What Are Retrospectives?

August 30, 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.

Sprint005 retrospective

Retrospectives are periods of reflection during which a team or individual reviews and reflects on a project, action, or occurrence and asks 4 key questions:

•    What just happened?
•    What went well and why?
•    What did not go well and why?
•    What can we do differently next time?

Retrospectives, and their close cousin After Action Reviews (AARs), are simple practices that offer you a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to continuously improve. They can be formal or informal, can take place after any action/project/initiative or on a regular schedule, and can be easily adapted to meet the needs of your organization.

Reflecting on completed work is arguably the single most important thing that any team can do for continuous improvement, as it is essential to understand the nature of your performance before you can make the right adjustments to improve your performance the next time.


If you’re a company using Agile software development practices, your teams are probably already holding retrospectives after the completion of each sprint. Retrospectives, however, are not just for development teams.

Reflection can be a useful tool for continuous improvement for people at all levels of any type of organization, from the receptionist who answers the phone all the way up to the C-level suite. The reflections take place upon completion of:

•    A specific event
•    A project/initiative
•    A milestone
•    A day, week, month, quarter, or year of work
•    Or any other situation when work has been completed.

Retrospectives are not project audits, but rather seek to reveal what can be done better the next time around; they are not about placing blame and creating more work, but on helping individuals and team members learn and improve.

An AAR is very similar to a retrospective, and in fact the terms may be used interchangeably, but the 4 key questions vary slightly. They are:

•    What did we set out to do?
•    What actually happened?
•    Why did it happen?
•    What are we going to do next time?

AARs were introduced in the U.S. military in the 1970s and are now standard U.S. Army procedure. The Army recommends spending 25% of the time answering the first two questions, 25% of the time answering the third, and 50% answering the fourth. AARs have been growing in popularity in business environments over the last several years.

For individuals, retrospectives can be simple and informal moments of reflection. For example, the employee who gets off the phone and thinks about what he just said and what he will say differently next time – or the employee who reviews her activities at the end of each day to determine if she has met her goals for the day, and if not, what barriers were in place that she will remove tomorrow?

For teams, retrospectives can run the gamut from 15-minute daily or weekly progress meetings, sometimes called huddles or scrum meetings, to more structured meetings ranging in length from 1 to 3 hours. The meetings follow general guidelines and are run by a person who has been appointed the facilitator. The goal is for the team members to walk away with 3 specific, actionable improvements.

Next week, I will discuss the business benefits of implementing retrospectives.

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.