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How to Conduct an Effective Project Retrospective

The Agathon team sits around a conference room table for a project retrospective

When a big project finishes, it’s easy to get caught up in what comes next, quickly shifting gears to focus on the next project. But there’s a cost to doing that too quickly without taking the time to look back at the work you’ve just completed. A project retrospective is an opportunity to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and where improvements can be made.

Under the agile approach to development, retrospectives are often done weekly or at the end of each sprint. However, we’ve found that meeting as a team at major milestones or the end of each project can be especially valuable. The frequency of retrospectives may vary depending on how your team works, but the value of them remains the same.

If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

Isaac Newton

To be clear, Agathon didn’t invent the retrospective; however, we’ve adapted this process over time to fit our team as well as the values and needs of the mission-based clients with whom we work. We use this process to celebrate wins and examine where things didn’t go as expected, all with the goal of growing and improving as we move forward.

We do both internal retrospectives and retrospectives with the client, although rarely both for the same project. It depends on what’s needed most. Internal retrospectives tend to be very tactical, talking about the tools we used or how we divided up tasks. Client retrospectives often discuss process and communication issues. Everything below applies to both types.

A photo taken in the side mirror of a vehicle, capturing the road, cars, and mountains in the rear

The value of a project retrospective

Retrospectives help you answer the question, “What should we learn from this project that we might otherwise forget?” in a number of ways:

1. Record the things that went well

Whether a project was a slam dunk or you seemed to encounter challenge after challenge, it’s important to take a moment to identify and record the things that went well. Did your team pivot quickly in the face of new information? Were you able to implement a new procedure that will benefit future projects? These wins are worth noting and celebrating.

2. Capture the things that didn’t go as well as hoped

Just as it’s important to capture the things that did go well in the midst of a challenging project, it’s essential to identify the things that didn’t go as well, even if the overall project was a success. In fact, many of your action items (see the third “ingredient” below) will come out of this category. The retrospective provides an opportunity for you to pause and really think about how those challenges can be avoided or overcome in the future.

3. Examine the things that are still puzzles

Was there something that didn’t feel like it went smoothly even though objectively it was a success? Are there areas where your team continues to struggle but hasn’t yet come up with a solution? Talking through these things as a team with the project fresh on your mind can help you work toward a solution.

4. Provide an opportunity to stop and celebrate successes

A retrospective is a way to stop and acknowledge the completion of a project. It’s also a way to say thank you to the team members who have worked hard to get it to that point. The team as a whole should be celebrated, as should individual team members who demonstrated leadership, perseverance, or creative problem solving.

5. Reinforces a culture of continuous improvement

A culture of continuous improvement is one where everyone is looking for ways to work more efficiently, improve processes, and reduce errors. It’s one thing to say you’re committed to this type of culture, but a project retrospective reinforces that commitment by setting aside time to have these conversations and create action items for the future.

Without a structured project retrospective, the team misses out on the chance to identify both successes and failures and, in turn, the opportunity to grow. Individual team members also miss out on the chance to step back and see the bigger picture of the overall project and evaluate their work within that context.

The ingredients of a successful project retrospective

Running a successful project retrospective requires a commitment from the team. Over time, we have found that these key ingredients bring good ideas to the surface, encourage continued growth as a project team, and set future projects up for success:

1. A willingness to be honest

For a retrospective to truly bring value to your team, everyone has to come to the table ready to honestly assess and share both their successes and failures. Just as importantly, each team member must be willing to offer constructive feedback to one another.

To facilitate a culture that allows for this level of honesty and transparency, there must be trust among the team. We invoke the “cone of silence” during retrospectives, assuring each person that as we process through our thoughts, they can share freely and honestly without blame or consequence.

2. An opportunity for everyone to share their thoughts

It can take time for individuals to process their thoughts about how the project went. However, it’s imperative that every team member contributes during the retrospective. Providing notice ahead of time allows each team member to prepare. The moderator then takes responsibility for encouraging everyone to share their thoughts, even if they’re reluctant to speak up.

A group sits around a conference table with laptops and tablets

3. A time for creating action items

Without action items, a retrospective simply becomes another meeting. Pausing to celebrate the completion of a project and the things that went well is encouraging for the entire team and shouldn’t be neglected. But there’s also a practical, operational value that comes from the action items you create at the end of the retrospective.

As with goal setting, the action items you set should be small, defined, and measurable; they should be able to be checked off when done. Because a project retrospective is done at the end of a project, most of the action items will apply to future projects. Examples might include:

  • Meet every Monday for 15 minutes to review XYZ.
  • Create an accessibility checklist to follow.
  • Schedule meeting to review status of stories.

4. A template to follow to make sure the right questions are asked.

Following a template helps the moderator keep the retrospective focused and moving forward so you can get to the point of creating action items. We’ve been using the same basic template for many years now, with only small tweaks as we’ve learned how to tease out insights. That consistency means everyone knows what to expect during the retrospective, which removes any nervousness around the process itself and allows everyone to focus on contributing.

Taking the time to look back and identify things that have gone well as well as areas where we’ve struggled is an important part of growing as individuals and as a team. Project retrospectives provide the framework for us to do that in a safe, structured environment.

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