Retrospectives: Feedback as an Iterative Tool

by Extension Engine | February 2, 2023

Estimated time to read: minutes

Whether at home or at work, we’re all constantly completing tasks. Often we do things without thinking; undertakings can be repetitive, so we go on autopilot. Only occasionally do we stop and ask, What could we improve upon next time? What could be done more efficiently, and how could we make the outcome better?

Reflection at the culmination of a job is fine when you’re working solo and the stakes are low. But if you’re doing a higher-stakes project with a team, waiting until the work is finished to review how it went isn’t really desirable; although it would be ideal to get it right the first time, that’s not realistic. Instead, as a team, you should stop at multiple stages throughout the project to assess progress — and to change course if something can be improved. In this way, you can build toward the right solution. This describes Extension Engine’s approach.

Extension Engine practices agile project management for all of our work, led by our Project Management Office (PMO). We believe that this method allows us to be responsive to client and user feedback without losing momentum or sacrificing creativity. 

How Retrospectives Work

Part of agile project management is conducting regular retrospectives to improve team collaboration and delivery on a project. Retrospectives are a scrum ceremony and, as such, are tools for making continuous improvements and building team trust. Basically, retrospectives are meetings in which team members talk about the work they’ve done and how it and the process can be improved. These meetings are conducted at regular intervals throughout a project’s life cycle so that any changes can be implemented live, during the project, resulting in a more innovative outcome that best suits the project’s goals. As Senior Project Manager Amanda Lacanilao says, “Retrospectives are best held to reflect on the current state [of a project].”

The PMO lists several prerequisites for the success of each retrospective:

  • Give the participants information and context before the meeting. “Encourage them to engage ahead of time as well as spend some time thinking and gathering their thoughts,” says Amanda.
  • Ensure that everyone knows what to expect from the meeting and is able to contribute their ideas in a shared space, such as an online project board, prior to the meeting. Ideally, this will allow each team member’s thoughts to be heard.
  • Make use of action items. “Make sure that we’re not just talking and reflecting on what happened, but focused on iterative improvement,” Amanda explains. “So what are we going to do differently next time? What are the direct action items from this session?” Then write down the action items, assigning every item to someone so that it’s easier to follow up and see if they’ve been completed. The action items will be discussed in subsequent meetings, so all the stakeholders need to know what they are and who is in charge of each one.

These conditions are all important, because communication is the key to a useful retrospective — and communication is only effective if everyone feels able and welcome to participate.

In addition, Scrum Master Vice Dobrović stresses the need for empathy and an efficient, collaborative structure for all retrospectives. He says, “It’s not ideal when you do retrospectives just for the sake of having them. It’s better when you come prepared and have some specific plan and talking points to discuss, and even better if those talking points come from the people who are attending.” This is why giving team members the ability to post talking points to the board prior to the meeting is a good idea. He notes the importance of being able to talk through emerging issues  while a project is underway so that they can be addressed and corrected in time to positively impact the project’s outcome.

Retrospectives are also opportunities to reinforce positive aspects of the work that’s been done. For this reason, Vice says, they should be done with every sprint, which is how the scrum process refers to set time periods of work. He adds, “Additional retrospectives can be done for certain milestones, important project changes, greater initiatives, or when something bad happens and we need a root cause analysis.”

Who Runs Retrospectives

Usually a scrum master such as Vice or a project manager like Amanda conducts retrospectives, but in the absence of those roles, others can identify the need for and facilitate a retrospective. Even for projects that aren’t following a scrum process, team members can hold a retrospective if needed; at a minimum, the PMO team recommends holding them during any major transition phases of a project. 

Multiple online tools are available to help plan a retrospective. These tools allow team members to elucidate their concerns and issues and track action items surfacing from a retrospective. Team members can add cards to a board and upvote items that others have added that they agree need attention; this can be done under their own names or anonymously. These cards and upvotes then track and prioritize the starting point of the retrospective; doing this in advance builds a sense of psychological safety and shared ownership into the process for everyone. Here’s an example of a tool that Extension Engine has used that provides a colorful, customizable way to build a meeting structure. Anyone can use this kind of tool to run a retrospective, whether or not they’re on the PMO team.

GoRetro Screenshot 2022-12-16 at 14.41.55

The Future of Retrospectives at Extension Engine

Just as retrospectives are used to improve the business operations and processes of the work Extension Engine tackles for clients, the PMO team is constantly reviewing and improving its own retrospective process. To that end, the team tracks feedback and topics from retrospectives so that overall trends can be noted and examined across projects. Vice says, “[We’re looking at] how our company can continue to use retrospectives. [We can] continue to hold them [and] have this agile approach, try to always improve and iterate processes, test different board types and templates, and try to get feedback from everyone on the team, and even people outside the team.”

PMO Director Jae Lohan explains: “We’re champions of data principles and also of the work that our colleagues within delivery are doing. We try to bring our best selves to everything that we do and to inspire others to do the same. We take very seriously Extension Engine’s core values: Be honest, humble, excellent, whole, and curious.”

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