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The ultimate guide to preparing great retrospectives

This article helps you with two things: one, planning and structuring your retrospective agenda; and two, it provides you with a sample agenda and few activities to avoid boring retrospectives.

Why are retrospectives so important?

A team is a group of people focused on a common goal, in which each individual adjusts their actions, habits and work preferences in order to achieve the group’s common goal. The team’s effectiveness depends on the members’ capacity to work together. It’s directly related to the group’s ability to make the best use of the individuals’ skills.

However, a group of people does not turn into a team overnight. It takes time to create bonds between colleagues; this time can be shortened with the appropriate setting. As the team progresses after formation, team members may face moments in which they’ll want to reflect and analyze the past or imagine and prepare for the future. These moments may be recurring, and keeping the enthusiasm is the key for maintaining the team effective. Over time, the group will tune up its ability to work together. Group’s disagreements will be discussed. Individual capabilities will rise up. The group will continuously seek the best balance for everyone’s contribution toward a common goal. Collectively, the team will improve.

How to transform a group of people into an effective team? The key to continuous improvement is keeping participants amused and providing a setting where they can reflect, discuss and have fun. You can do that by having amazing, effective and fun retrospectives. This article gives you a glimpse of what you’ll find in the FunRetrospectives book, a toolset of activities to add to your retrospectives!

The seven steps agenda

I start by introducing the seven steps agenda, with a structure on how to think about, prepare, and organize the meeting. Be it a Scrum retrospective meeting, a meeting about project risks or even a project kick-off meeting, I use and strongly suggest the following agenda structure. This agenda outlines the seven steps that you will be taking to achieve your goal:

You want to plan and execute the best retrospective for a given moment and context, it’s important to keep in mind that many teams have the retrospective as a recurring meeting. As such, they look for alternatives to avoid the monotony caused by the repetition of the same agenda and activities over and over again. When you change it a little bit and present new activities, the team can look through different angles and perspectives, generating new insights. Therefore you must think, decide and choose the message and activity for each of these steps.
  • Context Setup: The specific context for this retrospective, so the participants understand what the focus of the meeting is 
  • Prime Directive: The statement that helps drive people into a collaborative mindset. It’s a belief that the team must hold during the activities to follow  
  • Energizer:  an activity to warm up the team and promote group interaction
  • Check-in: an activity to gather information such as how participants feel toward the meeting and how they feel regarding the given context  
  • Main Course: one or more activities for the team to share and discuss their notes.  This is the core of the, and most likely the information gathered and discussed will set the tone for continuous improvement
  • Filtering: an activity to help focus the discussion
  • Check-out: an activity to organize action items or collect feedback about the meeting

Two agenda examples

With the activities listed in the book, you can make numerous combinations and avoid repeating the same retrospective structure for the same team, again and again. Below are two examples for different retrospectives for different team moments and context.

New team

  • Context Setup: “This is a newly formed team for a new project. Let’s get to know each other better.”
  • Prime Directive: “Cooperation is the act of working with others and acting together to accomplish a job. A team is a partnership of unique people who bring out the very best in each other, and who know that even though they are wonderful as individuals, they are even better together. Coming together is a beginning; staying together is progress; working together is success.”
    By Caroli, Paulo e TC. Caetano. FunRetrospectives  (team building prime directive)
  • EnergizerGeographic Location
  • Check-in: Draw your feelings
  • Main Course: Defining Team Vision Statement  and That Person & This Person
  • Filtering: Select one a and talk
  • Check-out: One word before leaving

Recurring Scrum retro

  • Context Setup: “This retrospective is a bi-weekly recurring Scrum retrospective for the ABC team. We are on the Sprint 12 out of 30.”
  • Prime Directive: “Regardless of what we discover, we 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.
    By KERTH, Norman. Project Retrospectives  (retrospective prime directive)
  • EnergizerFun Fact
  • Check-in: Happiness Radar (stickies colors for: People interactions / Process / Tech stuff)
  • Main Course: Open the Box (stickies colors for: People interactions / Process / Tech stuff)
  • Filtering: Dot Voting
  • Check-out: Who-What-When Steps to Action

Remote retrospectives

Gathering effective feedback depends on your ability to build a human connection between retro participants. To do that effectively, you need to plan how it will be managed in both local and remote retrospectives. We increasingly see a large amount of people using some sort of remote retrospective tool, given teams are getting more spread out by the day.

There are many reasons to use a remote retrospective tool: working from home during the Coronavirus pandemic, staying close to your kids, avoiding traffic jams, working from the beach, using a reading device, dealing with work visa issues, working from a distant country etc.

But just because you’re remote, it doesn’t mean the retro should be less fun. The majority of the activities work well in both settings, remote or presencial. The activities in the book, as well as on the website FunRetrospectives.com have extra notes for any adaptation required for remote settings.

Having said that, please keep it light and fun. Even if your team is spread out, plan it accordingly and have a fun retrospective.

Have one retrospective 
per week, unless you are too busy. In that case, you should have two!

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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