Project Team Retrospectives and Continuous Improvement

Posted on 3rd October, by JimYoung in Blog. Comments Off on Project Team Retrospectives and Continuous Improvement

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”


As a trainer I have seen and been subjected to a huge variety of post-course appraisals.  Typically these appraisal templates list a number of management-inspired performance criteria against which course participants circle on a numbered scale how they thought things went.  While such assessments make for ready mathematical analysis, the truth is that a word picture provides more useful feedback.  In fact, there are only three questions that need be included in such appraisals – what went well, what didn’t and what could be improved.  Similarly, it is these three questions that form the basis of a project retrospective.

A retrospective (from the Latin word retrospectare meaning “look back”) in project management parlance is a review of events that have already taken place.  A retrospective is often completed at the end of a project.  The process might also be referred to as a postmortem, postpartum or after-action review.  It is a method of evaluating project performance, identifying lessons learned and making recommendations for the future.

Such reviews are not only undertaken on project completion, but are even more usefully undertaken periodically throughout the project, perhaps at milestones, to enable mid-course adjustments.  It would be foolish to blindly adhere to a plan that’s no longer working properly.  The Agile project methodology in particular encourages the use of retrospectives at the end of each short phase, iteration or “sprint” to improve the success of the next sprint.  The meeting is usually scheduled to take about 45 minutes for every five working days of sprint duration.  It’s commonsense and is about continuous improvement, and as such should be applied regardless of our project methodology.


To help ensure a thorough and open discussion a retrospective only involves project team members. As project manager, we ask our project team how the project is going or has gone from their perspective.  It is intended to promote project team collaboration, and agreement on project performance and improvements.  It’s not an occasion to apportion blame.

During the retrospective one approach is simply to have the team identify three key things that I mentioned in the opening paragraph to this blog item – what went well, what didn’t and what could be improved.  And this last question is in my opinion the true power of the retrospective.   One approach might be to have team members record their thoughts using notes that they then stick on an idea board or a “retrospective pie”:


The retrospective gives us an important insight into the project from the perspective of the project team members.  A more comprehensive assessment might be triggered with questions such as:

    1. Are you proud of the project deliverables? If yes, what’s good? If not, what’s not so good?
    2. What was the single most frustrating part of the project?
    3. How would you do things differently next time to avoid this frustration?
    4. What was the most gratifying or professionally satisfying part of the project?
    5. Which methods or processes worked particularly well?
    6. Which methods or processes were difficult or frustrating to use?

For a targeted questionnaire designed to gather individual project team members’ comments on specific areas of project performance (either during the project or at its completion) please check here.  Such a questionnaire, customised as appropriate, might be included in our project plan.

While a retrospective is purely a project team assessment, other stakeholders with different perspectives and expectations should also be briefed periodically on project performance, which in Agile is called a Sprint Review Meeting – external stakeholders are acquainted with what went well, problems that arose and how problems were solved during the last sprint.  The sprint review meeting is often followed by a retrospective.

Having had some good experiences with retrospectives, I stress the importance of trust.  If project team members don’t feel comfortable about being honest, the process is likely to be just a formality that provides no or very little useful information.  And of course as the project manager it isn’t helpful to be defensive or chastise team members should they identify things that aren’t or didn’t go so well.  Rather the retrospective identifies, among other things, performance shortfalls to be overcome and lessons thus learned should be recorded at the time in the project lessons learned log or register.  However, if these lessons don’t prompt some appropriate changes, individuals may stop giving helpful feedback.  Thus, retrospectives are only as valuable as the improvements they instigate.

Sometimes, even though a team may have suggested some worthwhile changes, there is no follow-up action.  To be effective continuous improvement or kaizen must go beyond the identification step, illustrated here by the Deming cycle:


Continuous improvement is largely dependent on our ability to solve problems, although such problems may concern the gap between good and great, rather than some specific defect, difficulty, dispute or dilemma.  For a detailed explanation of the problem solving process please check .

Incidentally, I’ve never experienced a retrospective for a geographically distributed team, although I appreciate their necessity.  No doubt retrospectives are most effective when done face-to-face because much information is communicated non-verbally.  A standard retrospective is easy enough, you sit next to other members from your project team and simply discuss, but when there are long distances between team members, we will need a collaboration tool such as those mentioned in Tomasz Dziurko’s article at


In conclusion, project retrospectives are a valuable way for teams to improve their own and project performance. They offer a mechanism to help fuel continuous project improvement as well as improve team productivity and morale.  Prompt and effective follow-up is crucial to make retrospectives successful.

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