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Why you should retro your retros

How we’ve iterated on our process for holding retrospectives

Retrospectives are an opportunity to reflect on a project and document learnings to help inform future work and processes. The Storytelling Studio schedules retros with the project team after every launch and also holds Studio retrospectives once every two months. The Studio retros are an opportunity for the full team to come together and talk about what’s working well and what’s not at a higher level, with a focus on process and workflows.

A typical retrospective focuses on three questions:

  • What went well?
  • What didn’t go as well?
  • What can we try differently moving forward?

However, after countless retros with the full Studio team, these questions began to feel generic and repetitive. I started to notice a drop-off in participation, with only a few (of the same) people sharing feedback each time. One of my favorite things about my colleagues is their willingness to mix things up and try a new approach. We are constantly iterating on how we work, so why not apply that to our retros?

Experiment with different formats

As a team of product-based designers and engineers, we love to sketch. So, for one retro, I asked the team to come with paper and markers. Everyone spent a few minutes drawing one thing to “improve” or “remove” from our process and one to “keep.” While the prompts didn’t differ dramatically from typical retro questions, drawing encouraged participation and a new way of thinking about and visualizing our successes and areas for improvement.

In another retro, one prompt was to describe the Studio in three words. It was interesting to hear the consistency among responses, and I’d love to see how our responses change in six months. Here’s what we came up with after removing duplicates: collaboration, thoughtful, experimentation, audience, learning, innovation, educators, transparency, artful, kind, investigative, stunning, inventors, crafters, refiners, users, experiences, audience.

Allow for prep time

Send the retro prompts or questions to the team ahead of time. As someone who doesn’t respond well on the spot, I always appreciate seeing an agenda before a meeting so I can prepare. Similarly, try time-boxing response time in the room. Instead of asking a question and immediately expecting feedback, give everyone a couple minutes to think or take notes before responding.

Highlight the positive

Aim to kickoff and end the retro on a positive note. As a self-critical person, I’m guilty of emphasizing areas for improvement over successes. While it’s important to critique both process and the end product, and to not sugarcoat when a project didn’t go well, it’s equally important to celebrate the team’s individual and collective accomplishments.

Find the right cadence

While reflection is necessary, too much can be exhausting and counterproductive. The Studio tried bi-weekly and monthly retros before landing on scheduling them once every two months. Every two months may be too much of a gap for some teams, but we also schedule project-specific retros in between so learnings aren’t lost.

Make retros actionable

A retro is pointless if learnings and next steps aren’t captured. It’s important to leave a retro with concrete next steps, even if its just to continue doing something that worked well. Use future retros to reference earlier feedback and see how the team is tracking against action items.

Provide an outlet for sharing feedback outside of retros

While we’ve seen increased participation in our retrospectives, that doesn’t mean everyone is always comfortable speaking up in a group setting. It’s equally important to make space for other ways to share, such as circulating an anonymous Google form or asking for feedback in manager 1:1s.