Hey, here’s a question for you. What’s the most important part of a project?

If you ask a team, the chances are that you’ll get a whole heap of different responses; planning, kick-off, workshops, playback/demo etc. The list would probably be long and so would the debate. For my money, the retrospective offers the best opportunity to get real insight from a team into how they feel about a project.

The difference between sprint retrospectives and project retrospectives:

Sprint retrospectives should be fairly fast, short and sweet, particularly for 1 to 2 week Sprints. Anything longer an hour will start to feel onerous and the team will be keen to move onto planning and looking ahead.

Project retrospectives, on the other hand, are a different beast. If you’re been working on a project for the last 6 months, what’s the best way to get all of that insight and knowledge into one session? What format should the session take, and how do you share the outcome of the session with everyone else?

I’ve sat in a number of less well-planned retrospectives where the Scrum Master got the team to sit in a circle and opened with the question: ‘So, what went well in this project?’. Awkward. Silence. People shifting in their chairs. You don’t get a good outcome from a retrospective without good facilitation and planning, so here’s my starter for ten on what to consider when planning a project retrospective:

1. Who to invite?

The project retrospective is primarily for the project team, but it’s also a good opportunity to invite 1 or2 other people who have be involved on an ad-hoc basis. e.g. the Sales team, or the Client Director who may have been involved at the start or dipped in an out of the project. Their main role would be to observe the retrospective but you might find they have insights to add and it’s also incredibly useful for them to hear directly from the team.

2. Watch your language

Think about how to frame the session to participants. ‘Post-mortem’ and ‘lessons learnt’ sound pretty negative (they scare me) and may further terrify anyone who is nervous about the session.

3. Warm up participants

If teams are not used to retrospectives, the chances are they are feeling apprehensive, particularly if it was a nightmare project. Talk to them beforehand and make sure they know it won’t be a witch hunt.

4. Be objective

Lots of Scrum guides suggest getting someone external to the project to facilitate the session. In my view, this is essential as it’s very difficult to facilitate a project retrospective which you’ve actively been involved in. Asking another PM or practitioner will free you up to participate in the session and ensure your points are included without influencing the agenda.

5. Get snacks

It sounds silly, but never underestimate the power of a good selection of snacks in a retrospective. Better still, if culture allows it, get some beers/drinks in for the end of the session if it’s an afternoon. You know, you are allowed to celebrate projects being completed, right?

6. The ‘prime’ directive

Most guides suggest putting the ‘prime’ directive somewhere in the room and refer to it at the start of the session:


I may be a bit of a cynic but I struggle with this one. Some teams like the wording, some don’t, but generally all of them see the value of the principles. Work out what wording would best fit your team and try that out. You can always amend it the next time if it’s greeted with stony silence or hilarity.

7. Don’t be afraid to experiment

Every project is different, every team is different, so a ‘one format fits all’ will get you a certain way with running a good retrospective but might not fit every session. There are oodles of great ideas for activities online - http://www.funretrospectives.com - try them out, and ask for feedback.

8. Document the session

It sounds stupid, but don’t go to all of that effort without having thought about how to capture the output. Make sure someone is taking photos, have a template in mind for capturing the retrospective notes.

9. Work out how to share the findings

Think through how the output from the session will be shared with others. At Clearleft, we’re experimenting with informal info sharing sessions, so will no doubt share how we get on with that.

10. Thank everyone and ask for feedback

Everyone’s given you around 3 hours of their time, so at the very least you want to know (I hope) is they got something out of it too. Ask for quick feedback about how they would change the session if they had to do it again.

That’s it. There’s plenty more to say on this subject, but I’ll save that for another day.