Agile Retrospectives are a powerful tool for your NFP. Here’s how to run one

Over the last few years, pretty much everyone has decided that Australia should be “agile”. Prime ministers, premiers and public service leaders have all called for more agile workplaces, services and economies.

But “Agile” is much more than a synonym of “nimble” or a buzzword for political speechwriters.

Ignore the hype, and you’ll find a valuable tool that can help teams and organisations, large and small, to work more effectively.

Agile refers to an actual framework for working that has transformed and revolutionised technology and software development over the last couple of decades, and comes complete with a manifesto, 12 principles, and a variety of practices and tools that are relevant and useful to a huge variety of work and workplaces – including NFPs.

At the heart of Agile are ideas about experimenting, learning quickly from successes and failures, gathering feedback and iterating.

For NFPs – that mostly aren’t developing software – Agile still has a huge amount to share.

Perhaps the most widely relevant and useful practice to come out of Agile – and one of the easiest to implement – is the “retrospective”.

What is a Retrospective?

A retrospective or ‘retro’ is a meeting focused on one of the 12 principles of Agile:

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.

A worthy goal, but possibly easier said than done?

Actually the retrospective structure is incredibly simple to understand and implement, and powerful in its impact.

The retrospective meeting is structured around three questions. While there are different versions that use different questions, the most common three are:

1. What went well?

2. What could have gone better?

3. What should we do differently next time?

Why run an Agile retrospective with your team?

A retrospective is a powerful tool to make your team more effective. It provides a formal structure to reflect in an open, non-confrontational way on how things are going and how processes, practices or relationships could be improved.

You might run a retrospective at the end of a one-off project – for example after running a fundraising event.

But retros are most effective when run after regular milestones on your team or organisation’s calendar – for instance, after a team or department meeting that happens every month, quarter or year.

That way you’re continuously reflecting, trying new ways of working, and getting more efficient and effective over time.

Some of the many benefits that people report that Agile retrospectives bring for their teams include:

  • They are an energiser
  • They allow people to let go of their frustrations
  • They assist with team-building
  • They are a place to learn and help the team/organisation to improve
  • They create continuous improvement
  • They increase customer/client value
  • They empower teams
  • They are a safe place to honour or grieve past events
  • They are a place to raise positivity within the team
  • They are a tool for teams to communicate with / feed back to management

How to prepare for a retrospective

For teams working in-person, all you’ll need is a whiteboard or a wall, a few packets of Post-It notes and thick markers, and a meeting room.

For those working remotely, you’ll need a collaborative document or site that everyone can see – for example a Google Doc or a Trello board – both of which are free to sign up and use.

If it’s your first time, start with a small group – retrospectives are most effective with less than 8 people, though some organisations have successfully run them with much larger groups.

For a group of less than 8 people, one hour should be enough time to set aside, but be aware that the more people in the room the more time you’ll need.

Finally, if there’s an independent person from outside the team who can facilitate the meeting, that can be helpful – though not essential.

What went well?

Take 5 minutes for everyone in the room to write down all the things about the process you’re reflecting on that went well – one idea per sticky note.

Try to write large enough so others can read what’s on the note, and try to use the least number of words – this usually helps to clarify the idea.

Once everyone is done, take it in turns to add the notes to the board or wall, and briefly explain each idea.

Try to group similar ideas on the board or wall.

If you’re working virtually, each person should list their ideas in a private document, and then share on the collaborative document or Trello board when it’s their turn.

What could have gone better?

Repeat the same process with this next question, reflecting on what about the process didn’t work as well as it could have.

Again, take it in turns to add the notes to the board or wall, and briefly explain each idea.

What should we do differently next time?

Finally, take 5 minutes to think about what actions individuals or the team can take to improve the process the next time it happens.

Again, take it in turns to add the notes to the board or wall, and briefly explain each idea, grouping similar ideas together.

Finally, decide what to do

You now should have a number of ideas for improving whatever the subject of your retrospective was.

Someone needs to decide which new things to try – this can be done by the group through a vote, or by a team or organisational leader based on what the team have come up with through the retro process.

Then work out how you’ll to incorporate the final ideas or innovations that the team have come up with into your process for next time.

Try to close your retrospective in a positive, motivating way – perhaps with a quick evaluation from each participant of what they thought of the process, or what they’re most excited about that has emerged from it.

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Inspired? Intrigued? If you haven’t tried an Agile retrospective before, have a go. They are easy to set up, easy to run, they can have powerful benefits for your teams, and there’s pretty much no downside to giving the process a try.

Final tip: Paulo Caroli’s and TC Caetano’s incredible site is full of ideas and activities to help make your retrospectives fun and productive.

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