How to Participate in Retrospectives

November 15, 2010

This is a part of a series that was cre­at­ed to help you get the prac­tice of ret­ro­spec­tives built into your com­pany.  This series will walk through the approach, nec­es­sary roles, in addi­tion to guides for each role to help your com­pany get started quickly.

One of the best ways to find ways to improve is to reflect upon the work we have already done and to ask ourselves:

  • What went well and why
  • What did not go well and why
  • What can we do better the next time around in order to improve?

Retrospective/after action reviews (AARs) are formal meetings where we come together as a team following an iteration of work, a milestone, a specific event, or on some other regular, scheduled basis. The U.S. Army developed the AAR concept in the 1970s and has had great success using it as a continuous improvement tool to this day.

(Note: Reflecting on work is not just for teams – as individuals we too can reflect upon our daily work and look at it in the larger context of what did we accomplish this week, this month, this year? What have we done well? What can we do better next time?).

Frequently Asked Questions in Retrospectives

Here are some frequently asked questions related to retrospectives/AARs:

As a company, why are we doing this?

To continuously improve. How can we get better if we don’t take the time to reflect upon the work we have completed and ask ourselves what we can do differently the next time around?

Who brings the meetings together?

Our company has facilitators on hand to meet with team leaders to schedule the meetings, draw up the agendas, lead the meetings, record the findings, and follow up on the actionable items.

What is expected of me?

All team members are expected to offer specific input on the 3 bullet questions posed above. Come to meetings having already given thought as to what you want to contribute!

How long do the meetings last?

After conferring with your team leader, the facilitator will determine how long to schedule the meeting for – usually 1 to 3 hours.

Do I have to talk out loud?

It depends. Some meetings will be held using a card method where you anonymously write down your thoughts on 3×5 cards, which the facilitator then reads out loud to the group. Other meetings will be held using the brainstorming process, and in that case, yes, everyone must speak.

What if I say the wrong thing? What if I upset someone?

Your facilitator will remind everyone of the ground rules in advance. Retrospectives/AARs are about processes, not people. The purpose of the meetings is not to discuss who did or did not do what, but rather to talk about the process. Naming individuals, finger-pointing, and blaming are not permitted.

There is something I really need to say but I just can’t.

Please contact your facilitator prior to the meeting to discuss your concerns in private. He or she wants to help put you at ease.

I’m not sure I’ll ever feel confident about this process.

Trust develops over time. Our goal is to create an environment where we all feel safe saying what we think during retrospective meetings. As we start to see the cumulative effects of the improvements we will achieve by exploring our work through the retrospectives process, we feel confident that teams will look forward to the meetings over time and that we all will win – not only our company, but our customers as well.

Next week, I will share some tips to help you get the most out of your meetings.

Founder & Partner

As the founder of OpenView, Scott focuses on distinctive business models and products that uniquely address a meaningful market pain point. This includes a broad interest in application and infrastructure companies, and businesses that are addressing the next generation of technology, including SaaS, cloud computing, mobile platforms, storage, networking, IT tools, and development tools.