6 Tips for Better Product Retrospective Meetings

Product retrospective meetings, also sometimes called sprint retrospectives, can help your team find strengths and weaknesses in your current processes. A retrospective meeting can help you identify, analyze, and solve problems, with actionable plans to prevent the same hiccups from happening again.

If done well, a product development retrospective presents an excellent opportunity for your team to get together and critically discuss recent cycles while celebrating successes and learning from mistakes. Ideally, at the end of a productive retrospective, everyone leaves the room feeling heard, understood, and optimistic. But mastering the art of a productive retrospective meeting takes some time and experience.

How to Hold Effective Retrospective Meetings

Here are 6 tips for development and product management teams looking to improve their product retrospectives. The following suggestions will help you and your team hold effective, efficient retrospective meetings.

1. Create a safe space

A product retrospective meeting can be a lot like a therapy session, so it is important to create an environment that feels safe and secure. If people are afraid to voice their concerns and frustrations, or otherwise be honest about their thoughts, it will be difficult to get the full benefit of a retrospective meeting. You need to break down any walls of fear that might prevent your team from feeling safe. Because you cannot prevent problems from repeating in the future if you don’t talk about them now. Leadership needs to be supportive of this by encouraging open communication and meaningful conversation from everyone included. The last thing you want is to make your team feel afraid they will get in trouble for admitting to mistakes or speaking honestly.

Who you invite to your retrospective can play a significant role in your team’s comfort level. It’s wise to keep your attendee list as minimal as possible. You should also be wary of inviting executives, managers, or any other people whose presence might make the team clam up.

2. Make retrospectives a habit

Establish a cadence for your retrospectives and, most importantly, stick to it. Even if you and your team don’t feel like there is much to discuss, you’ll be surprised what you will discover once everyone is in a room together.

Thinking retrospectively outside the confines of a retrospective meeting is a habit you should instill in your team. While product retrospective meetings are specifically designed forums for this type of thinking, you should encourage your team to be constantly retrospecting. You can help support this by adding a few minutes on to your daily standups or weekly team meetings for a “micro retrospective” where everyone shares something that went well and something that went not so well with the team. Micro retrospectives can’t possibly replace retrospective meetings, but they are a good way to keep people thinking in the interim.

3. Don’t forget to look at the positives

While trying to find ways to improve, it can be easy to forget to mention the things that your team already does well. This is particularly significant if your team is composed of perfectionists who have high expectations for themselves and others.

Make sure you allocate some time to discuss the small wins. These are also opportunities to learn! If you focus only on the negative aspects of your recent initiatives, you risk making your team dread retrospectives. Retrospectives aren’t meant to be platforms for beating yourself up. Rather, they’re meant for reflection, so remember to reflect on all aspects of recent work, not just the things that went less than perfectly.

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“Retrospectives aren’t meant to be platforms for beating yourself up. Rather, they’re meant for reflection.”

4. Think outside the office

Remember NIHITO (nothing important happens in the office)? Whether or not the phrase rings true, you can also apply the concept to your retrospectives by taking them elsewhere. A new environment can be beneficial in two ways. First, new surroundings can help fuel creativity and promote deeper thinking. Second, switching up the scenery can make the whole process more fun. It never hurts to have your entire team excitedly looking forward to the next product retrospective.

Consider experimenting with different locales: is there an outdoor area nearby where you can host your retrospective? What about a new brunch spot in town? Your change of scenery could even be as simple as renting out a meeting room of a nearby co-working space.

Another way you can switch things up is by experimenting with different formats and structures for your retrospectives. Consider breaking the team up into pairs and having each pair facilitate a different part of the discussion. Or have each pair host their own product retrospective and share their notes with the team as a whole. Remember, there is no one size fits all approach to retrospectives. What matters most is that you’re able to find a process and format that delivers positive results for the entire team.

5. Bring in backup

You need a designated person to run your product retrospective meetings. This person is responsible for watching and “reading” the room, guiding conversations in a productive direction, and ensuring you’re staying within the set agenda. Many teams find it most comfortable to invite someone outside of the team such as an agile coach or other objective party with experience running these types of meetings as a designated facilitator. But, if someone on your team is willing and able to facilitate, that is perfectly fine as well, as long as you make it clear what their role in the discussion is before the meeting starts.

6. Sometimes your product retrospective meetings need retrospectives of their own

Remember, you can’t fix the problems you do not discuss. This applies to those related to your retrospective meetings as well. You don’t need to have a formal retrospective for your retrospectives. But it’s good to allocate a small chunk of time at the end of your retrospective meeting to check in with your team about how useful the process is. Retrospectives are for everyone’s benefit, so if half of the team isn’t getting much from them, you need to make adjustments for the next time around. After all, part of creating a safe space is ensuring everyone is happy to be there.

The bottom line: Investing some time and effort into making your product retrospective meetings as effective and productive as possible will help your entire team get the most out of this unique learning opportunity. There are plenty of general recommendations you can consider when trying to improve your retrospectives, but at the end of the day it’s up to you and your team to identify what works best for you.