A Great Way for a Team to Come Together and Plot the Future
Bill Hoberecht - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Through the experiences of a project, the team gains experience, wisdom and perspectives that they may not have possesssed at project initiation.  The retrospective is an important mechanism for harvesting this newly gained wisdom and seeking to apply it to future endeavors.  This article builds the case that retrospectives are vitally important in the life of a project team.


Introducing A Series of Articles on the Perfect Retrospective

This is the second article in a series about project retrospectives.  The series includes:

  1. Examining Project Performance and Learning From the Project Experience.  A short recap of quality management and continuous improvement, starting with Shewhart and Deming, leading to retrospectives.
  2. Project Retrospectives: Perhaps Your Best Source of Valuable Improvement Ideas - that's this article - builds a compelling case for adopting retrospectives as a primary method for improving project performance.
  3. Foundations for the Perfect Retrospective gives pointers to some great information on retrospectives and gives almost a dozen tips on successfully establishing retrospectives in your organization.
  4. The Perfect Project Retrospective outlines your activities (pre-, during, and post-retrospective) for a constructive and effective retrospective.


The Project Team Has Perspectives and Insightful Ideas

Countless times I've been in three types of discussions that rekindle my interest and action in establishing a periodic discussion of a project team's operation and performance, guided by the team itself without management involvement:

  1. "Everything is just fine . . .  or is it?" Over lunch one day I discovered, to my surprise, that the project team members had widely varying views about our project - the project leaders thought things were just fine, while others on the team were vocal in expressing the need for changes to rectify serious issues.  It became obvious to all of us that nothing was going to happen (to improve) unless there was some degree of agreement that there were, indeed, project issues that required fixes.  This lunch afforded us the opportunity to check in with one another on how we felt about the project operation, and as a one-time event it was rather effective.  The team just needed to have a forum for identifying and working together on improvements.
  2. "I'm fine, but others are the problem." While waiting for a status meeting to start, several of us had a chat about some of the recent project difficulties.  Here is what the project manager and a few team leaders had to say: "our core project team is doing very well, but the partnering departments are causing all of the problems."  A focus on blaming others is never pretty, and signals a reluctance to consider our own contribution and performance.  Without a forum that emphasizes project team introspection, it can be too easy to slip into criticism of others and miss an opportunity to understand those areas where the project team itself can improve its own performance.
  3. Team members: a source of the best improvement ideas. What started as a "how was your weekend?" chat gradually morphed into an impromptu 10-minute hallway discussion where I listened as project team members spontaneously listed a half-dozen terrific ideas on how things could be performed more efficiently on their current project.  Make no mistake about it: your project team members have many improvement suggestions, but these jewels will likely be lost forever if there is no mechanism for collecting, discussing and incorporating them into the team's operation.

Teams that are good at evaluating their own strengths and shortcomings build a confidence in their ability to perform.  They are continuously improving, and the value delivered to their customer will also increase as improvements are implemented and become integral to their team's operation.  They have no reason to ever fear any outside evaluation, because they are already addressing any issues that an outsider might identify.


Assessing Your Team's Focus on Team-Based Continuous Improvement

How do self-evaluations occur on many project teams?  Sadly, many organizations have no mechanism for capturing project evaluations and using this information to influence future projects.  Worse yet, an organization may invest in collecting insights from project team members but fail to effectively apply this wisdom.

Think about your most recently completed project and steps you and your colleagues are taking to improve performance on the next project.  Score your attention to continuous improvement by counting those statements that apply to your project:

  1. At the beginning of the project:
    • We reviewed changes suggested at the close of a prior project.
    • We ensured that the proper support was in place to implement those changes during this project.
  2. During the project:
    • We implemented/executed many of the planned changes, and were certain to implement all of the important changes.
    • We kept a running discussion board where observations and suggestions about project performance were posted by project team members
  3. At the close of this project:
    • We reviewed and analyzed project data to understand project performance
    • We validated the benefit of the implemented changes.
    • We identified some changes that would help future projects
    • We launched a study of some areas of project performance where there were no obvious improvement actions, but where improvement was clearly needed

Your score on this is an indicator of the degree to which continuous improvement is an integral element of your organization.  Higher scores suggest an emphasis on continuous improvement.  However if you answered "yes" to only a few of these, you may not be taking advantage of the knowledge, experience and wisdom of the project team members; this may be limiting your potential for improving team performance.

I've used three distinct methods for assembling information about a completed project and creating suggestions for future projects: Post Mortems, Lessons Learned and Retrospectives (and have written a few notes about these in this prior article).  By any name, this particular type of activity will focus on listing a few things that went well and some that were problematic.  Most will even identify a couple of changes for the team to implement on the next project.

This article, and others in this series, focuses entirely upon on the technique of retrospectives; while the topic of retrospectives is applicable to any project method, it is predominately associated with agile methods, Scrum in particular.  Before reading anything I have to say on the topic, please take a few minutes and visit www.scrum.org and read The Scrum Guide - this short guide includes the only official definition, in a handful of paragraphs, of Sprint Retrospectives.  Anything you read elsewhere on Sprint Retrospectives, including in this article, should build upon and be consistent with the definition provided in The Scrum Guide.


What Good can Come From Retrospectives?  (A lot!)

Retrospectives can be monumentally beneficial to project teams and the project . . . if team members understand the potential advantages and participate in retrospectives with an attitude of achieving these advantages.  Here are some key results when a team fully adopts and fully implements retrospectives on their projects; this of these as objectives for your retrospectives:

  1. Team Dynamics - The team members work more effectively together
    • Culture: The team develops its own values and principles that are specific to the way they choose to improve project performance.
    • Open Dialog: It is a natural forum for open discussion where team members share perspectives, perhaps sharing insights not previously considered.  This is the time to constructively expose frustrations and disappointments that need to be addressed.
    • Closure: A retrospective conducted at the completion of a project is a element of bringing closure to the project and moving on to the next endeavor.
    • Teamwork: This activity reinforces the importance of working together as a team and determining how to best prepare for the next project.
  2. Team's Ownership - The team is committed to improve their performance
    • Responsibility: Reinforces the team's obligation to manage and improve their processes, methods and skills of the team.
    • Accountability: The actions of the retrospective enable the team to take action and be accountable for improving project performance.
  3. Project Evaluation - The team has a common, shared view of project performance
    • Strengths: Reinforces longstanding and new practices that contribute to project efficiency and effectiveness.
    • Assessing past changes: Gives a natural forum for evaluating newly introduced practices - Are they working as intended? Are they accepted by team members?
    • Agreeing on current concerns: Identifies problem areas that need attention.
  4. Improvement - The team has a agreed focus and approach to make specific changes that will improve project performance
    • Institutionalizes Improvements.  Assets (e.g., training materials, processes) are updated and revised based upon experience and needs.
    • Agreed Actions:  The team has a shared view of improvement steps to take.
    • Improved Performance:  Through evaluation, discussion and action, the team actually achieves improved performance, addressing disappointments and frustrations.


What's Next?

Many project teams miss out on an important opportunity to improve.  When a project completes, the team celebrates their success, and everyone runs off to the next project.  The insights and new knowledge developed during this completed project will likely whither over time without having a significant, lasting impact in the organization.

There is an alternative: study, understand and implement retrospectives on every one of your projects.  This mechanism, when implemented effectively, can build stronger teams and yield sustained team performance improvements.

The next step in this journey is becoming familiar with various retrospective meeting formats and approaches - presented in the third article of this series Article: Retrospectives 3 - Foundations for the Perfect Retrospective.