(Note: this was previously published on Marketing Agency Insider blog on April 22, 2013)

Agile is all about learning. Learning requires feedback.  But, some of the most valuable feedback you can get — how an Agile team thinks it is doing — is often overlooked or ignored. Running an effective Retrospective can help infuse learnings (from positive and negative events) back into the agency’s processes and projects, helping everyone deliver projects better, faster and happier.

In this article we’ll give you, as a Project Manager or Producer at a smaller agency (less than 50 people), a simple model (our introductory model) for how to run an effective team or project Retrospective and several key tips on how to be effective and efficient, including, and probably most important, what not to do.

One of the least well-executed Agile techniques in agencies is what is known as the Retrospective.  This is true regardless of agency size, but there is some irony in that smaller agencies would probably benefit more from a well-run Retrospective process, though they tend to use it even less than their larger counterparts.  Smaller agencies can assimilate the learnings more rapidly, adjust their processes in a more-fluid way, and reach new cultural norms much more quickly, which is typically not the case for larger agencies.  And since getting everyone together is so much easier in a smaller shop, it just seems surprising to us that they don’t do it more often.

The Retrospective is a meeting that is held at the end of a project or cycle (sprint) to gather feedback on the work, and more important, on the overall process.  It is a continuous process improvement technique that we use as one of the three major levers to improve velocity of agency teams.  We often include some other activities in our Retrospective meetings, but the feedback gathering process, like the one we’ll describe for you here, is always at its core.  In this article we’ll give you a basic structure for running a high-quality agency-based Retrospective, including some key behavioral and process tips to help you maximize the return on the time investment.

A Simple Framework: Good, Bad, Better, Best

One of the keys to a good Retrospective is providing a simple framework that aligns well with the mental model that the team has.  When we start work with an agency, one of the first Retrospective frameworks that we use is what we call “Good, Bad, Better, Best.”  Here is the basic setup: The room has open wall space with four sections delineated and titled with: Good, Bad, Better and Best.  Seating is arranged so that everyone has a clear view of each other and the wall (U-shaped is best). Index cards or post-its, and pens, are placed at every seat.

  • Participants in the exercise are typically ONLY the team members (those that actually create the work, not the managers).  We suggest that you limit the number of “observers” as their comments can have a negative impact upon the quality of the Retrospective.  If they do attend, they must agree to be largely silent (unless spoken to) and confirm that they will conform to the privacy of the meeting (everything said stays in the room unless explicitly agreed by all).
  • Duration of this exercise for teams of 5-10 would be about 45 minutes, so plan an hour, plus whatever other time you need for other activities.
  • Start the meeting by explaining the process that you will facilitate: we are going to collect feedback on the most recent cycle (or project.)

Staying seated, each team member should take the next 5-10 minutes to write down their observations (one per card) on how the work and process went.  The topics are:

  • Good: Things that went well.  Ways that the team met its or the client’s expectations.
  • Bad: Things that did not go well.  Ways that the team missed its or the client’s expectations.  These also are typically one-off events – things that we don’t expect to repeat.
  • Better:  Things that we can do better next time.  These are things that did not go well, and we expect we’ll have to figure out how to do it better next time.  These can include a suggestion on how to do it better.
  • Best:  Things that went really, really well.  Outstanding performances, and big thank you’s.  Every time a “Best” is put on the wall, everyone should clap to celebrate.  An especially excellent one deserves a standing ovation.

The first time you do this process, verbally review the above list, and ask to make sure everyone understands. Once everyone has their cards written (they can write additional ones during the session), they will take turns walking to the front of the room putting one on the wall and explaining it.  This process continues until all cards are on the wall.  Explain this to everyone.  And then explain it again: one card per person per turn.  Confirm.

Once someone is done explaining their card, then ask the rest of the room: “Does anyone have any comments or thoughts about that?” This probably sounds pretty simplistic…and it is, but for a good reason.  Working in agencies, the team members vary greatly in terms of their personal information processing styles.  A simple process like this works well to help bridge understanding and absorption across a wide range of disciplines.  Here are some key tips for making this format create long-lasting results:

Key Success Tips:

  1. Probably the most important tip, when viewed from the perspective of what usually goes wrong with most Retrospectives: as the PM and facilitator, do not ever (we mean EVER) editorialize, comment or summarize the content of the cards or the discussions that take place.  Do not be the last person to comment on a card, any card.  Sorry, but it really doesn’t matter what you, the PM, thinks, especially if you’re doing an exercise to find out what they think. Much of the power of the Retrospective comes from the team members being given a voice, and giving words to their experiences and observations.  Keep your voice quiet and your words to yourself. Listen and learn.  This is very hard to do, but we know you can do it!
  2. Don’t assume that anyone actually remembers what the last cycle (or project) was like.  In your role as PM you tend to look at the project holistically, but most other people in the project don’t.  For team members it can be hard to remember even two weeks ago, especially if it was a busy two weeks…or traumatic.  When we set up the room, we will often use a small section of the wall and post some memory aids on cards: list the cycle events (planning, check-in, show and tell, etc.) and the stories that were worked on (not necessarily built).  At the beginning, after you have explained the process (above) and as people are starting to write, walk them all through these cards quickly to jog their memories.  Do not express an opinion about them, just recite them.
  3. Separate discovery from discussion.  The process of people putting their cards on the wall and explaining them is what we call a discovery stage.  Your goal, as PM, should be to create a “safe zone” in which people can express their opinion freely.  If someone wants to disagree, then mark the card for later discussion (we usually use a colored dot or a marker to make a dot on the card).  It is okay to ask questions for the purpose of understanding, but debate and discussion should be done after all of the cards are up on the wall.
  4. Duplicates are fine, and you should have people still add their card to the wall and explain it.  Everyone gets to vote, right?  Just because someone said it first, doesn’t lessen the value of a second or third person saying it.  You actually want to know what things people agree deeply about, and this is a good way to visualize that (imagine four cards all saying: “need to review pages with UX before they go to QA” – that’s a pretty clear message, right?)  Keep the cards separate – do not overlay them or combine them.   Team members can put their card near related cards if they want.
  5. Don’t create action items or next steps.  The PM in you will want to summarize next steps and assign action items.  This is a bad move and a common mistake for a whole bunch of reasons, but most of all because you want to keep the process focused on them (you and your team are getting and understanding feedback) and that will yield better results and also induce deeper change.

We can imagine that you’re thinking what many PMs ask us at this point: “But how do we ensure follow-up and make sure that the changes happen?”  The simple answer is that your passivity as the PM in this process, as in most cases, will signal that the team owns these items.  And lacking any sign that someone else will do it for them, the team will internalize the need and take ownership.  When they start telling you what you need to do for them, then you’ll know you’ve succeeded in helping them. If they don’t do this right away, guess what happens?  Yes, you’ll hear the same points again in the next Retrospective…and they will too. That’s what learning looks like us humans – we do it over and over again until we learn.

Remember, as an Agile facilitator, your job is not to fix things, but to help them learn how to do team-driven change on many levels, not only what the work is, but how they handle the work (cycle process) and how they revise or create new processes (their change process).  The retrospective is the crucible in which you’ll make this happen.