You did it. The big project your team has been working on for the last few months is finally done. It’s time to pat yourself on the back, relax a bit, and start thinking about what’s next, right? Not so fast. Before you even think about diving headfirst into the next campaign, you need to exercise one of the most important project management skills: retrospection.
Retrospection means taking the time to look back and review the project — and the process. When it comes to retrospection, project managers tend to run retrospective or “post-mortem” meetings. While a project retrospective meeting is most commonly-associated with the Agile framework, all project managers can benefit from some strategic retrospection.
Continue reading to find out:
- Why retrospection is a key skill for project managers
- How to successfully run a project retrospective
- Resources and strategies that will boost your retrospection skills
Why is retrospection important for project managers?
A good project manager doesn’t just set and forget a project. Projects are live and dynamic experiences that require constant retrospection. What went right for one project might need some tweaking to work for the next project. When retrospection takes place, a project manager is able to examine what methods worked for their team and celebrate successes, while learning about and identifying any blockers or issues the project came up against. Basically, regular retrospection lets you figure out what worked — and what didn’t. This information can be used to inform future projects, or other projects you’re currently working on.
It’s important to recognize that this doesn’t just have to happen at the end of a project. While all teams should have retrospective meetings when closing a big project, an effective project manager will take moments to consider progress and successes at regular and scheduled intervals throughout the entire project.
For those following the Agile framework, a retrospective takes place at the end of each sprint. This allows team members to adjust any ineffective processes or interpersonal issues as they arise, rather than waiting until the end of the whole project. As Project Management.com explains:
“The phrase “fail often and early” in Agile indicates that we deliberately try to adapt with our process to steadily changing requirements and are aware that we could fail, but recognizing the deficiencies during our retrospective we have the opportunity to improve our process and with it team efficiency and value delivered.”
Now that you know why retrospection is so important in your role as a project manager, we’re going to show you how to roll out retrospectives in your work.
How to lead a successful retrospective
As researcher Victor Yocco explains, “A retrospective is a structured meeting to review the process and outcomes of a particular project.” There is no one “perfect” way to run a retrospective, or “retro.” Your role is to find the way that works best for your team. It’s important to remember that this will take time — the process will improve with regular retrospectives.
This general structure is a good starting point for your retrospective, but you’ll need to adjust it for your team. If you need more ideas on how to structure your retro and make it more engaging for team members, the website Fun Retrospectives has tons of resources.
1. Provide a safe environment
Before the retrospective begins, you must establish an environment of trust. A retro can only be successful if all participants are honest, open, and ready to provide and accept constructive feedback. ProjectManagement.com suggests displaying the following Norm Kerth quote in order to set the scene:
“Regardless of what we discover, we must understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what was known at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
In order to ensure that everyone has a chance to speak and share their perspectives, we suggest using sticky notes rather than exclusively verbal communication during the retro. You could also use Trello cards, and sync them to a single master board when it’s time to review.
Remember: always have participants focus on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘who’ — unless it’s a compliment, of course. The purpose of a retrospective isn’t to criticize people, but to reflect on processes, actions, and behaviors.
2. Gather your data
Using a casual brainstorm format, start to gather the data. You can also think about these three questions anytime during the course of your project when undergoing personal retrospection.
- What went well?
- What could be improved?
- And what surprised us?
Write these three question headings on your whiteboard. Then give your group a stack of sticky notes and pens, and set a timer for 10 minutes. There’s no talking or discussion allowed during this portion of the retro. Ensure your team members have enough time to thoughtfully consider answers for each of the three questions by checking in at regular intervals. Add time as necessary.
3. Review the results
Take some time to go through the answers on the board, and allow for respectful discussion. This is the part of the retro where insights are usually formed. Ensure you’re limiting the time on this, as it’s easy for this portion to get off topic or extend for too long. To make sure the review is respectful and effective, set some ground rules:
- The outcome of every discussion must be an idea. This isn’t the place for fruitless complaining or venting. All points must come with at least an idea of a solution.
- We already mentioned it, but it’s worth reiterating: no blaming individuals. Issues don’t happen in a vacuum and it’s not fair to put all the blame on one person. Sharing frustrations is acceptable, but getting angry at specific people isn’t beneficial to anyone.
- All ideas are clear. When reading out each point, give the writer the chance to elaborate or explain if needed. Don’t call anyone out, but leave the space for this to happen if the team members want to clarify.
- No interruptions. If someone is speaking, do not try to jump in or contradict their point. All respectful opinions are valid. If someone felt the issue was important enough to bring up in the meeting (and it’s not offensive or disrespectful), dedicate a set amount of time to a conversation.
After your team has had time to discuss, come up with an action plan. Start by grouping similar ideas together and then have participants vote on the issues that they feel are most important to the future success of the team. Once the key issues are established, it’s time to come up with a plan together.
4. What happens next
Name each item and have a discussion to figure out solutions or next steps. Assign each point to a participant or group of participants so that each team member comes out of the retro with an action item they are responsible for. For example, if your team decides that time management is an issue, ask someone to find solutions they can share with the team by a set deadline. The idea isn’t to solve all of the business’ problems, but rather to come up with attainable solutions that can at least improve the situation.
Reiterate the action items for each team member both verbally, and by email or through a task (maybe in the appropriate Asana project or Trello board) following the meeting. Ensure you set due dates for each assignment and follow-up on a regular basis to make sure these stay on track. A project manager’s job is never done.
Time spent on retrospection is never time wasted. Regularly reviewing successes and learnings gives you and your team the tools you need to boost efficiency, improve morale, and increase the quality of work. When a project manager takes the time to look back and reflect, it makes looking forward even easier.