How to Host an Effective Retrospective

woman thinking light idea bulb on head, creative girl lots of ideas

By Rebecca Bennett

The number one reason why some people are skeptical of retrospectives is because they aren’t effective. They find that they spend 2 hours of their time talking in circles about things that can be uncomfortable with no real outcome. When hosting a retrospective during a project post-mortem, set yourself up for success by following this creative format, best practices and proven ideas that can alter their perception of the value of a retrospective.


  • WHAT is a Retrospective?: An

opportunity for a team to reflect on how a project went and figure out what they would do differently if they could do it over again.

  • What is a retrospective NOT: A blame game.
  • WHO should participate?: The project team and any key stakeholders.

A project leader and preferably a

project associate who can assist.

  • WHERE should you host it?: A neutral environment with a lot of blank wall space, preferably with marker boards. Book a space that gives everyone a little breathing room and space, but not so much space that it would allow individuals to remove themselves from the exercises.
  •  LENGTH: Typically 2 hours.
  • Sharpie markers
  • 3 color post-it notes (Make sure you have enough of the same color so everyone has one)
  • White board markers

Use an online meeting service, such as GoToMeeting, where you can do facetime and chat. Face-time is more engaging and you can turn the camera to face the board or the team. Use the built-in chat or a chat program, such as Slack, so remote attendees can send you their comments and you can have the project associate transcribe them into stickies to post on the wall.

  • ORGANIZE: Draw out this table on the white board.










[Post Red sticky notes] [Post Yellow sticky notes] [Post Green sticky notes] [Post Blue sticky notes]

Off to the side, write some project characteristics to think about to get them started.

  •    Planning/Implementation/Control/Close
  •   Blockers
  •    Process/Business rules
  •    Bureaucracy – Approvals, Delays
  •    Communication flow – frequency, medium, responsiveness, clarity, back and forth, timeliness, distribution list
  •    System/Equipment constraints
  •    Failures/Bugs
  •    Time
  •    Other?


1)   Establish the goals of the retrospective for the team:

– To understand why things happened

– To learn what is now possible

– To improve productivity

– To shorten project delivery time

– To improve communication

– To decrease cost

– To increase quality

– To reduce waste

– To decrease delays

– To unblock innovation

– To identify new actions to apply in the next project

2)    Explain the format and expected duration. Let everyone know that the format will be interactive and that their first task is to begin writing challenges on sticky notes of a designated color. Give them approximately 15 minutes to write. Once they are finished they are to post their stickies on the wall under the “Challenges” section. Explain that we will discuss all the challenges in detail. From there, as a group they will come up with associated causes and finally a solution. Let them know that there is no need to call out specific names and that the point of this exercise is not for it to be a blame game.

3)   Take 10-20 minutes to identify the challenges on the sticky notes.

4)   Next, arrange the challenges into similar groups so as to create a horizontal affinity diagram. Stack duplicates after ensuring team members are referring to the same thing. As folks bring up their sticky notes, ideally have the project associate help in arranging on the board while the project leader can be available to answer questions or give the room ideas on what to think about if they get stuck.

5)   Discuss the first challenge as a group, asking the sticky owners to speak to their notes. Encourage others to expand on what they say and add it to the board. Ask questions to root out more specifics, such as:

–  What about “X” did you dislike?

– Is there anything else about “X”?

– Why do you feel this way?

– Why did we choose to do it this way?

– Why is “X” important?

6)    After discussing the first challenge, have the team give their ideas on possible causes. Don’t take the first cause statement at face value, have the team go deeper by using the “5-Whys” method, asking why they think that was the cause in order to reveal the root cause. You know you have reached the root cause when you can’t ask “Why” anymore.

7)   Once you have identified the root cause, prompt the team to brainstorm solutions. Encourage the team to build on the ideas that are presented, not dismissing any one. As the team presents them, rephrase them in such a way that they are action oriented. Push the team to be specific and to answer how they propose the solution me implemented. Identify which actions can be deployed right away versus what best practices need to be further developed.

8)    Continue in this lateral fashion until you have addressed all the challenges on the board.

9)   Ask the team to write down on different colored stickies, what went well in the project that they would like to continue. Post these under the “Keep” column. This helps end the session on a positive note.

10)   Thank the team for their input and distribute the retrospective log in a shared location within a few days.

11) In your retrospective log, emphasize that after-the-fact ideas and comments are just as valuable and allow team members to continue to post comments in the log after you post it.
12) Make plans to develop best practices that needed to be further developed and recruit the team to help you execute.

13)   When will we ever use the retrospective log again you may be wondering? The perfect time to break it out again is when putting together the project plan for the next project. Re-iterate and incorporate the changes in project management and processes and use it to identify risks and a mitigation plan. The preventative actions will already have been identified in the retrospective log, making it easy to build the new project plan.

Remember that people can feel a sense of vulnerability in a retrospective. The number one reason people feel hesitant about retrospectives is because they are afraid that they are going to be blamed for the problems that occurred and that it will affect their performance review. It’s important to make people feel safe. Start off the session with a joke or light conversation. When someone opens up about something, use positive reinforcement, letting them know that you appreciate their honesty and what they said speaks to something important. By encouraging others to build on the comments and ideas put out there, it helps to reinforce confidence, so that you can really have a chance to touch on some meaningful topics.

By using this guided and creative approach, you engage the team in active problem solving that feels safe, fun and productive. Your team should walk away with a sense of satisfaction because they had their issues addressed and that they feel closer to their team mates.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.