It happens to high- and low-performing teams alike: The ties that bind everyone together just aren’t as strong as they could be. Maybe you’ve inherited a team that’s always been sluggish and uninspired, or one that’s usually steady, but the trust is eroding under pressure. Or perhaps you’re just trying to take your team to the next level. Whatever the case, every team needs to reflect once in a while on what could be improved. It’s human nature to be conflict-averse, but it’s every manager’s job to bring points of conflict out into the open and move forward together.
Unfortunately, most meetings aren’t the best venues for doing that. Typical team meetings focus on planning what’s ahead–an upcoming project, the next quarter’s top goals and metrics, expectations moving forward. But there’s a simple alternative, focused on reviewing the immediate past, that can change how your team works for the better.
What A “Retrospective” Is
Popular among agile software engineering teams, a “retrospective” is a meeting with an incredibly simple goal: To reflect as a team on progress made or missed. It’s a structured conversation for identifying recent roadblocks and removing similar ones from the path ahead. It can help improve team processes and the work culture itself. Unlike your average weekly update, whose focus tends to be present or forward looking, retrospectives are all about taking the time to glance backward before plowing ahead.
Regular retrospectives help create an ongoing dialogue about what’s working well and what could be better. Ideally, they empower everyone on the team to improve their working relationships, and create a forum to discuss progress and process on a regular basis. This helps teams move quickly, iterate as necessary, and work under more ideal circumstances as they uncover challenges that might not otherwise get surfaced to the whole group. It also instills a growth mind-set in the team, where everyone is open to feedback for the collective good.
How It Works
A retrospective can take many forms, depending on how often you want to run them and what your goal is. The simplest (and my favorite) is to simply pose three questions to the group once a week:
- What went well this week?
- What could have been better?
- What should we double down on or try out next week to improve our work?
Suppose a team project has gotten derailed–a team leader has bungled the priorities, pivoting midway through and jettisoning the team’s work in order to start over. Unsurprisingly, the team is upset–all that hard work for nothing! The team could let their resentment brew, gossiping about their annoying leader among themselves, or they could run a retrospective.
For a particularly tense topic like this one, you may want to consider having a neutral party from a different team facilitate the conversation, or if you oversee the team as well as its leader, you may want to run it yourself. Here’s how.
1. Start the conversation by explaining why everyone is here. Encourage the team to think of this as a learning opportunity to help everyone work better together. Encourage objective thinking, respectful conversation, and a starting assumption that all feedback is worthy feedback, and all ideas are good ideas. The point is not to have a he said/she said conversation, but to be open-minded to others’ perspectives.
2. Give every teammate time to think through each of the three questions. What went well, what didn’t go well, and what could be better. You can share these in advance and encourage the team to mull them over ahead of time and arrive prepared. If you have quieter folks on your team, you may even consider reserving a period of silent brainstorming for each question before opening up a conversation to share feedback. This ensures that everyone contributes ideas, not just those with the loudest voices in the room.
Whether it’s you or someone else, you’ll also want to make sure your facilitator plays an active role in encouraging conversation, documenting all ideas and feedback, and keeping things moving.
3. Clear an hour. It’s true that hourlong meetings aren’t exactly popular, but that’s often because many of them are run poorly or go off-track. If you master the art of the retrospective, you may be able to cut other weekly meetings out of your schedule altogether and get back lost time.
Dedicating a solid 60 minutes gives you ample time to really dig into everyone’s feedback. This is important because many of us instinctively gloss over problems and bury how we really feel, surfacing instead “decoy” problems–the smaller issues that feel more socially acceptable and are easier to talk about. Try to break down your hour like this:
- 15 minutes to discuss what went well
- 15 minutes to dig into what could be better
- 15 minutes to brainstorm and share ideas to try out
- 15 minutes to decide as a team on a few actionable ideas to prototype heading into the next week
4. Make sure everyone leaves with a job to do. The best retrospectives are actionable, so make sure you leave with a few concrete things to commit to (but no more than three!) with clear owners assigned to following through on each one. Establish as a group how you’ll track progress on these commitments and when you’ll check in on them next. Then have the facilitator send out notes afterward to keep everyone accountable for what was discussed and who’ll take which steps next.
Indeed, this is a great time to empower team members to drive the outcome. As a leader, your role is to support your team in testing new ways of working together and making sure everyone’s taking the action they’ve committed to. But it’s important to let your team members drive the changes themselves; after all, they’re the ones who should be invested in improving their working relationships.
Retrospectives can be useful when you’re dealing with contentious issues or when your team is already strong and pulling together. When things are going great, that weekly discussion is a great time to celebrate what’s working, recognize good work and each other’s contributions, and explore how to level up even further.
Building the muscle for sharing feedback as a team takes time, but with practice, it becomes a matter of habit; teams instinctively know how to discuss what isn’t working and build the trust it takes to communicate about those issues rather than letting them fester. Most meetings don’t give everyone on the team a chance to brainstorm solutions to problems that affect them all, let alone play a direct role in solving them–but a retrospective can do just that.