The Importance of the Retrospective in Driving Continuous Improvement

By Ben Donnelly

Haven’t we been here before?

The Retrospective is often an automated and uninspired habit. Whether they are run regularly as part of an Agile approach to delivery; or at the end of the delivery cycle in the more traditional waterfall projects.

These meetings look back over the last period before defaulting to a series of generic excuses: there’s too much change in scope, too much pressure from time frames, the turnover between one project to the next is impossibly fast, or perhaps there’s a lack of the right resources. These reasons inevitably result in product releases that can bring as many new bugs as new features, the failure to close in the last 5% of a project, or the constant cycle of budget overrun and resultant value-engineering that leaves the final outcome somehow short of the aspiration.

Meetings are often poorly attended by senior management stakeholders reinforcing the team’s attitude that these repeated issues are beyond their control, or that they are just an acceptable level of failure given the constraints that are forced upon them.

Conversely, a common management perception is that they must have a lack of quality in the team. As a result many organisations regularly spend management time and money “managing out” personnel and hiring new resources, without looking at the root cause of the issues they are facing.

Quickly these meetings become merely a process to be endured, or worse, a motivation-killing whinge-fest with no real action or remediation to follow.

However, it doesn’t always have to be a meaningless process. To be of value, the retrospective must happen regularly enough to capture the issues and risks as they are experienced, and before they have greater impact. Two weeks is the standard, with monthly being the longest gap between reviews.

Proposing a Collective Approach

A retrospective should also be a positive experience. This should be to ensure that we collectively accept making honest mistakes is just a fact of life, and to “fail” when taking a considered risk, should never be an issue. It is this type of failure and the learnings we can take from them, which are at the root of the process of innovation.

The key is creating a team culture of “no excuses”. This principle is intended to apply a collective ownership of the need for improvement onto the entire team, aiming to drive out individual blame culture.

But the creation of this collective responsibility, and its associated psychological safety, is not a protection from reality. Failure demands action; it should demand that we learn from it, so that we can adapt and approach the future with a greater armoury and plan of attack for future challenges.

1. Collective attendance and preparation

The biggest killer for a valuable retrospective is if key team members and stakeholders don’t attend. This is especially when the senior figures on a project aren’t present. It just sets the wrong tone, and gives the impression that it’s not important or it’s a tick box process.

But nothing could be further from the truth, where regular retrospectives could be the difference between success and failure as you will catch risk early, adapt your delivery, and empower your team to be more productive.

Everyone who participates must understand that the process is about identifying the solutions, not the problem. It is also about understanding what we have learned, and what still puzzles us and needs further thought. Gauge the quality of your reputation with your stakeholders or customers, to understand where you are currently coming from as a business, and how you can adapt to suit your stakeholders better.

2. Assess team dynamics

The process of the Retrospective also involves taking the time to review the team dynamic, recognising your team members as active participants and stakeholders in any successful work environment. In particular, this includes giving everybody a chance to talk which also means encouraging others to be quiet and let them speak. Giving a team member a voice makes sure everyone else is actively listening, resetting a team dynamic where different personalities may overlap and drown out the voices of others.

Analyse the team dynamic by focussing on assessing the general level of enthusiasm and satisfaction, understanding the level of self-esteem across the team, and examining the level of trust or sources of tensions between members of the team.

3. Support opinions with hard facts and data 

Having an opinion is a valuable thing, it means your team is thinking. Remember, we all hire great people for the very reason that we expect that they can contribute to the business. So there’s no value in telling them how to think or how to learn without listening to them in response.

And certainly, for a motivated workplace, everyone needs a voice and needs to feel empowered to share their opinion on areas of concern and how to tackle the problems that come with those concerns. But an uninformed opinion without some evidence is unlikely to become an action, so emphasise the need to take the time for your team to prove different points about problems.

4. Focus on what we can change, not on other teams or impacts outside our control

If you want to be productive, focus on what can be achieved with the effort of those people in the room. It might feel great to throw around some blame at other teams, but it doesn’t make you better, and it’s the quickest route back to a culture of excuses.

5. Make your changes realistic

We all know we aren’t going to throw down our tools for six months, or re-start a project from scratch. We also know that throwing additional resources or budget at a problem can’t always be the answer. Focus on incremental improvements; focus on playing a game you can win. The law of marginal gains says it’s easier to improve 100 processes by 1% than it is to improve a single process by 100%.

6. Take your time 

More than anything the value of a retrospective is what happens next. If you’ve created a hit list of actions, then you must schedule those actions out as part of your ongoing delivery. Or if you are at the end of your project, consider how you might redesign your processes, re-arrange your team structure, re-adjust your stakeholder plan, or regenerate whatever it is that will help you prepare the next project for success.

Figure out how you can create measurable improvement, and how you’re going to effectively implement this change. Top-of-mind and first degree change in immediate action peters out quickly.

Stay on it. Live the change you want, and build the rituals to make it stick.

“Make it stick”

I remember a quote some years ago from Australian cricketer Shane Warne, who once said of English spin bowler, Monty Panesar, that “Monty hasn’t played 50 tests, He’s played his first test 50 times.”

It was an amusing sledge, but it drew out a common problem for many people in the enterprise: that we are so focused on delivery and performing in the moment, we don’t take the time to learn from each experience or adapt our approach even after repeated challenges that are clearly impacting performance.

We have all been impacted by this cycle of failure. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we must admit to at least participating in the repetition of a process that is known to be substandard. But it doesn’t have to continue to be case. Unlike Panesar, we can learn to look back, reflect, and then look ahead to plan for the future.

Retrospectives when held properly, fairly and with actual outcomes that improve the team’s performance, can become probably the single biggest enabler for team productivity. Can you really afford not to spend an hour a fortnight investing in that?

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