Running Retrospectives

EP 18

In this episode, Simon shares one of his favourite tools for helping teams reflect, learn and adapt: The Retrospective. This simple routine involves teams systematically working through a series of questions at the end of an improvement cycle. Simon unpacks the why, what and how of running a retrospective. Great teams make better mistakes in every cycle of work. The retrospective will help you do exactly that.


The power of a retrospective routine. All of our teams are taking action. We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got to progress the work that matters in our context. And whilst many of us are building momentum in our work, we’re getting some things done. Despite all the busyness, we often struggle on a regular cadence to pause, reflect, and to learn from our experience. One of the routines that has the biggest impact on teams that I coach is the retrospective, as the name implies. Running a retrospective is about having a structured and evidence-informed approach to reflecting and sense-making and decision-making after a course of action. You see, structuring a 20 to 30-minute meeting is a retrospective, provides a powerful reflection point where, of course, we’re gonna talk about what are the implementation actions we’ve taken? What did we actually progress in the way that we hoped, and also perhaps where didn’t we implement as effectively as we planned? Secondly, we’re gonna review some formative impact. Evidence retrospective should give you an opportunity to pause and say, Hey, what changes have we actually seen by now? And what’s the magnitude of those changes? And who’s benefiting more, or who’s benefiting less from the improvement projects so far?

Maybe thirdly, we want to draw out some lessons. We want to think about, Hey, of all the things we’re doing, what actions seem to be more or less effective in bringing about the desired changes? Many of you would’ve heard of the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 principle. The idea that often that 20% of our actions result in 80% of our impact. And here we want to spend some time exploring, not just that we are doing a lot of things, but which things seem to be having a disproportionately positive impact. And if we can identify those, we can surface them and we can learn from them.

And lastly, as a retrospective, we want to reflect on our ways of working, not just what we’ve done, the impact we’re seeing in the lessons that we’re learning from the project implementation. We also want to reflect a little bit and about what’s working well with how we’re working together. This could involve things about how our meetings are running and our communication approaches. The extent to which there’s degree of psychological safety and the ability to be honest and clear with each other, the extent to which we’re following through, and that there’s a level of accountability to get things done. And so we reflect on how we’ve been working together and we surface some things we might want to try out in how we work together moving forward.

At the core of a retrospective is a commitment to get better every cycle of work. Another way of thinking this, thinking about this is to make better mistakes every term. It’s really difficult to do that without a structured approach to reflecting, learning and making sense of what we’ve gone through. If you’ve ever had a look at your phone and all the various apps that are there, you’ll notice every couple of days or weeks someone wants to update an app. And of all of the apps, what you see when you look in and you see what they’re asking for, they’re often saying each of these updates fixes some bugs and improves performance in many ways. At the end of every retrospective. Collectively for this improvement project, we want to fix some bugs. That is to fix the things that aren’t quite working very well in our structure.

And we want to improve performance. We want to look for ways that we can make small adjustments to make things even better. So start to think about if there’s an opportunity in the coming weeks that you could pause as a improvement team, as an implementation team, and run a little retrospective of the work of the last term or so. Have a think about what you’ve done, what the impact you’ve seen, the lessons you can draw, and how you’re working together. And if you can take that moment to generate insights and lessons from experience, you’ll be in a position to keep getting better every cycle of work. So try out a retrospective commit to a regular retrospective routine, the dividends that’ll pay out in insights team building and making better mistakes, more than make up for the effort of scheduling that regular interaction. Tap into the power of a retrospective and let me know how you go. 

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