How to run a large project retrospective

36.510.952 registered voters in Spain and outside and only a few months to make it all happen.

In September 2015, Scytl picked up the challenge of supporting the Spanish General Elections that were to take place on December 20th.

There was no possibility for mistake. The project had to be carried out and delivered on time.

The company made it happen. Through impressive levels of commitment the project team achieved their objective on time and allowed the 36.510.952 citizens to make their vote count.

After the dust settled down and everyone could relax a bit during the end of year holiday period, it was time for the last phase: step back, review how the project went and learn from it.

Our challenge was to facilitate this final project retrospective for more than 60 people from various teams, departments and company levels. The objective was to align the different visions and perspectives of all team members and formulate improvement initiatives that would allow the next projects to run more smoothly.

If you are thinking of holding a retrospective for a large project, we detailed below the structure and the steps we used to facilitate this event.

building_the_timeline

The preparation

Since the time we had for the retrospective itself was limited, we invested extra effort into the preparation. That meant having several one-to-one interviews with project members to get a clear picture of what happened during the project.

We met with people from all implicated departments and from various hierarchy levels, from developers to executive director.

We used the information gathered in these interviews in two ways:

  • first, to build a timeline of significant events that would be used as a base for people to both remember the project and to complete the timeline with what they considered important
  • second, to generate a list of topics that represented the main areas of improvement during the project and formulate them in such a way that they would encourage constructive discussions

Check In

We started by an ice-breaker game “The Animal Tribes” that had people break up in groups and asked them to discuss their expectations for the day.

animal_game

This part was important in order to get all participants warmed-up and make sure that everybody was engaged from the start. We have seen from experience that once people start participating, even if it is in a warm-up  exercise, it makes it much easier for them to stay engaged and participate in future discussions.

We also set the tone of the event by reminding that it was important to avoid blaming and finger-pointing and instead focus on the system and on ways to improve it.

The timeline

The next step was to remember what happened during the project and gather all the information we could.

showing_the_timeline

From our preparation phase, we already had a simplified timeline prepared, with some key events of the project. We presented it briefly and invited everyone to complete it with two types of information:

  • events that they considered important to mention
  • how they felt during the different phases of the project

emotions_in_timeline

The objective of this separation was double: to allow people to express their feelings regarding the different events but also to dissociate them from the facts and create a clear picture of what happened.

In all the retrospectives we have facilitated, we saw again and again that it is critical that people can express their emotions.

But we also attracted attention on the fact that the way we tend to perceive and describe events is usually heavily influenced by our perspective and the meaning we give to them.

If when we describe an event we mix our perspective, and feelings with the facts, it makes it harder for other people to agree with us because their perspective and the meaning they attach to the event are different.

Therefore, our role during that part has been to help people with the phrasing of the events and whenever we detected  any interpretations or biases in a description we encouraged people to re-write it in such a way that it would only describe facts everybody could agree with.

An important emphasis of this exercise is to make people aware that the same situation lived from different perspectives could be given a very different interpretation and meaning.

As a result, we generated a “common ground” of facts that could then be used for the next phase.

Group Discussions

Using this gathered info, we moved to the next stage: the group discussions.

For this, we used the “World Café” format.

The attendees organised themselves in 8 groups. Each group selected a topic among the key themes that were recurrent during the project, and a person who would stay in the group for the rest of the session and gather all the insights that were generated.

The group then had 20 minutes to discuss their topic and come-up with suggestions of improvement initiatives.

At the end of these 20 minutes, the selected person stayed in the group, and everybody else was free to switch groups to discuss another theme.

world_cafe discussing_topics

We followed this dynamic for 3 rounds, so most attendees were able to participate in discussions on 3 topics during the retrospective.

The objective of this part of the retrospective was to allow people from different departments and backgrounds to discuss specific topics together, have the opportunity to share their perspectives, to understand the perspectives of the others and to reach alignment as to what could be done to improve.

All the while, we were 4 moderators assisting the groups, making sure that the discussions were constructive, that no one monopolized the conversation and suggesting additional questions to help groups move forward if the discussion was stuck.

big_retrospective_facilitators_in_scytl

facilitating_the_retrospective

After that, the representant of each group had 5 minutes to share the insights generated on the group topic during the 3 rounds and present specific initiatives that could be implemented in order to improve.

presenting_team_results showing_world_cafe_team_results

Way Forward

By this point we were approaching the end of the retrospective and it was time to touch on the most important part: Commitment to change.

We had all of the initiatives lined up on the wall, sorted out in three categories:

  • short term: actions that could start to be implemented next week
  • medium term: initiatives that could be implemented in the next month
  • long term: initiatives that would need several months to be implemented

None of the initiatives though were going to happen without people taking responsibility for driving them forward.

The participants were now invited to select the initiatives they wanted to support and participate in by sticking a post-it with their name beside those initiatives.

building_the_improvement_backlog

improvement_backlog

The result was a wall covered in so many post-its we had to add extra tape to hold them so they wouldn’t fall off 🙂

Finally, we closed the retrospective with two more notes: a group game that encouraged people to be more aligned and that emphasized the need for support for the change to be successful and a formal commitment by the management team to support the change along with an open invitation to reach out to them at any time to collaborate.

game_winner

There are many ways to improve, and through all of the organizations and teams we have been working with, we have used and implemented many tools and methodologies specifically adapted for different situations. But if we had to pick only one tool for continuous improvement, it would without a doubt be the retrospective. It is by far the most powerful tool you can use in this context.

A well facilitated project retrospective allows you to generate alignment, commitment and energy in a group. And used on a regular basis, it builds a very strong momentum similar to a snowball effect that can propel your organisation or team towards incredible results.

We have seen it happen again and again and again.

Try it and let us know how it worked for you 🙂