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The value of retrospectives – A guide for clients working with digital agencies

Nov 2018

Over almost ten years of developing digital products and services, we’ve found that our clients really benefit from learning more about important processes in Agile development. In this series, we’ll shed light on the main things you should expect to be involved with when working with a digital agency and why they are beneficial to your project.

In this post, we unpick agile retrospectives: what they are, when they take place, and how you can expect your project to benefit from them.

What are retrospectives?

“Retrospectives are the team version of feedback. They provide a measured forum for looking at aspects of the project that went well, those that didn’t go so well, and those that might be improved” –  ‘Agile Experience Design’, Ratcliffe & McNeill

Retrospectives (or ‘retros’) are, as their name suggests, all about ‘looking back’ at work that has been completed. They are a forum for a project team to meet, in-person, and discuss the work that they have just finished. More than this, retrospectives are about reflecting on and evaluating the ways in which that work was carried out by the team.

Instead of centring on how to improve the end product directly, retrospectives focus on how to improve the working practices. These two aspects, product and team, go hand-in-hand – improving the ways in which your team works will, in turn, promote improvements in the product they’re creating.  

The goal of a retrospective is to identify and implement solutions for any problems raised by the team.

When do they happen?

In the Agile working methodology, which focuses on completing work in small chunks (called ‘sprints’), retrospectives take place at intervals throughout the project. When used in this way, retrospectives offer a chance to review the previous phase of work and deliver continuous improvement in the subsequent phases.

At Bit Zesty, ideally, we conduct retrospectives as part of the regular sprint meetings, but, at a minimum, we hold them at the “end of phase” meetings. This way, we ensure that most members of the client’s team and the Bit Zesty project team are present and we can get everyone’s input.

What happens during a retrospective?

In a retrospective, we ask everyone to think of points that fit into three categories – what went well, what could be improved and what did not go well. Suggestions might apply to an individual’s work or the whole team and could include comments on teamwork, general communication, or the success of specific tasks.

As a retrospective is designed to be a dynamic, interactive exercise, everyone should write down each of their points on a sticky note.

Client and project team members in one of our retrospectives get to work writing their thoughts on sticky notes.

Client and project team members in one of our retrospectives get to work writing their thoughts on sticky notes.

The sticky notes are then placed on a wall in their relevant groups – what went well (keep doing it), what could be improved (change the way we’re doing it), and what didn’t go well (stop doing it). Within these groups, it’s helpful to place notes with common themes next to each other, allowing everyone to see if an issue is particularly prominent and has been noted by a number of team members.

The facilitator of the retrospective takes the team through the board, inviting further remarks from the group on each of the points. As they progress through the notes, the facilitator might add action points for addressing the issue in subsequent phases of work.

The facilitator of the retrospective guides the team to arrange their comments into groups on the wall.

The facilitator of the retrospective guides the team to arrange their comments into groups on the wall.

To encourage participants to share any concerns, we make sure that retrospectives are an enjoyable way to round off the day’s meeting for both our team and our client. While our retrospectives offer a formal, structured forum for the team and client to provide feedback and point out any areas to improve on, they are also a relaxed and light-hearted exercise. Ultimately, everyone understands that it is okay if something hasn’t gone perfectly –  the retrospective is a place to raise these issues constructively and iron out any creases that are affecting the project.

What are the outcomes? How will a retrospective benefit my project?

Retrospectives are a great way to make sure that the whole team is on the same page. They produce measurable outcomes such as improved productivity, reduced amounts of rework, and better quality work. Identifying issues and addressing them enables the team to spend their time working effectively, without repeating the same mistakes.

The facilitator of the retrospective will ensure that outcomes take the form of clear, attainable strategies for improving specific issues.  And since the whole team is involved in identifying the concerns and suggesting the solutions together, everyone is more invested in ensuring that the issues reach a resolution in time for the next retrospective.

Retrospectives also have other, less measurable outcomes for the team and the client. As well as raising concerns, retrospectives are a place for the team to highlight when an individual has worked particularly well. This practice empowers the individual and the team as a whole, promoting a culture of recognition and demonstrating successful approaches which can be taken up by others in the team.

“Along with bottom-line benefits, retrospectives have a way of increasing empowerment and enjoyment for teams.” – ‘Agile Retrospectives’, Derby and Larsen

Two notes from the ‘what went well’ group – retrospectives can (and do!) feature light-hearted comments as well as genuine praise for team members.

Two notes from the ‘what went well’ group – retrospectives can (and do!) feature light-hearted comments as well as genuine praise for team members.

How – and why – should clients participate in team retrospectives?

In our retrospectives, the views of a client’s team members are just as important as those of our project team. The client plays an active role in highlighting areas for improvements, and we ensure that any positive work by client team members is acknowledged – whether it’s helping our team to work more effectively by making time for regular communication, testing product features, or offering valuable contributions to the design or development process.

By attending retrospectives, clients can expect to solidify their working relationships with other team members and find a space to raise any concerns constructively.

A retrospective has clear benefits for the team and, consequently, for the project – and it’s an enjoyable way to round off a meeting.


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