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How to Use Retrospectives to Boost Performance

Trying to be a proactive leader in today’s work environment can feel relentless. The work can feel overwhelming as you career from one project or task to the next without the chance to step back, reflect and think through how things could be improved. You see other teams repeating the same mistakes over and over. You notice processes that are outdated or unnecessarily bureaucratic and your diary is full of meetings that drain your time. Your systems are optimised for how things worked in 2015 not 2022 and are held together by workarounds built on top of workarounds. If only there was a proven, quick and easy way to set aside time for reflection and improvement?

Retrospectives allow you to create a space where teams can connect, share their ideas and solve issues that are holding you back.

In this article, we’re going to share a step-by-step process you can adopt to start running Retrospectives regularly and make them a key part of your leadership toolkit.

Retrospectives are a well-designed, simple, quick and widely recognised technique. Originally designed for tech teams working on new software or projects they can make a huge difference to the way teams work together. The work of Tech teams is often organised around short sprints (often 2 weeks). At the end of every 2 weeks, they take a step back, reflect and ask “What worked well?”, “What didn’t work well?”, “What are we going to try to do differently?.  As a result, projects are constantly improving and evolving rather than waiting for completion to then review how things could be improved the next time.

Retrospectives are not the exclusive domain of tech teams, They are extremely flexible and can be used in a wide variety of settings by busy managers keen to make improvements. For example, we use retrospectives to improve meetings (especially the longstanding ones that people groan about attending), projects, how 2 teams work together and to review processes. It’s all about learning and optimising, and how we work in the future based on our most recent experiences. They are short, sharp, engaging sessions that require little set-up. They collect feedback, gather insights, show appreciation, and create actions for continuous improvement.

So how can I implement a Retrospective into my work?

We’ve set out an easy to follow 4 step process. Ideally, your retrospective should last around 35 minutes. That’s 10 minutes for each of the 3 questions and 5 minutes to summarise next steps and wrap up. They are extremely fast-paced but you will be surprised much you can achieve in the time.  

Step 1. Set the Context

Before the Retrospective, let everyone know what the focus of the retrospective is going to be focused on. i.e. “We’re going to do a retrospective on our Weekly meeting to ensure it’s relevant and a valuable use of time for everyone” or “This retrospective is designed to review how our Risk Team and our Sales Team have worked together in the last quarter”. At the beginning of the session repeat this again so everyone is focused

 Step 2. Kick-off

At the beginning let everyone know that all opinions and suggestions are welcome. You want to create an honest, open forum that will produce useful feedback? It’s important to build psychological safety. A quick check-in question can quickly lower any tension and make people feel more comfortable and included – Check-in Generator – Hej.Today (daresay.io) is a good site if you need any ideas for check-in questions.

Each part of the retrospective is time-based, with 10 minutes for each of the 3 sections, with an overall session time of 35 minutes. You need to be strict with time to make sure everyone has enough space to share their experiences, opinions and thoughts. If you’re too relaxed about time, you’ll often find your Retrospective going off-topic and bringing up too many problems you can’t fix. 

Step 3: Run the exercises

For each of the 3 exercises, set your timer for 10 minutes. The traditional way is to start by asking “what we should start doing? then “what should we stop doing” and finish up with ‘what should we continue doing that’s working well?

If you are running the meeting remotely or hybrid then we recommend the whiteboard platform Miro to allow interaction and collect ideas. Platforms like Mural or Jamboard are just as good.

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Make sure you leave time within each of the 10 minutes to discuss the ideas you generate! If you’re facilitating, your responsibility is to ensure all ideas are captured and identify the key themes that emerge and group them together. This will help focus people’s attention so they don’t feel overwhelmed with the number of ideas. It will also help the team quickly identify what actions they can take to improve. 

Step 4. Now what?

At the end of the session, allocate 5 minutes to agree on next steps. Retrospectives often fly by; however, they will generate lots of insightful information you can work on. The more you do, the more effective you and the group will become at them.  Keep a track of the actions you agree and follow up to make sure they are implemented.

Other Ways of Doing a Retrospective

You can develop your Retrospectives to suit your requirements. You don’t have to stick to the “Keep, Start, Stop” format above.

Alternative 1:

Another format is “Like, Learned, Lacked, Longed For”. Many Agile Leaders and Scrum Masters prefer this method as it’s a good format for developing short and long-term goals for future improvements.

Liked

What did the team really enjoy about the previous way of working ? In particular, what went better than expected? This is useful as it encourages participants to focus on the positives even when things are challenging

Learned

What has the team learnt from working together?

Lacked

What did the team lack, or what things could they have done better?

Longed For

What additional support did the team desire?

As you have more questions the session will take slightly longer however, it shouldn’t last longer than 60 minutes

Alternative 2: Ask positive questions

Lots of retrospectives start with a prompt that focuses on problems or what are we doing wrong?

John Cutler, Author at Amplitude came up with a great list of generative questions that can be asked in retrospectives that get people thinking about what is possible.

His idea is don’t linger on what’s broken. So, start your questions with either a) Where do we have opportunities to …?  b) how might we….?

Then ask any of the following questions that are appropriate for your Retrospective

·      automate repetitive tasks/actions?

·      achieve the same (or greater) outcomes with less work?

·      improve the quality/speed of decision making?

·      spend more time focusing on the needs of our customers?

·      share knowledge more effectively?

·      reduce uncertainty where it is causing drag for the team?

·      make our systems more observable (and issues more diagnosable)?

·      build a deeper understanding of our customers and users?

·      accelerate feedback loops (and increase signal to noise ratio)?

·      solve problems in more creative, less predictable ways?

·      contribute to the long-term viability of the business?

·      respond more fluidly to new opportunities as they arise?

·      be less reactive in our work?

·      have longer blocks of productive focus and meaningful collaboration?

·      improve our skills?

·      make data more accessible, and make it easier to explore the data?

·      have more fun, and feel like we’re having more impact?

·      spend less time “patching holes” and “bailing water”?

·      make a higher % of our decisions reversible?

·      have more direct contact with customers? 

·      help each other advance in our careers?

·      share what we’ve learned with other teams?

This way of working can be particularly useful when you work in an environment where people are prone to blaming each other when things go wrong.

Retrospectives are a valuable part of your manager’s toolkit. Book one in with your team this week and let us know how you get on.

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