Apple pie ingredients

How to Run a Great Retrospective: A Detailed Recipe

Paul Raythattha ·

You’ve read all the agile docs about how important it is to have a regular reflection meeting. You’ve sat through so many retros that you’ve lost count—and maybe you’ve even run more than a few yourself. But, for some reason, your retrospectives just aren’t as magical as the ones you read about.

You’re not alone! It’s not easy to come up with the recipe for this meeting from scratch. But the key to running a great retro is to have a recipe and a plan. Being intentional about every detail of the meeting will help you maintain a psychologically-safe space where everyone can talk freely about any topic as a true team.

In this post, I’ll share my recipe with you—a recipe that’s worked across dozens of engagements, at companies big and small, across all different industries. I’ll also share why this recipe is structured the way it is so that you can take it and modify it to fit your own team’s unique culture. This isn’t the only way to run a great retro—but, if you feel like your team hasn’t quite found its rhythm, this is a great place to start.

Before the Retro: Mise en Place

apple pie

  1. Set aside a full hour for this meeting.
    • Why? We’ve found an hour is a good amount of time to make sure there’s enough space to discuss the important things and come up with some solutions. In the next part of this recipe, we’ll also talk about how allowing this much time and space helps to do those things in a psychologically safe way.
  2. Make sure you’ve got all your attendees committed to attending and giving this meeting their full attention.
    • Why? This is a meeting about improving what’s going well and experimenting with solutions for what isn’t. You need everyone there—that means product management, design, and engineering—so that everyone gets a voice in how their team evolves.
  3. For this recipe, we’ll use Stickies to run the meeting. Make a free account if you don’t already have one, create a new board, and send out invites to all the attendees.

Carbon Five is hiring

Running the Retro, Part I: Review the Previous Retro’s Action Items
(5 minutes)

I like to start the meeting by looking at the action items that the team agreed to work on from the previous retro.

  1. For any items that were completed since the last time, take a moment to celebrate! This is how teams steadily and incrementally get better.
  2. For any items that are still open, take a minute to note them out loud. If the underlying issue is still there, the team now knows they can bring it up in this week’s reflection.

Why? Starting with this review helps drive home the point that this is a meeting that causes things to change. The purpose of the meeting isn’t (just) to vent or celebrate—it’s about the team setting up a continuous-improvement loop for itself.

Running the Retro, Part II: Everyone Writes Their Own Reflections
(5 minutes)

To start the actual reflecting for this week, everyone works independently first before sharing and discussing as a group. This ensures that everyone gets to think about what matters to them. Here’s how I like to tee this up exactly in Stickies:

  1. Remind everyone of the purpose and the content of the meeting: this is a blameless and safe space, and any topic facing the team is on the table (including the retro itself).
  2. Demonstrate the three “types” of Stickies that anyone can write by double-clicking in any empty area on the Stickies board:
    • Start a Sticky with “I like…” for anything that’s going well and worth noting.
    • “I wish…” is for anything that could have gone better or differently, and it can be for the past, present, or future.
    • “I wonder…” is a great catch-all for anything that doesn’t quite fit the other 2 types but the team still wants to discuss.
  3. Put the board into “Incognito Mode” so that no one can see anyone else’s notes.
  4. Set a timer for 3 – 5 minutes, and invite everyone to start creating stickies and writing.

Running the Retro, Part III: Everyone Gets a Voice and a Vote
(10-20 minutes)

apple pie 2

After everyone has their thoughts down, we enter the most ritualized portion of the meeting—going around the room, each person reads their notes out loud.

Why? This can feel tedious for teams that haven’t done this before, but this practice of literally giving everyone a voice signals clearly that everyone is on equal footing and in a safe space here. In the day-to-day work of the team, quieter voices (or even just different voices) can get lost in the noise—but, here in the retro, there is space for every member of the team to speak.

  1. Invite everyone to create a single group for their own stickies by clicking and dragging their notes together.
  2. Turn off “Incognito Mode,” and use the “Auto-Arrange” feature to get everything lined up nicely.
  3. Remind the team to vote on each item (if they want to) as it’s read aloud by using the +1 button in the corner of each sticky. A vote doesn’t have to signal agreement—it can just mean that a thing is interesting or worth more conversation.
  4. Have each person read their stickies out loud. If this is your first time following this format, resist the temptation to discuss or even comment out loud on another person’s items. There will be time for that later!

Running the Retro, Part IV: Improving as a Team
(30-40 minutes)

After the sharing, we now have the bulk of the time for the discussion. As the facilitator, you can rely on votes and topic clusters to help prioritize the discussion.

The critical ingredient here is to facilitate the conversation so that it focuses on the most important things—and crystallizes “we will” action items that the team will work on to improve things over the coming week. An hour isn’t enough time to fix everything; it’s not even enough time to completely fix the most important things. But it’s plenty of time to figure out small, concrete, impactful next steps.

  1. Invite everyone to help cluster Stickies into categories based on what was heard.
    • It’s best to create clusters that have about 3-5 notes. Otherwise, the conversation may end up too general and not address specific concerns of the team.
    • For bonus points, you can even click and drag to sort items within a group based on the number of votes!
  2. Use the clusters, votes, and color-coding to help decide which topics the group should talk about first. In the time you have, work through the most important topics, ensuring that the group gets time to discuss and converge on a useful next step.
    • For positive topics, ask the group to crystallize a “we will” action item that can help amplify that strength and double down on it over the coming week.
    • For negative topics, ask the group to crystallize a “we will” that can help address that issue immediately (in the upcoming sprint). Focus on finding some small concrete way to make things incrementally better, rather than trying to solve everything immediately.
  3. As you write “we will” action items, identify an owner for each one.
    • It’s okay if some items are communally owned (“We will all…”), but finding individual owners makes it easier to ensure items get done. If several items all have different owners, then everyone on the team gets to help make the team better.

As you head into the last few minutes of the meeting, a nice way to wrap is to either save a positive topic for last—or simply recap the full list of “we will” actions. This helps end on a happy note, even for reflections where the team has had a difficult week.

After the Retro: The Follow-Through

Apple pie

At this point, you’ve spent an hour and cooked up a great retro! Take a few extra minutes for the follow-through, and set your team up for another great reflection next week:

  1. Take a list of your “we will” action items, and post them into Slack as a bulleted list. Tag each owner next to their item, so that everyone can easily see a list of what the team committed to do to get better this week.
  2. For each “we will” that’s owned by a specific person, you can even make a ticket in the upcoming sprint for them, so that you can be absolutely certain there will be time and space to work on improving the team.

Closing Thoughts

All great teams find time for reflection, analysis, and continuous improvement. Over time, every team develops its own style, its own norms, and its own values.

If you’ve never held the space for this deliberate practice before, using this recipe is a great place to start. Give yourself time to build the skill and learn the details. As your team establishes the habit, you’ll naturally start to talk about how to get better at the reflection itself—and, as the weeks turn into months, you’ll develop a recipe that’s uniquely yours.

 


 

Carbon Five is hiring

We’re hiring! Looking for software engineers, product managers, and designers to join our teams in SF, LA, NYC, CHA.

Learn more and apply at www.carbonfive.com/careers

What can we help you with?

Tell us a bit about your project, or just shoot us an email.

Interested in a Career at Carbon Five? Check out our job openings.