How can I run a better project retro?

Objectives in Tension

🎉 Congrats! You’ve done the project. You’ve shipped the product. You’ve published the new report. And now, it’s time to debrief. What worked well? What didn’t? What did we learn, and how do we do things better next time?

Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, no.

These kinds of conversations can be fraught. Someone might talk about how they’ve made a mistake, or maybe they’ll point the finger at someone else. Another person will feel bad about how things turned out, while someone else on the same team might be feeling great about it. Someone might be feeling disillusioned or unrecognized while their teammate feels celebrated.

All of this is normal. There are feelings at the end of a project, and that’s a good thing! It means your team is engaged in their work and that they care about outcomes, but 🤯 all of these feelings and opinions can make retros wretched.

So, how do you as a facilitator manage all of these different and even conflicting feelings WHILE ALSO trying to reflect back AND make choices about how things should be different moving forward? It’s a lot. 🙀

The first step to this balancing act is to acknowledge that 🪢 the objectives in a retro meeting are in tension.

In a debrief meeting, the objectives might be:

1️⃣ to have meaningful reflection

2️⃣ to have accountability

3️⃣ to have a shared narrative of what happened

4️⃣ to have actionable steps to improve in the future

The problem is that these objectives are in tension between the individual and the group.

Successful debrief meetings require ✋ individual reflection and accountability while also making space for 🤝 group agreement on the project narrative and future improvements.

If you don’t carefully manage the needs of both sets of objectives, you end up with a murky dynamic where some individuals take responsibility for the project’s success or failure while others simply decide that everything went fine and that there’s no need for further discussion. Voila! Meeting adjourned! No meaningful reflection and learning can happen in this scenario. You can’t move forward without obtaining a shared narrative of what actually happened and how the group moves forward.

🕊 So, how do we dissolve the tensions between the individual and the group in retros in order to achieve all of our desired meeting outcomes?

1️⃣ Start with individual stories

Make time early in your agenda to give team members a chance to independently reflect on their own work on the project, both their positive contributions and constructive areas for improvement. Then ask each individual to share their story of the project with the group. And yes, you’re going to have to acknowledge that this kind of sharing can be scary, but it’s important.

This approach gives everyone in the meeting space to hear and process how the team’s perspectives and individual stories differ. The hope is that, by hearing these different perspectives, the team understands that the project rolled out as it did as a result of a combination of decisions and events; no one person was uniquely responsible for its successes or failures. This storytelling approach can help to eliminate resentment, allow people to have different levels of accountability, and create space for individuals to show gratitude to other members of the team.

2️⃣ Build a group narrative

Having heard from individuals, you can now zoom out to the group. This sequencing is key: you’ve taken time to listen to the individual stories, and now you need to give space for the group to figure out what all of these different perspectives add up to.

To do this, take the focus away from individuals and reframe the discussion in terms of the group. You might ask: Okay, if that’s what happened as a group, how do we want to do better next time as a group? What does success look like as a group?

By asking these questions, you can build a group narrative that, while reflective of individual perspectives, clearly puts the team as the subject of the sentence. No single individual is center; rather, the team is the focus.

3️⃣ Pull individual learnings from the group narrative

With an agreed upon group narrative in place, you can now go back to the individual-focused objectives again and ask: Okay, if that is what success looks like for the group, what does that mean for each of us as individuals? How can we each improve the way that we’re working and make changes that accommodate this group goal?

Asking these questions after the group narrative is developed allows team members to draw learnings from what actually happened, not just from their individual stories about the project. It results in learning that can not only lead to better individual contributions but also a stronger team as a whole. Win! 🏆

So, to recap, a successful, not-at-all-wretched retro, flows like this:

📣 Individual Stories ➡️ 📚 Group Narrative ➡️  🙋 Individual Learning ➡️ 🏆

In designing the meeting this way, you recognize the tension between objectives and achieve your intended outcomes:

  • Meaningful reflection so that people evaluate their contribution to the project
  • Practice and maintain a real environment of accountability
  • Build a shared narrative of how the project went and what success looks like moving forward
  • Clear action items for individuals

Which is, undeniably, a great result! Go you. 🙌

I’m guessing you’re here because you want to get better at leading groups, improve your meeting culture, and maybe even organise some great events.

Well, you’re in the right place!

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