A few months ago, my daughter was struggling as she ran her part of an event at school. She was frustrated, frazzled, and basically stressed out. Although everything turned out fine, the process sucked all the joy out of the experience.
Listening to her, I understood the problems and could advise her on how to fix them. Mainly, communication: clear expectations, risk awareness, and follow up with key resources, especially as time got closer. All basic project management activities.
I couldn’t say anything, though. I truly wanted to help. But by the time she told me what was going on, it was too late; any advice would have been flatly rejected. Emotions were running too high and she was already in survival mode. She wouldn’t have been able to absorb the information and put it into practice.
Does this sound familiar? Not with your kids’ events, necessarily, but at work. You’re involved in a project that’s gone off the rails for some reason: key resources left the organization, a bizarre technical challenge cropped up, scope was changed…maybe all three hit at once, causing the perfect storm.
Sometimes all you can do is push through it. But is that the end of the story? Of course not!
You may not be able to change the trajectory of this project. But you can do something about how you handle the next one.
Yes, I’m talking about conducting the much-maligned Retrospective.
Look Forward, Not Back
Retrospectives have a bad reputation as a ton of work for something that gets placed in a binder and never looked at again. And, if conducted with that mindset, I agree. But it doesn’t need to be.
I believe a Retrospective can be exceptionally effective if you do it right.
So, how do you do run a truly useful Retrospective? Your specific project, team, and corporate culture will help decide the right type of review, the formality, and the timeline.
The larger the project, the more formal and extensive the Retrospective. For example, a whole-organization system upgrade with forty cross-functional team members may involve on-line surveys, analysis, charts, and results presentations. But a small, department-level process redesign? You would do better with a simple team meeting writing down “Stop–Start–Continue” items.
When it comes to your team, pay attention to corporate culture. I’ve been in organizations that have a definite hierarchy and were very political. Even a small project there wouldn’t benefit from sitting around a conference room table…no one would want to speak up. In this case, a survey actually does work well, with assurances to the team that the results will be anonymous, with only a summarized version going to the executives.
I’ve also been on projects where the company culture embraces “failing forward.” Obtaining feedback here is much easier, of course. However, these Retrospectives take a bit more work, as teams may express their opinion on every little thing instead of focusing on the key elements. The PM has their work cut out for them keeping the meeting on track, as well as distilling the wealth of comments.
The biggest mistake in any Retrospective is the belief that it’s all about the project you just finished. (Hint: it’s definitely not!) The goal is to improve on the next project. More specifically, it’s about how you and your team approach future projects.
Let’s face it, this won’t be your—or their—final project. As PMI states, “A project is a series of structured tasks, activities, and deliverables that are carefully executed to achieve a desired outcome.” Whether it’s business, school, or community, we will constantly be involved in projects . As a leader, we have the ability to reduce that stress and help our teams perform better. Retrospectives give us the opportunity to reflect before too much time has passed and we’re mid-way through the next project…and have run into the same issues!
If you haven’t heard of Stop–Start–Continue, it’s a very simple Retrospective. Probably my favorite, as it’s scalable and fun to do as a team.
Essentially, you have three lists:
- Stop: What happened on the project that caused chaos? What actions increased (or realized) your risk? What do you want to “never, ever do again” on a project? This could be anything from not locking down Scope to forgetting to confirm that a team member can complete a critical task on time.
- Start: What do you wish you did (or had) during the project? Maybe you should have pulled in the Manufacturing team earlier, or started your weekly team meetings from kick-off. This is a great area to set your mind to how you want the next project to run.
- Continue: What went well this time? Even if the project was insane, you got through it, right? So you did at least one thing right! List them out so you remember to do them moving forward.
One reason I like the Stop-Start-Continue method is it keeps the review from turning into venting-session. Yes, there will be plenty of things to Stop, but for every Stop, you’ll have an opportunity to resolve it with a Start. And having a Continue list means the team doesn’t forget all the good stuff they did (maybe it was a Start item from a previous project).
(If I’m going to talk about something, I want to help as much as I can, so I created a template for my favorite review method. Feel free to use it on your next Retrospective: Stop–Start–Continue.)
Making It Stick
Regardless of the method of Retrospective, I make a point of teaching (or reminding) my team why we’re doing this, how it will work, and how it will benefit them. Because, at the end of the day, it’s all about the lessons the team will take away. When they head into their next project, they’ll remember. Maybe they’ll ask certain questions earlier or give their new Project Manager a more detailed list of activities (with more accurate time estimates). They might be more responsive to status updates and take requests more seriously, knowing how it affected their last project.
One final thought: Give your team a copy of the results. Even if it’s a Word doc with three columns on it. They helped create it; you want it to be useful to them. And if it’s accessible, they may use it as a template to run their own Retrospective in the future.