Running a Great Retrospective

All too often in life, one simple mistake can lead to a stream of errors that if not stifled early enough, is bound to result in a flood of frustration.

Unfortunately, the same is true in software development. This is why few things are more critical to programmers than ensuring projects are kept on track, come rain or come shine.

Scrum to the Rescue

For Agile companies, the Scrum methodology proves especially helpful in this regard, as it addresses the issue head-on via the sprint retrospective. Essentially, the retrospective functions as a team evaluation meeting focused primarily on what worked, what went wrong and what needs improving in the project at hand.

Of course, team members are free to look back on themselves at any point in time, but the retrospective poses a special opportunity to inspect and adapt, bringing everyone together to determine how to be more efficient in future sprints.

While many formats exist to enhance these meetings, a truly successful retrospective will generally hinge on some basic preconditions:

Create a Safe Environment

First, it is vital to create an environment in which developers feel free to express themselves without fear of rebuke or retribution.

While mistakes do and often will happen, these also represent invaluable opportunities for learning and personal growth. For this reason, no blame should ever be placed on a specific individual.

Instead, it is better to address problems both constructively and collectively.

Remember: a genuine smile goes a long way :).

Don’t Wing It

Logical as this may seem, converting a would-be tedious meeting into a triumph of synergy simply cannot be done without adequate preparation.

Thankfully, however, planning a retrospective is not difficult at all. All it takes is an accurate understanding of that which you hope to achieve. Put simply: your team should reflect on their experience, learn from their wins and errors and find new ways to put what they have learned into practice.

Often, it is also advisable that the team itself should come prepared, making it best to announce these meetings well in advance, so everyone is given the time they require to gather their thoughts and ideas.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Although it may be tempting to rely on questions such as “Did you have any problems?,” the far more open-ended “If you could change one thing, what would it be?” is sure to deliver better results.

These sorts of interrogatives contribute towards a much more thorough discussion that can help shed light onto the true state of the project.

And speaking of which…

Review All Aspects of the Project

Instead of glancing over the project as a whole, try diving into the various facets of the developing solution.

For example, while team members may conclude where their problems lie for themselves, it would likely be a lot more beneficial to plan separate mini-discussions on the project’s budget, timeline and goals.

On that note, it is worth remembering that everything should be analysed in light of what worked well and what clearly did not, as this is at the heart of the meeting.

Motivate and Celebrate

Because retrospectives work best when they are both constructive and motivational, project managers should always make time to highlight and praise their teams’ victories and achievements.

By focusing on the positive side of things, we give everyone the morale boost they need to resume their work with a new and refreshed outlook.

In order to achieve this high-spirited format, it also helps to make good use of goal-oriented ice breakers. In addition to bringing even the shiest of team members out of their shells, these also serve to keep monotony at bay.

Listen to Your Team

In the end, whichever shape your retrospective takes, it will serve no purpose at all if project managers are unwilling to listen.

While there may be some cases in which serious concessions cannot be granted, even in these rare occurrences, team members should still be given the support they need to move beyond their current stumbling blocks.

Once all these factors have been observed, the retrospective quickly becomes indispensable, as companies are met with an undeniably powerful deluge of increased cooperation, productivity and contentment.

David Blackwood

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