How to Run a Retrospective Meeting With Your Team

Managed by Q
February 27, 2020

Have you ever been so busy at work you’re surprised to realize another month has gone by? Or maybe even an entire quarter? Rarely do we have time to stop, reflect, and ask ourselves, “How did the last quarter go?”

Looking back on your (or your team’s) work can provide you with valuable lessons and insights. If you don't regularly review your work after reaching key milestones, start by following the retrospective framework.

A retrospective (or retro) is a structured exercise to help you reflect on your work, uncover better ways to operate, identify areas to improve, and decide what to focus on in the future. Retros were designed with teams in mind, but the process works for any number of people—even if it’s just you!

The basic framework 

A retro can be used at the end of a project, a quarter, a year—really any time a moment of reflection feels necessary. We recommend scheduling a retro that coincides with your company’s business cycle (at the end of each quarter or trimester).

While you may never have participated in a retro before, the framework is simple. Keeping in mind every aspect of your job, (including your team, metrics, accomplishments, projects, meetings, day-to-day tasks, physical space, equipment, etc.) you answer the following questions:

  • What worked?
  • Where did you get stuck?
  • What would you do differently? 

How to set-up a retrospective

A retro typically takes around 60 to 75 minutes and can be done in-person or, if you have a remote team, using meeting software (like Zoom) and a shared document (like a Google doc).

If you are meeting in-person, you’ll need the following materials:

  • Post-it notes in 3 different colors (bring one pack per color for every two people joining)
  • Sharpie markers (one per person)
  • A timer
  • A large, blank wall or whiteboard

Write “What worked?”, “Where did you get stuck?”, and “What would you do differently?” each on a different colored Post-it note and stick them on a blank wall or whiteboard with plenty of space in between (setting up the room beforehand helps the meeting run smoothly).

If you’re meeting remotely, set up your shared doc in the same way with three large section headers and plenty of space in between.

The structure

Start by choosing a facilitator. The facilitator is responsible for starting and ending the meeting, gathering and setting up the materials, ensuring everyone is adhering to the structure of the exercise, and keeping an eye on time. It’s a very important role!

The facilitator opens the meeting by stating the purpose of the exercise and giving a brief explanation of the structure, for example, “Today, we’re doing a retro on the past quarter: January, February, and March. We’ll start by answering the question ‘What worked…’)

Next, the facilitator puts 3 minutes on the timer and prompts everyone to use the same color Post-its to answer “What worked?” Everyone silently brainstorms the answers to the question and writes down one brief idea per Post-it (1-3 words). For example, “Hiring Jean” or “Using Slack” or “The holiday party.”

After 3 minutes, the facilitator will ask each person to quickly share their answers and stick their Post-its on the wall under the section marked “What worked?.” As the wall begins to fill up with responses, you’ll start to see patterns emerge. As a group, identify those patterns and start to group the Post-its accordingly.

You’ll do the exact same thing for “Where did you get stuck?” and “What would you do differently?”

The timing structure looks like this:

3 minutes: Introduction to the purpose and structure of the exercise

3 minutes: Silently gathering answers to the question, “What worked?”

10 minutes: Each person quickly shares the responses they wrote on their Post-its and sticks them on the wall

3 minutes: Silently gathering answers to the question, “Where did you get stuck?”

10 minutes: Each person quickly shares the responses they wrote on their Post-its and sticks them on the wall

3 minutes: Silently gathering answers to the question, “What would you do differently?”

10 minutes: Each person quickly shares the responses they wrote on their Post-its and sticks them on the wall

10 minutes: As a group, identify patterns or themes and discuss potential next steps

When you’re done sharing individual responses to all three questions, take a few minutes to discuss some of the similarities or themes that came up as a group. This is an opportunity to identify operational or behavioral changes you can make as a group. Hopefully some of these were already surfaced when answering “What would you do differently,” but it’s best to discuss actionable next steps and potentially start assigning follow-up tasks to people who are in the room.

The facilitator should take notes during this final portion of the meeting to distribute afterwards. We also recommend taking the Post-its when you leave so you can go through them once more to make sure you didn’t miss anything that can be turned into an action item.  

What are the benefits of a retrospective?

A retrospective is a form of feedback. The structure, cadence, and facilitation provide a safe space to come together as a team and honestly share feedback specifically about the work. Together, you and your team identify areas for change and agree on what you hope to accomplish going forward.

Retros also allow teams (and individuals) to recognize each other’s hard work by highlighting wins—something we often fail to do when thinking back on our work!

Tips on facilitating a retrospective

  • Use 3 different colored Post-It notes for each question and remind everyone which color to use before they begin answering the prompts
  • Briefly explain the structure of the retro at the beginning of the exercise, so everyone is on the same page and knows what to expect 
  • Don’t get caught up in asking questions or deep-diving into a discussion
  • Remind your team that this isn’t a time for direct 1:1 feedback or for open discussion about why something worked or didn’t work
  • Stay true to the time limitations, which will allow for more discussion at the end 
  • Allow your mind to wander and brainstorm; don’t get caught up in a perfectly-worded Post-It

Here's a quick guide to facilitating your own retrospective.


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