December 15, 2022
The end of the year might be a natural time to celebrate your successes and achievements, but retros and reflections should be part of your routine work practices all year round. A retro gives you the chance to take a balanced look at the year, month or week and explore what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what you’d do differently. That’s your baseline: a useful conversation and way to bring your team together. A great retro though is a genuine opportunity to reflect and learn together. It’s a space where you can celebrate the wins and the losses, where people leave feeling energised and clear on what needs to happen next.

It’s the quality of the conversation that counts

In many ways retros are a conversation, but before you dive in, ask yourself how well practiced you are in having honest, and sometimes if we’re being honest here, tricky conversation?

‘Oh, my goodness! I just realised it’s not what we’re talking about, it’s how we’re talking about it!’ 

Team member on a team development programme

Whose perspective?

It’s too easy to walk into a retro, or any conversation for that matter with only your agenda and world view in mind.  But the real value comes from having an open mind, by inviting others to participate and share their perspectives, insights and observations, and by encouraging everyone to use their voice.

‘Talk to people from the centre of their world, not yours.’

Andy Chevis, Head of design & research

Retros are a judgment free zone: use them to review, reflect and learn

In retros, discussing the failures and ‘what could have gone betters’ are as important as celebrating the wins. Because in a judgment free zone, there’s just acknowledgment that life doesn’t always go to plan; it’s the learning that matters. Because a retro isn’t about giving feedback, it’s a conversation. And as uncomfortable as it might feel, it’s easier to grow and improve from our failures, so we should (weirdly) look forward to stuffing up once in a while. In fact, we’d go as far to say that the hallmark of a great team is its ability to hold open, non-judgemental conversations underpinned by a desire to learn. The flipside is teams who are unable to share bad news and/or reply on platitudes of ‘well done, thanks for your hard work’ without being able to articulate what exactly went well or badly. Teams that don’t practice conversations and retros might struggle to reach their potential.

Learn to practice, practice to learn

The key word here is practice. If you ‘practice’ having conversations regularly and that includes the easy ones, the prickly ones and the ones no one wants to have; it makes it easier to approach the retro as another conversation. Otherwise, all you’re doing is going through the motions and asking the retro questions, but the conversation never lifts off and there’s zero learning or insight. If your team isn’t used to having good conversations, when a team member says ‘XYZ didn’t go so well’ the response might be a bland and non-committal ‘Ok, we’ll add it to the list’, and then you all move onto the next person who says something that they don’t think worked well and so on around the (virtual) room. But if you’ve been having regular retros and conversations, when someone says ‘XYZ didn’t go well’, another team member might respond by asking them a question about XYZ, or they might share their experience which might lead to someone else chipping in with their observations, and a rich team conversation develops. A quality conversation makes the retro experience valuable for everyone. And keeping the concept of ‘practice’ in mind automatically reduces the need for everyone to be perfect and get it right first time, removing many of the blockers to learning we often come across.

If we’re truly present when we ‘practice’, and we build our capability to reflect while we practise, our speed of learning will increase. And taking it to the next level, if we give each other permission to practice together, our speed of learning increases and is amplified across everyone involved. And beyond that, if we get multiple teams doing this, we have the platform for a learning culture in the organisation.
Andy Chevis, Head of design & research

How to retro?

The guiding questions for a retro might look simple, but the real gold lies in the quality of the conversation they prompt. If you’ve used our 3Ws framework to set your goals, you can use them as a jumping off point for your retro. For example, let’s revisit W1 (what do we want to achieve and why?) and check we’re all on the same page before we move onto how we did. And if you’re feeling really bold, you could also layer on the 3Cs: clarity, climate and competence.

The 3Ws framework for goal setting

  • What do you want to achieve and why?
  • Where are we now?
  • Where next?

By approaching the retro using these frameworks you’ll move the conversation from simple wins, losses and could do better to ‘so what?’ and ‘what next?’.

Final thoughts: the first rule of psychological safety is we don’t talk about psychological safety

We’ve talked about how important it is for retros to be a judgment-free zone, where people can speak freely about what went well, and what didn’t, and naturally psychological safety springs to mind. But we believe the best way to create a culture of psychological safety is to not talk about it, but to put it into action. Regular, judgement free retros where learning is the priority is the best way to practice and embed psychological safety.

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