“The most important requirement for running a retro is believing that everyone did the best they could with the information they had.”
- Amos King
I’ve spent the last several months learning how to facilitate team retrospectives. For anyone unfamiliar with the term, a retrospective (retro for short) is a meeting where teams discuss what they can do to work together more effectively. While these meetings are impactful in any industry, they’re most common in the software development world, especially among teams practicing Agile methodologies. The team’s goal in a retro is to leave the meeting with on concrete action for improving their performance in the upcoming week.
As a retro facilitator, my job is to guide the team I’m working with through a process of gathering information, analyzing data and generating actionable ideas for solving problems. Here are seven best practice tips I’ve found useful as a retro leader:
1. Don't neglect setting the stage
As tempting as it is to jump straight into gathering data, retros are most effective when everyone is mentally prepared to engage productively. Be intentional about creating a comfortable meeting space before every retro by tending to matters of aesthetics, physical comfort and psychological safety. When participants begin a meeting feeling informed and at ease, they’re better equipped to take part in the process.
You can prepare your teams to engage by establishing working agreements, opening with light-hearted icebreaker questions and educating team members about what to expect. As a facilitator, I also make sure I’m physically comfortable and internally calm and centered at the start of a meeting; the more relaxed I am, the better I’m able to focus on the needs of my team. After I’ve centered myself, my go-to technique for setting the stage is to formally thank everyone for being present and willing to participate in the retro process.
2. Respect people's time
Retros are very focused, interactive meetings that work best with active engagement from all participants. You can honor people’s time by beginning and ending the meeting as scheduled. (Timeboxing is a helpful technique to try if you struggle with this). Don’t be afraid to ask people to respect the team’s time by redirecting off-track conversations and firmly addressing tardiness or other disruptive behavior. If meetings run long and you sense there’s more to be discussed, ask the team if they want to continue past the designated end time or would prefer to call pause and make a plan to reengage later.
3. Don't tell people what to do
As a facilitator, you can best serve your team by remaining neutral and objective. Do your best to keep opinions and advice to yourself rather than offering commentary and prescribing solutions. Check your ego at the door and remember the retro is not about you as the leader – it’s about the needs of the team.
The one exception is if you are facilitating a retro as a team member. In that case, it’s important to mindfully contribute your perspective and sharing your ideas without giving them more weight than others’. You don’t want to railroad the team into implementing your preferred solution; you want to steer them toward the best solution (which may or may not be yours!).
Note: Facilitating as a team member is inherently challenging. If bringing in an outside facilitator isn’t possible, I strongly recommend rotating retro leadership weekly to keep the process equitable.
4. Assign ownership to the team
Your job as a facilitator isn’t to solve a team’s problems for them but to moderate conversations. No two teams are alike, and your task is to guide teams toward discovering solutions that work for their individual circumstances. Encourage your team to be self-reflective, and offer suggestions sparingly, as people are more likely to follow through on solutions they create themselves.
Once solutions have been agreed upon, be sure to clarify what action steps are needed and which team members are responsible for implementation. Insights and decisions that emerge belong to the team and not the facilitator. To reinforce this, ask for a volunteer to disseminate relevant retro information after the meeting, preferably by posting it where the team will organically interact with it throughout the week.
5. Pay attention to what is alive
This concept involves being aware of and engaging with the energy in the room. The first part of a retro is a discovery process meant to explore what’s going on with the team that week. Gathering this information lets a team be Agile by making decisions based on real-time, accurate data.
There are many great techniques for gathering information about the team’s mindset. You might begin the retro with a temperature check or run an activity such as Mad, Sad, Glad. I like to listen for “beats” in the conversation: I’ll silently count to 10 after making a comment to see if anyone responds. If they don’t, or if there is a noticeable silence at any point during the meeting, it’s usually an indicator to proceed to a new topic.
6. Capture feelings data, not just facts and observations
Frustrations, hurt feelings and miscommunication are unavoidable when people work as a group. Left unaddressed, these issues can kill morale and tank productivity. Retros are a great way to build and restore trust and creates a space for people to be heard.
To accomplish this, retros operate under the principle of charity: You assume everyone on the team was doing the best they could and wants the project to be successful. Retros are not about assigning blame or finding fault; they’re about checking the team’s progress and mindset. If things got off track, a retro is a designated space to analyze what happened.
During that examination, it’s helpful to recall not just events themselves, but also how people felt about them. Armed with this information, your team can create an action plan to move the project forward while addressing pain points. This human-centric approach to project planning generates and maintains goodwill, resulting in happier people, healthier teams and higher-quality project results.
7. Be curious, not judgmental
The best solutions are developed collaboratively with a complete perspective from everyone on the team. There are many techniques a skilled facilitator can draw on to ensure everyone feels safe speaking up and that all viewpoints offered are heard. One of my favorites is verbal mirroring, or restating what a person has just said back to the group. Use phrases like “So what you’re saying is...” or “I hear (insert team member’s name) saying…”
Another tip is to capture all of your brainstorming data before you begin critiquing it. Record all brainstorming phase ideas exactly as the speaker offered them and without commentary. Don’t start discussing the results until all your data is in, and don’t reject any ideas upfront. This technique leaves room for people to speak up without fear of being shot down and keeps the creative juices flowing.
Better retros for better teams
Retrospective meetings are a valuable team-building and problem-solving activity with both short- and long-term benefits. If you’d like more information about retrospective facilitation and creating healthy communication spaces, I highly recommend the following:
- Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen
- Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg
Carolyn Tragasz is the former administrative assistant at Binary Noggin. She has a degree in liberal studies from Park University and uses her organizational communication skills to manage day-to-day logistics and facilitate team-building exercises.
Founded in 2007, Binary Noggin is a team of software engineers and architects who serve as a trusted extension of your team, helping your company succeed through collaboration. We forge customizable solutions using Agile methodologies and our mastery of Elixir, Ruby and other open source technologies. Share your ideas with us on Facebook and Twitter.