Hindsight is 20/20. So why don’t we take better advantage of it?

I’ve written in the past about the importance of project retrospectives — taking time at the end of a project to distill lessons learned and improve our processes and systems for the next project.

But even when organizations conduct these reviews consistently, it can be challenging to make them truly productive. 

And that has to do with human psychology. Too often retrospectives are perceived — sometimes accurately, sometimes not — as an opportunity to assign blame. People enter with their defenses up, and they look for explanations that place responsibility elsewhere.

The result are retrospectives that are filled with tension. Conversions may be overly confrontational. Or team members may be unwilling to share their true thoughts and ideas, for fear that what they say will be held against them. 

Plus, when we’re looking for a fall guy, we’re missing opportunities to learn the lessons that can make a real difference to future projects.

To host a productive retrospective, you’ll have to look beyond what went wrong and help the team focus on the ideas and insights that can create real improvement.

How to Run a Blameless Project Retrospective

Effective retrospectives are about the future. After all, there’s not much to do about a project that is already completed. The goal of a retrospective is to extract the learnings that will improve upcoming projects.

To do that, leaders must create an atmosphere of trust — and they must keep the rest of the team focused on the bigger goal.

Here are some ways to keep retrospectives positive and productive.

1. Gather anonymous feedback. To lead a useful conversation, you’ll need to get input from everyone. That way you’ll understand what’s on people’s minds and what the key points of discussion should be.

I normally gather anonymous feedback via survey, so people can share freely. You may send one questionnaire to everyone on the team, or you may create customized surveys for key roles, so you can get more in-depth and relevant feedback. 

Either way, be sure to include questions about what went well, in addition to exploring things that went wrong.

2. Stay objective. When you ask for feedback, you are opening yourself up for constructive criticism — and you might not enjoy reading some of it.  Instead of taking feedback personally, stay objective and look for ways to apply what you’ve learned going forward.

3. Frame the discussion. Remind everyone of the goals of the retrospective and emphasize — as often as necessary — that the objective is not to assign blame.

I particularly like this framing from Norm Kerth, author of Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review, which remind us to assume good intentions from everyone involved in the project:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

4. Highlight the good stuff. Retrospectives are about more than dissecting past problems. It’s equally important to recognize what the team did well, so you can pull the best practices forward into future projects.

5. Operate from a place of curiosity. Curiosity diffuses judgement and opens the door to great insight. Ask probing questions and seek better understanding of the feedback, ideas, and suggestions that others bring to the table. And encourage others to do the same. The better the team understands one another’s perspectives, the more productive the discussion will be.

6. But don’t shy away from identifying root causes. It is human nature to blame ourselves and others when things go wrong. But even when it seems obvious who is to blame for an error, the root cause is rarely so simple. More often, a gap in procedures, planning, training, or resourcing has contributed to the issue. Taking time to identify and understand that gap will enable your team to close it in the next project and prevent similar problems in the future. 

Most of all, remember that your team takes their cues from you. If you’re defensive, aggressive, or accusing, they will be also. If you accept feedback gracefully and model collaborative problem-solving, your team will feel empowered to do the same. 

And that is what enables your team to improve their performance on future projects.

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