A Look at Our Retrospective Process

On a recent digital PM thread, a peer asked how different shops handle project retrospectives. For us, the end of project retrospective is a valuable opportunity for reflection and growth. We've spent a lot of time over the years refining our process for these, so here's a glimpse into our approach.

Like most processes at Viget, our retrospective process is constantly evolving. As a primarily internal effort, we've got the freedom to tinker with it often. We're always looking for ways to make it as valuable as possible and we want a framework that can work across all types of projects. Here's the framework we follow:

We conduct a formal retrospective for every major project. (We don't require retrospectives for support projects and short efforts for longterm clients.) The PM is responsible for leading the retrospective and creating all retrospective-related documentation. Our retrospectives consist of three parts:

  1. A team survey
  2. A retrospective document
  3. A retrospective meeting

Team Survey

At the conclusion of a project, one of the first things we do is send out a retrospective survey. The survey goes out to the full project team. The goal of the survey is to gather team feedback while the project is fresh. We start with a template and customize it on a per project basis. Typical questions are focused on project satisfaction, the client and industry, and the work and results:

  • Was the project fun and interesting? Did it provide opportunities to innovate?
  • What went well? What didn't go well?
  • What lessons did you learn that you would share with your team?
  • What one topic do you want to make sure we address in the retrospective meeting?

We use the survey responses to determine discussion topics for the meeting (especially the last one!) and also to create the retrospective document. The raw survey responses are only seen by the project's PM.

Retrospective Document

Our retrospective document is the lasting documentation from this process. It's written by the PM and pulls in data from our time tracking software (Harvest), our budget sheets, and the team survey responses. It consists of a few sections:

  • Project overview (A summary of the work, the contracts, and the team)
  • Engagement analysis (How was the engagement as a whole? Was the team satisfied? What were the challenges? Did we have the opportunity to innovate?)
  • Client analysis (How was our relationship with the client? What did we learn that we could apply to future work? How could we have done better?)
  • Work analysis (Are we proud of what we accomplished? What went well? What could have gone better?)
  • Key points to remember for future projects (What did we learn? What would we do differently the next time? What lessons would we share back with our individual teams? The company as a whole?)
  • Number and hours analysis (How'd we do on the budget? The timeline? What was our breakdown of hours per role and how did that differ from the initial estimates?)

When I first started at Viget, I remember being advised that the retrospective document is like the project term paper. It's the PMs chance to reflect on the project and review it with an analytical eye. It takes awhile to put together, but it's worth it. It serves as a great way to think critically about a project and also capture a snapshot of the project as a whole. We share the retrospective documents with the entire company and often refer back to them when starting new projects with similar traits to previous ones.

Retrospective Meeting

The retrospective meeting is our chance to get the entire team together to talk about the project. Everyone from the project team, along with the business development lead and our management team attend the meeting. We choose a few discussion topics in advance and spend an hour chatting about those topics, the projects as a whole, and things that we learned that we can apply to future work. We also review any client feedback that we receive from our end of project survey. 

The meeting is not a vent session on the client or the project. We work hard to make sure these meetings are the venue for healthy, productive discussion. The meeting is also not a walk through of the document. We set a specific agenda for the meeting and focus in on a few key topics. The PM leads the meeting, but the goal of the meeting is to hear from the team.

Coming out of the meeting, each team member is responsible for sharing team-specific lessons learned with their team. For instance, did we try a new tool to collect client feedback on designs? The lead designer will share notes on that experience with the design team, as will the PM with the PM team. This helps ensure that the lessons learned are not only captured in the document, but also shared with the right people at Viget in another way.

Beyond the Retrospective

A key part of our culture is the idea of perpetual progress. We want to improve and we don't want to wait until the end of a project to make changes if changes are needed. To that end, we encourage constant feedback from our teams. If things seem off-course mid-project, we discuss it as a group and address it quickly. We find this type of ongoing evaluation and adjustment to be healthy and necessary.

In addition to these ongoing discussions and this retrospective process, we also conduct pre-mortems during our internal kickoff, mid-project retrospectives, and client retrospectives. We'll be sharing more about those processes in future posts. In the meantime, we'd love to hear how others approach retrospectives. What's worked for you?

Kelly directs Viget's project management team, helping them find their passions and build their skills. She works with clients including the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania.

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