Are your team so busy getting work out the door that the very idea of finding time to stop and look back seems crazy? It’s more important that you press on and get the work done – right? Not so fast… 

If you want to improve the way your team works together, you should start with improving your retrospectives.

Retrospectives – team conversations deliberately designed to encourage reflection – are often one of the first things to be dropped when a team gets busy. But this is exactly the conversation the team needs to be having regularly to find ways to work together more effectively. And when a team is busy, finding ways to be more effective is more important than ever. 

So if you’re serious about improving the way your team works together, my advice is to start by introducing (or improving) team retrospectives. 

What is a retrospective?

A retrospective is a team discussion to reflect on how things have been going and to identify adjustments they could make to improve how they work together going forward. Retrospectives usually take place at the end of a fixed period of time during which the team have worked together to deliver an output.  

At its simplest a retrospective asks: 

  • What went well? 
  • Even better if? 
  • What do we want to do differently going forward? 

Why retrospectives matter in the context of company culture

Company culture is what people need to perceive, think, feel and do to fit in. Your culture is created as your company learns how to engage successfully with customers, users and investors and how to work together successfully as a team. 

Retrospectives are key to creating the culture you want. They give you an opportunity to identify your pioneering behaviours – the things you’re already doing differently that are getting you a better result – and to make it more likely that people will copy these pioneering behaviours, rather than stick with things that aren’t working just because they’re ‘the way we do things around here’. 

Companies often invest a lot of time and effort speculating about the behaviours and values they should adopt to create the kind of culture they want going forward. The trouble with this approach is evident in the description – it’s speculation. We can’t know in advance how introducing new interventions or encouraging certain behaviours will play out. 

The advantage with retrospectives is they’re about looking backwards at stuff that’s already happened. They’re grounded in the reality of the ways of working and behaviours in your business today. They help you identify the stuff that’s already working in your specific context and to reinforce and build on these things. They make it more attractive and easier for people to copy successful pioneering behaviours and less attractive and more difficult for people to stick with unsuccessful ways of working.

Retrospectives are grounded in the reality of the ways of working in your business today. They make it easier for people to copy pioneering behaviours and more difficult for people to stick with unsuccessful ways of working just because it’s how things have always been done.

How to structure a good retrospective discussion

  1. Set the stage: get people in the right mood for a retrospective conversation by starting on a positive note – a smile and some energy goes a long way!
  2. Gather data & generate insights: invite people to share their reflections on the past week(s), ensure everyone’s views are heard and encourage discussion – start by getting people to write their thoughts down before asking anyone to speak
  3. Decide what to do: agree actions to implement during the next period of work – one action that everyone is committed to is much better than a half hearted list of ten
  4. Reinforce: conclude with something that reinforces what was learnt during the retrospective and highlights the value of the conversation – check where people are emotionally at the end and how they’re feeling about the period ahead

If you’re new to facilitating retrospectives, don’t over-engineer the conversation – be guided by the structure above, encourage everyone to contribute to the discussion and try to agree at least one action that everyone’s committed to as a team. Then most important of all, book in your next team retrospective

If you’re ready to up your game, here are my five favourite retrospective techniques

After ‘getting too busy’, another major reason teams abandon retrospectives is because they find them repetitive or boring. To keep your retrospectives lively, it helps to vary the prompts you use to encourage your team to share their reflections and insights. 

Here are five ideas you can test out: 

  1. Loved, Lacked, Learned. This technique is great for retrospective newbies. Give everyone in your team three post its and ask them to silently write down one thing they’ve loved, one thing they’ve lacked and one thing they’ve learned in the past week(s). Once everyone has finished writing, ask each person in turn to share what they’ve written and use these ideas as the starting point for your discussion before deciding what actions to take. Getting people to write down their thoughts silently at first is a simple way of making sure everyone’s voice gets heard. You can take this same approach and simply change the titles of the categories to keep things interesting – the iterations are endless. Why not try having some fun with it e.g. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.  
  2. Force Field Analysis. This technique is useful for teams that have a sticky issue they’ve been struggling to make progress on for a while. Pick a single topic that you think needs discussing in more depth e.g. remote collaboration. Break your team up into pairs or small groups and give them a few minutes to discuss and capture on post-its all the forces that are driving the topic e.g. good video conference technology. Ask each group to share their outputs and place these on the right hand side of a ‘force field’. Discard duplicates and cluster similar themes. Then ask the same groups to discuss and capture all the forces that restrain the topic from happening more effectively e.g. can’t see when people are busy. Repeat the sharing exercise then use the whole force field diagram to prompt more discussion before deciding what to do. 
  3. Idea generation. If your team is stuck in a rut then you might want to try out this technique to inject some new thinking and ideas for doing things differently. Explain to your team that today you’re going to focus just on new ideas and what you could do differently. Let people write down their ideas for 5 – 10 minutes. Then start going round the table asking each person in turn to share one idea. Keep going round the table until there are no new ideas to share. People don’t need to stick to what’s on their original list, if they think of new ideas as they listen to other people then they can add these come their turn. Capture all the ideas on a flip chart. Ask people to share filters that the ideas should need to pass through to progress e.g. cost, time needed to implement, uniqueness of idea. Choose 4 filters and mark all ideas that pass through all 4 filters. If you still have lots of ideas on the table then have a majority vote to decide which ideas should be the starting point of the next discussion and deciding what to do. 
  4. Speed dating. This technique is great for encouraging more 1-2-1 conversations in the team and moving away from relying on a single leader to facilitate the discussion. Ask everyone to write down a topic (related to how the team works together) that they want to explore. Then get people to pair up and discuss both their topics. Encourage them to ponder possible actions. Suggest a fixed time limit per topic (5 mins) and after both topics have been discussed form new pairs. Rotate through the pairs until everyone has talked to everyone else. Now move on to deciding what to do as a whole group. 
  5. Panel discussion. This is a good retrospective for teams that struggle with one or two dominant voices (and can provide a useful reflection opportunity for these individuals after the meeting). It’s an exercise that works best with groups of 10 – 25 people. Place between 4 and 6 chairs in a row facing the group. Explain the rules to the group: take a seat when you want to contribute to the discussion; one panel chair must always be empty; when the last seat in the panel is taken someone else must leave and return to the audience. Start the discussion by taking a seat and wondering aloud about a topic you think worthy of discussion (you may wish to facilitate a quick ‘loved/lacked/learned’ exercise before starting your panel discussion to generate some topics to discuss). End the panel discussion when conversation dies down and then agree as a group what actions you’re going to take. 

Why you should never stop working on your retrospectives

The faster you grow and the busier you get, the more important your retrospectives become. Your ways of working have to evolve as you grow as a company. At the team level, retrospective conversations support ongoing reflection and adaptation. They work best when they happen regularly, giving the team an opportunity to continuously adjust to their changing environment.

Even if your company culture is great, you’re a lean mean delivery machine and you’ve got a never-ending pipeline of new ideas and opportunities to pursue – you still need to keep evolving.

So whether you’re part of a rapidly growing business or simply in a team that needs to improve the way they’re working, be the champion for good retrospectives! 

Still not sure if you should prioritise retrospectives…

If you want to find out quickly whether retrospectives could have a significant impact on your company culture, take our peopleOS diagnostic survey. If your results indicate red flags around how you capture and share learning, then introducing or improving your retrospectives really should move up your to do list.