project and marks these as knots and tangles. The closer these are to the kite-flyer (project team or yourself) the easier it is to resolve them within the team, whereas challenges (knots and tangles) higher up or if the kite is stuck in a figurative tree, the more external help or escalation is needed.
🇱🇱🇱🇱 The 4Ls – The 4 Ls is a straightforward retrospective technique where team members identify what they Loved, Loathed, Learned, and Longed For in a project or sprint of work.
In a nutshell: This framework divides the reflection into four different parts, as is clear from the name 😄 The idea is to document lists for each category. In the LOVED list you collects things you loved about your work and what you would love to keep doing, or do more of, in the next project or time period. The list of LONGED FOR elements describes what each person wished they would have had. Be it more resources, time, breaks, fun or feedback – all points are welcome. When discussing the LOATHED part you focus on what made you feel bad during the time period. The things listed under this title are ones that you hope to never happen again. Lastly, under LEARNED the team lists together all the learnings from both successes and mistakes.
🧭 Ditch, Add, Keep and Improve – our version of the DAKI framework helps to identify what a team should change in their work and what each member puts more value on.
In a nutshell: This framework is similar to the aforementioned 4Ls but is even more direct with the action that follows. In our version we call the D letter Ditch instead of Drop as we feel the word 'ditch' communicates more strongly that something has to stop. By listing the DITCH items together you clarify what activities, behaviors or things decreased the project's value, by ditching them the value should increase. In the ADD list you focus on what you need instead of the ditched items or what you need more of in order succeed – this can also be related to the feelings of team work of individual motivation. The KEEP list is obviously filled with things that already work and you don't want to (accidentally) lose. Finally, the IMPROVE list focuses on what needs polishing or tweaking in order to work better.
🇴🇰🇷 retros – an integral part of the OKR framework and rhythm vital for learning, improvement and strategy execution efficiency.
To help you plan and run these, we are sharing the list of recommended retro questions from the authors of Implementing OKRs – The Practitioner’s Guide for Executives, Managers and Team Leaders book, Juuso Hämäläinen and Henri Sora.
From the book: "Retrospectives, or reflection meetings, are an essential part of the end of each implementation period - and a prerequisite for planning the next phase. A retrospective should address two separate issues. One is the objectives planned before the period and the results achieved during the period. The second is the systemic behaviour of the company and its operation around the OKR model."
To guide these sessions the authors recommend starting with a set of 6 questions focusing on the objectives planned before the period and the results achieved during the period. It is useful to consider the objectives and results from at least the following perspectives:
1. How well was each objective achieved? Why?
2. Why the difference?
3. Were the objectives too easy or too difficult?
4. What can be learned from the situation?
5. Who should I give feedback to?
6. Are the objectives still relevant for the future?
The second set of 6 questions looks at the systemic behaviour and operation of the organisation around the OKR model:
1. How often did teams update key results compared to the assumption?
2. Were people present at OKR events?
3. How successful was the alignment of objectives?
4. Was it necessary to change objectives or key results during the period?
5. Did the focus remain on the objectives, or did something 'more important' come from elsewhere?
6. How do we change our behaviour in the next period?
Checklist for your retrospective
No matter which framework you end up using, make sure to:
⌛ Reserve enough time for the session – it shouldn't feel rushed and everyone should have time to share their thoughts and ideas. We recommend a minimum of 60 min for small teams (max. 6 people) and 90 min for bigger teams (6+ people).
👂 Not interrupt anyone – listen to understand opinions and experiences.
📝 Document the process – you need to be able to go back to the findings.
🎬 Dedicate a facilitator for the session – this person ensures the structure is followed and that the focus stays in the challenges and problems over blaming anyone personally. This person also checks the time and is allowed to guide the conversation back to the point if it starts escaping the agenda.
🔬 Dig deep enough – to find the real reasons for successes and challenges. Asking the five why's is a good structure for this.
✅ Check the summary with all participants – make sure details didn't get twisted in the process.
🤝 Agree on how the learnings are taken into use – how can you together make sure that the same mistakes aren't repeated in the next project, and that what worked well is utilised in the future as well?
An extra tip is to always book the time for the retro at the beginning of each time period or project. This adds accountability of actually making it happen and manages the risk of forgetting about it or having a hard time finding a time that suits everyone in the team.