Tips for making your retrospective meaningful

If done properly, retrospectives can help you inspect past actions, help you adapt to future requirements and guide teams towards continuous improvement. However, organizations find it difficult to adopt the right mindset to effectively execute retrospectives. This article will help you understand what retrospectives are and provide valuable tips for making your retrospectives meaningful.

This article will cover:

  • What are retrospectives?
  • What is not retrospective?
  • Common mistakes in retrospect
  • Tips for making a retrospective meaningful
  • event activity timeline

What are retrospectives?

Retrospective is a structured process that usually helps you reflect on the events of past activities and set a precedent for future decisions. Retrospectives are often conducted at the end of a project/event or on a regular rhythm. It aims to give an opportunity to the teams to examine their activities and plan future actions that can help in achieving the desired results.

It should be a flawless process where team members can share their honest feedback about what is working for the team and what can be improved. The next step is to document the takeaways from these discussions (shortcomings, actionable items, and so on), which can be followed up in the future.

An important term related to retrospective is postmortem. Postmortem is a type of retrospective that deals with operational problems and the response to those problems.

What is not retrospective?

Retrospectives are often misinterpreted. Here’s what the retrospective doesn’t mean:

  • They are not intended to replace communication or action to correct issues for a team or project at the time of the incident.
  • They should not be used as an excuse to complain about missed opportunities and point fingers at others.
  • Retrospective is not a lecture to a team about past mistakes. Instead, it aims at coaching or guiding a team over a defined period of time which helps them to grow and accomplish desired results.

Common mistakes in retrospect

Not Focusing on the “How”

Teams often make the mistake of focusing too much on ‘what happened’ and ignoring asking ‘how’ questions. “How” questions help you identify the causes of events. Knowing the cause will help you define preventive actions. Therefore, a retrospective should be thought of as a process that reviews the “how” of what happened.

rare postmortem

Many teams are stressed with deadlines and this forces them to miss out on regular retrospectives. In some cases, retrospectives are not done at all. This makes the retrospective less effective and you may miss out on important insights into the process.

When retrospective is done in the context of postmortem, it is essential to plan and schedule the retrospective at regular intervals. There can be exceptions (false positives) when you are not retrospective. Therefore, there has to be a criterion for retrospective and if an event is retrospective, you must have retrospective. Often, when everyone is in the room, a lot of information comes out. This is a habit every team should develop.

not using data

Teams don’t often use data to build a shared mental model of what actually happened to the team. It’s good to have a shared understanding of what happened in the first place otherwise the search for improvement teams may end up targeting different problems or a different set of data which could potentially hinder development.

Tips for making a retrospective meaningful

neutral facilitator

Facilitators are responsible for the smooth execution of the retrospective meeting. Their job is to make sure everyone has a say in the retrospective and to ensure that all planned events are discussed at the meeting to make it more productive. Having neutral facilitators without a stake in the outcome of the event helps, as they will not steer the discussion in one direction or the other. This will help in making rational decisions and in a smooth and flawless retrospective.

retrospective exercise

The security check is an important part of the retrospective date. Before a team considers its past actions, everyone participating in the process should feel comfortable sharing information. Even if one person doesn’t feel safe, or is hesitant to share information, this retrospective can defeat the purpose. A facilitator should encourage everyone to participate in the process and ensure that everyone feels confident to give their input in the discussion. It helps break down barriers and can make these conversations practical.

Various members participating in the retrospective may come to the retrospective meeting in anticipation of a certain outcome. For individuals, it may be about addressing a certain issue with the current incident management process. For someone, it may be about the equipment being used or a database issue. There should be time for expectation management in the process and there should be some criteria to do it effectively.

Depending on the needs and processes of an organization, postmortems and retrospectives can be as short as an hour or even last 1-2 days. Security checks are more suitable for longer retrospectives. An exercise called a speed boat can be beneficial in some situations. It takes the metaphor of a boat and asks participants to think about the causes of an event, take their input and move the discussion to the next participant. This exercise enables collective intelligence to be brought into play. There are many exercises that add value to retrospectives and team building.

It is important to measure the effectiveness of a retrospective. Upon completion of a retrospective, one participant may have more takeaways than another. For example, after a meeting, an incident responder may have more takeaways than a software engineer or vice versa. There should be a process that not only measures how balanced the retrospective result was, but should also help determine procedures for future retrospectives where each participant has some takeaways. This ensures the active participation of each member, who can add value to the activity and does not impose it as a burden on individuals who had nothing to do with it.

healthy communication culture

Good communication helps a team to perform consistently. Especially when projects are lengthy, familiarity with team members works well in achieving consistent results.

Team members should feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback. Doing regular team-building exercises can help team members to open up and express their ideas, and can also help foster a healthy communication culture.

Make Retrospective Lossless

Events are bound to happen. When these incidents are discussed, it is important to ensure that individuals or teams are not perceived as points of failure and are blamed for the outcome.

Traditionally, in postmortems, a key outcome has been to fix/find the person responsible or the point of failure. This results in people attending retrospectives or postmortems with negative and defensive mindsets. This may result in important information not being discovered or discussed.

A faultless retrospective view is more of a corrective measure where members approach the meeting with a positive attitude and the point of failure is more related to the situation and not the people.

ask the right questions

It is essential to ask the right questions in retrospect. One approach is “The Three Little Pigs Retrospective:”

  • Is there a risk of breakage?
  • Which section needs more work?
  • Which section is rock solid and can continue to function well?

Another approach is the “process, people, equipment” approach. From this point of view the following questions should be asked,

  • What operational or incident management process changes would have helped prevent or resolve the incident early?
  • What behavior change, decision, or training would have helped in incident prevention or rapid resolution?
  • If any tool helped in quick resolution of incidents?

Your team should be encouraged to focus not only on the current cycle, but on the broader state of the product/problem. While doing so, you should aim to find answers to the questions mentioned above and then plan future steps accordingly.

don’t jump for solutions

Not all retrospectives can help solve the problem, especially not at the time you start discussing it. You can try different techniques to reach the solution. Some common examples include:

  • Why: An iterative technique to find out the underlying cause and effect relationship of a particular problem
  • Impact Mapping: Helps teams to map the effects of their work on an organization’s wider processes and outcomes
  • Fishbone diagrams: These are cause-effect diagrams that help in root cause analysis and show other possible causes of a specific event or action.

There are many solutions/techniques that can help solve specific problems for your team. However, it is important to understand the issue and find different ways to address and analyze these situations.

event activity timeline

An event activity timeline can serve as a real time series of incident resolution activity. This timeline is very helpful in understanding how an incident is addressed from detection to resolution. Having a feature that records incident activity can give you valuable insight.


Incident response teams need to be prepared to deal with unplanned incidents to help them save time, prevent frustration, and reduce refactoring in the long run. Having effective retrospective procedures can help teams identify what went wrong in the past and plan for events in the near future.

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