The Importance of Project (Not Sprint!) Retrospectives

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The Importance of Project (Not Sprint!) Retrospectives


As a product professional, it’s likely you’ve been a part of 10s if not 100s of sprint retrospectives (retros), but have you ever participated in a project retrospective? Instead of being dedicated to just the previous two weeks, project retrospectives take a 3000-foot view and ask the team to think more broadly about what’s worked and what hasn’t. Learnings can be shared with the full product and engineering teams (and sometimes with leadership) and inform the project, product, and process strategy within the business. 

If run well, project retrospectives result in a wealth of insights into opportunities for growth and can be a powerful tool in building team rapport and expertise. We’ve seen great ideas come from these broader retros like splitting larger teams into feature/requirement squads, how to ensure we’re budgeting for the right roles during the sales pitch, and improving our load testing process.

Needless to say, we’re big fans of project retrospectives and wanted to share what’s worked for us.

Generally, the team scrum master will host your sprint retrospectives. While they are the most objective person on the scrum team, it’s challenging for them to participate AND facilitate even though they may have great insights to share. Including an outside party means that every person on the team can engage in the discussion without also owning the retro board and taking notes. An objective facilitator will also provide a new outside perspective to refresh the way the team has been thinking and working. Unsure of where to find someone? See if there’s a scrum master from another team who can jump in. Or even a project, program, or account manager. It’s a great upskilling opportunity for them and your team gets the benefit of their observations and wisdom.

We can’t give away all our secrets, but we will share a few tools that we like to use. My personal favorite is stickies.io. It’s free, super-fast to create an account, and the UX is intuitive. It is a bit limiting on the questions/themes you can use, but we haven’t found that to be a deterrent to valuable meetings. Another useful tool is FunRetrospectives. This one is also free, doesn’t require an account, and has a few options for full, prepackaged retros including fun activities. It’s also quite intuitive and easy to use although the design may feel a bit dated. Lastly, we like Miro. This one is much more freeform so you can structure your retro the way you want. If you’ve got your own personal favorite process that doesn’t line up well with the other two, this is the tool to use! You can set up a free account with limited access to get you started, but if you plan on using it regularly you’ll need to spring for a paid version.

While retros are often serious, action-oriented discussions, it’s a good idea to let everyone loosen up a little and offer opportunities for laughter and joy. When the team is at ease, they are more likely to share their inputs, collaborate, and build rapport with their colleagues. Since we’re a very geographically dispersed company, we host all of our meetings virtually and have a handful of remote activities that we use. Some of my favorites are themed zoom backgrounds, playing music during quiet times (you can even take requests in advance), using emojis or gifs for voting or other activities, and games like Two Truths and a Lie or Would You Rather. You’ll probably run into some (hopefully) productive tension throughout the retro, but making time for the fun stuff will make it that much easier to collaborate.

This will ultimately be driven by the number of attendees but we’d recommend at least 90 minutes to two hours to ensure a dynamic discussion where everyone is heard and action items are thoroughly discussed and documented. We know long meetings aren’t everyone’s favorite, but if you can get all attendees engaged, the time will fly by. There’s nothing worse than cutting people off in the middle of a great conversation because everyone needs to leave. To keep things running smoothly, be sure you have an agenda and stick to it (within reason of course; don’t derail fruitful discussions).

I know I mentioned that learnings can be shared across the organization but it’s worth reiterating. I can’t count how many times I’ve left meetings with great action items or ideas that are never discussed again. What documentation and sharing look like will depend on your company. Do you have an intranet? Playbooks? Regular cross-functional leadership meetings? Or has communication and tracking of institutional knowledge always been a challenge? You may find that an outcome from the retro is a desire for better documentation and communication. What better way to start than with the retro itself! 

With these five tips for conducting a project retrospective, you can easily gather and implement some high value-added process changes like starting a project with a solid but flexible Jira framework or implementing a comprehensive QA testing process. We encourage you to try hosting your very own project retrospective to witness what value can be delivered to your organization!



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