A Project Manager’s Guide to Retrospectives

A guide to leading your next project to success by running effective and valuable retrospective meetings.

November 30, 2022
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Whether you’re a new or experienced Project Manager, navigating the tricky waters of retrospective meetings can be a struggle. When run well, retrospectives can help shed light on potential process improvements and keep the team aligned. On the other hand, a poorly done sprint retrospective can turn into a witch hunt, leaving participants defensive and unmotivated. 

Want to avoid spending time in sapless meetings without potential solutions or effective action plans? This guide will give you tips for running near-perfect retrospectives. 

But first, what are retrospective meetings and why are they so important?

What Are Retrospectives In Project Management?

A project retrospective is a meeting where key stakeholders of a project come together to analyze the completed project in order to understand its successes and failures. Also known as a sprint retrospective, it helps the project manager identify the different actions and processes that led to the expected outcomes so as to replicate them for future projects. It also helps discover reasons why certain processes didn’t work and make sure to not repeat them.

So, what should a project retro include?

A successful retrospective meeting should include a comparison between the expected outcome and the actual outcome. It should also include concrete action plans for the next sprint. Some sprint retrospective questions that can help guide the conversation are:

  • What was the goal of this past project?
  • What was the actual outcome of the project?
  • What challenges/reasons influenced this outcome?
  • What can we do better when handling a similar project next time?

Why Are Retrospectives Important?

Retrospectives help teams organize their thoughts in order to understand what is working and what isn't, allowing for a more productive discussion about how to fix issues, implement changes, and improve processes.

Your team needs retrospective meetings because they:

  • Encourage trust and transparency
  • Promotes team learning and development
  • Uncovers opportunities for change and improvement
  • Helps the team document wins and successes
  • Boosts team morale 
  • Streamlines feedback and team communication
  • Increases creativity and productivity
  • Encourages collaboration among team members

How to Successfully Run A Project Retrospective Meeting

The major steps for running a retrospective are:

  1. Prepare ahead
  2. Provide a conducive environment
  3. Highlight individual successes
  4. Address relevant issues
  5. Gain insight from participants
  6. Turn the insights into actions
  7. Wrap up with key takeaways

  1. Prepare Ahead

The first thing to do when preparing for your retrospective is to identify the participants. These will comprise of anyone who was an integral part of the project. Next, you’ll need to draw up a detailed project report that highlights major milestones and metrics for measuring success and failure. 

Once that’s done, you should create a clear sprint retrospective meeting agenda that shows how you intend to run each section of the meeting. You should also outline the issues that need to be discussed. This way, the meeting will progress faster and there will be no need to carry any issue forward. Finally, schedule the meeting and send out invitations to all participants.

  1. Provide A Conducive Environment

In order to get the best out of a retrospective, it should hold in an environment that is relaxing and devoid of distractions. You should also ensure that everyone involved is willing to participate in an open, honest discussion about the just-completed project. It is important that each participant feels respected and heard. So, endeavor to create an atmosphere that fosters trust and respect.

  1. Highlight Individual Successes

After the introductions have been made, start off by highlighting each team member’s successes during the course of the project. Take the time to commend each person and encourage them to do more. Note that if not checked, this part could drag on and make the meeting last longer than planned. So try to keep it as short as possible.

  1. Address Relevant Issues

Once the meeting is in full swing, it’s time to delve into that retrospective meeting agenda. This is when the main project review takes place. 

How do you have an insightful project retrospective? Discuss project facts and point out issues that took place during the iteration. It is also a good idea to ask the participants to get involved. You can have selected persons mention the project’s desired outcome and compare it with its actual outcome. You can also share the project report you prepared along with your feedback and comments. 

  1. Gain Insight From Participants

This is the point where it gets very conversational. Have participants share what they’ve learned while working on the project as well as what they have learned from the ongoing retrospective meeting. They’ll also need to point out what processes were effective, what major challenges they faced, what solutions they think might work, and what they would love to repeat for future projects. This section gives you insight into how each member of your team thinks and perceives problems. You also get to gauge their ability to come up with innovative solutions.

  1. Turn The Insights Into Actions

This next step entails making actionable plans to implement important ideas, suggestions, and solutions from the meeting into future projects. Proper documentation is crucial here. Be sure to take note of the details of each plan and identify participants that will be in charge of implementation. Also, specify the responsibilities and timelines for each task. 

  1. Wrap Up With Key Takeaways

Conclude the meeting by appreciating everyone for attending and actively participating. You can also explain how they can access the retrospective meeting notes or give further feedback on how to improve the meeting in the future. 

Also, make sure that each team member is aligned on the goals, expectations, outcomes, and takeaways of the retrospective meeting. 

Do’s and Dont’s for A Retrospective

To achieve the purpose of a sprint retrospective, there are certain do’s and don’ts to follow. Let’s delve into them.


  1. Keep it short and simple:

A typical sprint retrospective lasts between 45 minutes and 2 hours. This timing depends on the length of the project itself and the size of the team. To avoid having the meeting drag on unnecessarily, stick to the agenda and be conscious of the time. Keep introductions short and go straight to the point.

  1. Keep it positive:

This can be tricky because the retrospective entails addressing issues and pointing out flaws. So, the conversation can get tense and uncomfortable really fast. Endeavour to keep the flow of conversation positive. Use positive terms that boost team morale and have participants address each other in a civilized manner. 

  1. Prioritize action points

A retrospective without concrete action points is just a get-together. To ensure that the sprint retrospective is beneficial for all participants, outline and assign tasks along with their timelines. Lay out these action points in a prioritized order so as to get the most value. Use a trusted team retrospective workflow to guide this process.


  1. Don’t scold participants

The objective of every retrospective meeting is to help your team improve. So, make a conscious effort to avoid scolding participants for certain outcomes. Team members should not blame each other for mistakes or issues that happened during the project. Note that any form of negativity will ruin the meeting and that defeats the purpose of team growth and improvement. 

  1. Don’t divulge details of the retrospective to non-stakeholders

The details of the meeting should only be made available to those who attend the sprint retrospective meeting. Retrospectives are intimate. Participants get to openly discuss their flaws and brainstorm solutions. To ensure that you maintain a culture of trust and transparency, every member of the team needs to know what data will be shared and to whom. Ideally, what happens during the retrospective stays at the retrospective. 

  1. Don’t repeat the same pattern for each retrospective

Find new ways to run your agile sprint retrospective each time. This helps your team come up with creative ways to improve their working processes and deliver value in an Agile way. The difference in pattern can be in terms of location, method, or a twist in the agenda.

The Best Time To Hold A Retrospective

The best time to hold a retrospective is right after a project has been completed. To get the best results, schedule your sprint retrospective a day or two after the end of the project. This way, details of the project are still fresh in the minds of the team. On the other hand, it gives them some time to decompress so they don’t feel overwhelmed about dissecting processes right after the end of the project.

The Takeaway

As a Project Manager, project retrospectives help you create a safe space for sharing ideas, concerns, and solutions. When run successfully, you and your team can identify opportunities for growth, gain valuable insight about what works and what doesn’t, and turn those insights into action plans. 

Help your team align and crush those KPI’s with Assembly’s team retrospective template. Schedule a call today to learn more.

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