How to facilitate Team Retrospectives
You can do team retrospectives at the end of a sprint or heartbeat, at the end of a week, the end of a quarter, or for evaluating and improving just about anything! They typically take 45 minutes to an hour, but can be simplified for shorter time-spans. The basic dance steps are:
- Icebreaker. A quick (5 mins or less) way to hear every team member’s voice, and invite them into a more reflective and playful mindset.
- Ideation. Have the team each write individual post-it notes (one idea per note) for
- things that went well,
- things that could have gone better, and
- what they learned. “Aha moments” or key learnings.
- Reveal. Everyone reveals their individual post it notes and posts them on the wall or whiteboard under the three categories above.
- Grouping. Have the team read everyone’s notes. Group similar notes into shared clusters or topics on the wall.
- Prioritizing. Ask: “Which of these topics do you most want to discuss as a group?” Use dot voting (e.g., 5 votes per teammates) to surface the team’s most important topics.
- Discussing. Discuss each topic in order of importance, from most dots to least. Wherever appropriate, try to steer each topic towards concrete ideas for improvement.
- Act. Document proposed tasks or working agreements coming out of the discussion. A task is a “to do” (e.g., “send Bob flowers”). A working agreement is an ongoing agreement the team wants to make for improvement (e.g., “let’s not schedule meetings on Fridays.”)
- Review actions. End the retro by recapping the action items the group just committed to. If there are many, use dot voting to prioritize the ones the team feels are most important.
- Appreciate. End with “closing appreciations.” Have each team member appreciate someone for the help or work they did over the last sprint, heartbeat or project. (e.g., “I want to appreciate Sheila for all the help she gave me on proofreading my report.”)
Here’s a step-by-step how to
1. Start with an icebreaker. It can be as simple as: “What’s one word that comes to your mind to describe this past sprint?” Or: “if this past sprint were a movie (or food, or dance move, or Simpsons character, or type of weather) what movie would it be?”) Something creative that gets people laughing or loosening up a little, and prime their brains for creative reflection.
2. Ideate. Invite the team to write down some reflections, using the following four categories.
In the past heartbeat, what were some things you…
- Liked (what went well?)
- Lacked (what could have gone better?)
- Learned (what did you learn?)
(If you’re short on time or have a lot of team members, shorten to just “Liked” and “Lacked.”)
Make sure the group knows to include just one idea per post-it note, and that their notes will be shared with the rest of the team in the next phase. It’s important that everyone understand that the notes are not anonymous, so they shouldn’t write down anything they are not comfortable with sharing with the rest of team. Encourage people to come up with at least one note for all three categories. They can write as many notes as they want; there’s no limit.
For first-timers, stress that the process will be safe, respectful and fun, and that there is no ‘wrong’ way to do this!
3. Reveal. Have the team reveal their post-its to the team by putting them on the wall or whiteboard under the four categories you listed above.
4. Cluster. Look for patterns or shared topics / themes. As the facilitator, cluster related notes into shared topics. (e.g., if several people wrote something about “team dumplings” under the “Liked” category, group them together into a cluster.) Invite the team to help spot shared topics / related themes as well. Having the team look for patterns is a good way to have them read each others’ notes more carefully, see connections between their experiences, and start to synthesize what’s there. The point is to have people read deeply into each others’ comments, and feel a sense of shared threads emerging — before they start talking themselves.
5. Prioritize. Ask the team to prioritize the topics. Have the team put little dots next to the topics they most want to talk about in this meeting. You can give everyone a limit of 3 – 5 dots. This helps prioritize what people most want to talk about together. (Note: depending on the size of your group, you can choose to skip this step.)
6. Discuss. Guide the discussion. Start with the most-voted topic. Invite people to discuss each topic. As a facilitator, you might want to start by having freely share and explore each topic — and then gradually invite the group to come up with concrete action items in terms of ways they can address challenges or build off success in the next sprint. You’re looking for small, incremental improvements to make next time around.
7. Document action items coming out of the discussion. Have an “Action Items” column where you document To Do’s or Working Agreements the team comes up with. You can document them on post-it notes and add them as you go. To Do’s are tasks the team agrees to take on in the next heartbeat (e.g., in this sprint we learned that we really need to fix that bug. So in the next heartbeat we’ll commit to fixing it.”)
Working agreements are different — they’re team norms or guidelines the team adopts for how they want to work together going forward. (e.g., “Let’s agree to not have meetings before 10am.” Or: “let’s agree to use Slack for team communication”. Or: “let’s do retrospectives on Thursdays instead of Fridays.”) Unlike tasks, they’re ongoing and not simply “done.”
To help your team get to tasks and working agreements, you can ask questions like:
- “So what are some ways we could improve on together next time around?”
- “What’s one thing we could try next time to make that better?”
- “Is there something the rest of the team can do next time to help support you?”
- “Anything we need to do to follow up there?”
Your goal as facilitator is to help the group generate concrete ideas for improvement. You don’t need to solve problems. The group is in charge — you’re just helping to guide them.
8. Review the action items. End the retro by reviewing the tasks or working agreements the team has committed to. If there are a lot of them, use dot voting to surface the most important ones. Be clear about next steps, and how follow-through will work.
9. Appreciations. Close things out by doing a closing round of appreciations. Invite each team member to name someone they appreciate from the past heartbeat. It could be a team-mate, or it could be a partner, or a family member — anyone. e.g.,
- “I want to appreciate Lois, because she really helped me with testing and bug-fixing this past heartbeat.”
- “I want to appreciate Steve Smith, because he’s been a great ally in advocating for our work in other departments.”
- “I want to appreciate my mum, because she made me soup when I was sick last week.”
Ending with appreciations brings the team closer together, and ensures things ends on a positive note.
10. Done! High fives all around. 🙂