Retrospective Basics

- Groundwork

Shortly after another beautiful mentoring session (did I mention that I also learn a lot with each mentee or coachee?) I listened to the "This is retrospective facilitation podcast" episode with Gitte Klitgaard. Both inspired me so much that I finally decided to write down my takes on a couple of basics for retrospectives.

This is a multi-part article, so:

  • Part One (this one) is an introduction where I share the my very basics or the groundwork so to say.

  • Part Two elaborates on the right dosage of of variety in your retrospective (facilitation)

  • Part Three is on The My (secret) fuel for Inspect & Adapt and I share some helpful stances for retrospective facilitators.

'Why another article on "basics" for retrospectives?' you might ask. That's a valid question as there are heaps of helpful material out there from other well-known, more experienced people than me.

I decided to add to this abundance as a combination of sharing my own experiences and inspiration with you, spiced up with knowledge bits & pieces. Some people were following my journey from software developer to Scrum Master since 2016 and - even more important - many folks already got inspired by my articles from the practitioner's trenches.

What is a retrospective?

Before diving right away into some core aspects of good retrospectives, let me quickly define the term 'retrospective' for this article series.

For me...

... a retrospective is ANY consciously planned work session with the intention to reflect and learn from past actions/experience and design next steps together.

No specific (agile) framework needed! (yes, even big so-called "unagile" corporations can have retrospectives in some of their teams)

My Very Basics or: Laying the foundations...

Especially that mentoring session reminded me of a couple of things that I seem to have already incorporated over the years. Things that I would call 'good retro facilitation habits' because those things were great eye-openers for my mentee (who's an electrical engineer doing some "team stuff" & projectmanagement on the side in their work as an engineer).

Those are my retrospective facilitation basics:

  1. telling people about your agenda (a.k.a. your "plan", what to expect) - preferably upfront

  2. getting everybody in action with writing (ideally!)

  3. consciously choosing your exercises having different thinking styles and traits of people in the backpocket of your mind

  4. giving people time to think and stand the silence

Good retro facilitation habits

Share your agenda

There are different people with different needs. Some want and need thinking time ahead. Some don't. Some like surprises more, some less.

By telling people about your agenda (a.k.a. your plan) - preferably upfront - you raise the likelihood that more people will feel included with their different work styles.

If you cannot send it in advance (it shouldn't be additional stress for you!) then provide a brief overview at the beginning of the retro on what you plan to do with folks.

Everybody gets to write

Your job is to create the space, to hold the space and to close the space. Your job is facilitation. That's (sometimes) a pretty tough job! Even if people don't SEE it.

Ask people to write stuff down, ask people to use the material you provide. Get people into action themselves.

Sometimes discussion may spark and flow. That's okay. But don't get trapped to "just talk"... or even worse: do not stress yourself because "YOU need to capture it all".

Asking people to write stuff down...

  • makes THEM reflect

  • and it makes THE TEAM reflect

  • and it let's YOU do the facilitation of the group.

So getting everybody in action with writing is a triple win-win-win.

Choose your exercises consciously


There are folks who think best alone. There are folks who need to talk with others in order to "think at their best".

Consciously chosen exercises can serve both (or most of people) because thinking styles and traits of people are never a "black or white" thing and can depend heavily on the context they are in.

One example to replace a "typical brainstorming" with an intentional structure that serves more of the human variation is 1-2-4-all (in German) from the Liberating Structures toolbox. This structure caters for the needs of those who need to think on their own first and it also connects people deliberately to exchange and think through "the thing" together.

Give people time to think...

... AND: stand the silence!

Yes, standing the silence isn't easy. It neither is when you invite people to an activity (and watch them think or work. Nor is it easy to stand the silence when asking the team a question... and then keeping your mouth shout for... 1-2-3-4-5 loooong seconds.

People need time to think.

If you (feel) rush(ed): you are not alone! Oh dear, did I myself sometimes rush through some things in my worklife - even in retros.

My advice:

Notice it when you're rushing - and change it next time. Bonus points for telling folks that you just noticed that you're rushing (this is leadership in action, you being a role-model to reflect & adapt in the very moment).

In case you'd like a great book tipp on this subject, then Nancy Kline's 'Time to think' is THE book of choice.

And you?

Would love to hear your thoughts and experiences - to broaden our common horizon, see more clearly and learn from each other:

  • What is "the one thing" or aspect that is a 'very basic' of a good retrospective for YOU?

  • Where do you disagree with my views?

You are looking for a Retrospective facilitator for a group, a Team Coach or an individual mentor / coach for yourself? Get in touch with me.