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  • James Kelly

Insight: Planning for a productive retrospective – key challenges

What are the key challenges to using Retrospectives/Sprint/project Review to improve? The challenges are legion but broadly fall under two main themes:

  • Duck & cover

  • Technical/procedural

Duck and Cover

  1. A general reluctance to do it – “We don’t want to do it because the project didn’t deliver, went poorly, cost too much, and we’ve heard heads need to roll.  This can be the result of a toxic culture and can only be resolved by sponsors, execs and senior managers communicating and promoting the value of Lessons Learnt – and not laying blame as the first resort.

  2. “We’re unique, it’s only relevant to this project and no one else would be interested” – again this often results from fear and needs to be addressed by sponsors/execs/senior managers communicating the need to learn and improve through these sessions.

Even the most specialized projects can be a source of improvement opportunities to establish what worked, what didn’t and what we can do next time.

With any Retrospective there will be communications – use these as an opportunity to establish guidance on what type of lessons the team/organization is looking for.  Keep them based around PM, technical, and managerial issues and you’ll get a much healthier response.  Leading by example is the most effective and visible means for sponsors and PMs to demonstrate their commitment to a valuable and productive process.


The other theme is technical and procedural/method issues.  These need to be considered and addressed:

1. Scope – how broad should the review go? Should it include just the immediate core project team? or should it involve business SMEs?  What about suppliers? Customers? Other internal and external stakeholders?

Consider the potential benefit for inclusion of each group and weigh it against the problems caused by too many participants and stakeholders watering down the review by wasting time on tangential issues.

2. What to collect – Use a (simple) template to guide the collection, preparation and structure of Retrospective/review.

Using a template that is streamlined as possible will enable participants to focus on the critical items.  To determine how much detail to include, simply assess what actions could come from it.  The more tangible and specific the issue, the more likely it is that an action/improvement could be undertaken.

3. How to make it available – The worst deliverable from a Retrospective/review is a lengthy report that gets presented to management which is then filed.  

All that is needed is a simple summary of the issues and links to actions/improvements. It is these actions/improvements which are the real value from Retrospectives.  These could include things like:

  • improve PMP template to include risk budget

  • develop checklist for mid project customer review

  • include product development component in every project budget

  • develop reusable customer satisfaction checklist based on the one developed in the project

4. How to focus on positives and negatives

In the typical post-project blues most participants focus solely on the negatives.  No real thought or time is given to analysing the positives.  

Use the template to drive both positive and negative observations.  Allow equal space for both and give specific examples of both positives and negatives in the template to prompt participants in both directions.

5. How to manage conflicts

As with any meeting, conflicts and disagreements will inevitably arise.  It is critical to establish and communicate prior to the session an agreed mechanism for resolving conflicts.  Reiterate this mechanism at the beginning of the session to ensure everyone understands the bigger picture of improving the organization.

If an argument cannot be resolved using the standard mechanism, it may be better to postpone or incubate it to ensure time is not wasted that could be better used on improvements.

6. Differences in preference

There are numerous methods, techniques and approaches to conducting Retrospectives.  Likewise there are a plethora of preferences that participants may have (which may change over time).  Try and match the approach you select with the maximum number of participants.  Include some variety during the session if possible to cover other preferences.

Explicitly examining preferences and your approach will maximize the likelihood of success and value to the organization.

Retrospective on Retrospectives

One last point – regularly examine the performance of the teams when performing Retrospectives – what worked and what improvements could be made.  

Plan and schedule improvements so that Retrospectives can themselves be source of learning.

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