Goals of a Retrospective

In my previous post, I talked about what a retrospective is not. Understandably, I got immediate questions about what a retrospective is. This post is a partial answer to that.

My current definition of a retrospective is “looking at the past to guide choices for the future.” That definition, however, is insufficient to offer guidance on making your retrospectives effective. It’s even insufficient to distinguish what I would call a retrospective to those who use the word for other similar or related activities. A retrospective is different from a “post-mortem,” a “lessons learned,” or many other forms of “process improvement,” but is often confused with these.

A retrospective should have a purpose. If it’s merely a formality, it’s unlikely to provide much benefit. Perform your retrospectives mindfully, thinking about your goals prior to the retrospective and choosing activities to meet those goals.

You may have many different specific goals for different retrospectives. Whatever the specific goals, the general goals of a good retrospective seem to fit three categories.

The first goal of a retrospective is learning, specifically joint learning. In a group retrospective, we learn as a group, generating a joint perspective on what has happened and what is now possible. This is not to say that everyone in the group is in agreement. Even the most congenial group of individuals will have their differences. A retrospective after an emotionally trying period is likely to highlight deep differences in the learning and subsequent viewpoints of the various individuals. These learnings, however, will be modulated by knowledge of what others have noticed during the same period, how they feel about the events of that period, and their current viewpoints.

A second goal of retrospectives is to make a decision, or choose an action for the future. Often people think of this only in terms of “fixing problems.” Our choices offer far more than this, however. The team may decide to experiment to do even better than they currently achieve. Or they may decide NOT to do something. Sometimes the best decision is to continue to do what they’re doing, especially after taking a close and communal look at just what it is that they’re doing. In that case, consciously doing what you’ve been doing is an action.

The third essential goal of a retrospective is often unstated. It’s the goal of strengthening the common bond. To some, this may seem like a frivolous goal. “We’re here to get work done, not to become a club.” Building a common bond is far from frivolous. An effective team outperforms the sum of its individuals. At some stages of team formation, this may be the most important outcome. It may be the event that nudges the team into that territory of bonding called the “gelling” of a team. In stressful times, a retrospective may be just the thing for repairing broken relationships and rebuilding a team. Even when things are going well, teams need to tend to their “teamness” in order to keep it healthy.

These three goals—learning, decision-making, and bonding—do not form a definition of a retrospective. Nor are they precise in distinguishing retrospectives from other activities. There are other ways of pursuing these same goals.

As outcomes, though, they are a good measure of the effectiveness of a retrospective. A successful retrospective is characterized by a new and joint perspective on what has happened, and what is possible now. A successful retrospective results in a decision or action to be taken. A successful retrospective strengthens the bond of the team.

When designing a retrospective, thinking about the goals is a good way to focus on what to include in your retrospective. You may want to make the goals explicit when setting the stage at the start of the retrospective. Even if you leave them implicit during the retrospective, considering them explicitly will be a help while planning. And if you’re not including all three of these goals, I suggest thinking deeply about why not.

6 Replies to “Goals of a Retrospective”

  1. Good retrospectives are hard, they require a great facilitator, open minded attendees and a willingness to dig down. However great retrospectives can also inspire great change.

    Thanks for helping people see the real (vs mechanical) purpose of a great retrospective.

  2. George, I like the 3 goals you’ve stated.

    I rarely do retrospectives now, but when I used to do them regularly, I found that the ultimate goal or benefit of a retrospective was to “motivate the team to face/embrace the change they are going through.”

    By collectively looking at things that worked well, we motivate ourselves for more. By looking at things that needs improvement, we try to find ways to handle & fix the issues. Putting some kind of an action item for them, helps us feel we are in control and we can deal with this.

    Also retrospective are a good platform for the team members to share their feelings and feel that they’ve a platform to express themselves. The ability to influence others and be influenced by other’s perspective in a positive manner, (as Mark said) inspires the team for great change.

    Ultimately a good retrospective leaves the team motivated for more.

  3. Learning, decision making, bonding. I’d say those were some of the goals of teaching history all those years. Showing students other cultures and emphasizing the common characteristics and routes with our own culture and hoping this helped students make more informed decisions.

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