A Spotter's Guide To Good Retrospectives

— 5 minute read

Last week I had a fun little rant on twitter about retrospectives. I'm going to move it here because I think this is going to be worth revisiting. That and reading long things on twitter is a pain in the posterior.

This was triggered by a question about "Team effectiveness: how do you define and measure it?" in a Product In The Aether meet up.

One blocker for team effectiveness I've often seen with clients is that they fail at retrospectives. Even if you've got great alignment on the outcomes that should be delivered, it's pointless if the team lacks the feedback loops to steer them in the right direction.

So how do you know when a team is good at retrospectives?

It's a "I know it when I see it" thing for me — but I couldn't easily articulate what I was looking for.

So I wrote a list off the top of my head:

  • everybody's engaged
  • important gets more attention than urgent
  • folk focus on turning up the good as much as turning down the bad
  • folk come up with multiple options
  • folk run experiments
  • improvements are tracked across multiple retrospectives
  • folk steer their improvement process with a standard format like the Toyota Kata
  • pain/gain points are aligned with organisational goals
  • people talk more about the change they want to see than the particular way of achieving that change
  • people actually make changes — they don't just talk about the change
  • if a problem is small enough to be easily solved, then people solve it in the moment rather than bringing it to the retro — stop the line and all that
  • public artefacts on the walls / in slack that talk about the changes that are coming out of the retro
  • more team ownership than individual ownership
  • no blame
  • willingness to go "well - that failed"
  • willingness to push to solve problems outside the teams immediate scope
  • active outreach to other teams - collaboration on solving larger problems / turning up larger gains
  • folk willing to put down one change they're working on if a more important one comes along
  • folk can change their process without asking for permission first
  • folk are allowed to fail at improving their process (coz failures are inevitable.)

At this point I stopped because I had to go do the shopping. But that wasn't the end — because there were some great follow up suggestions including:

Not forgetting my favourite from the ever excellent Sophie Freiermuth:

I am a huge fan of using the anti-problem format to find solutions & options — so that's an exercise for another day!

What do you look for when you're trying to spot good retrospectives?