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Software Project Retrospectives

by: Heather Todd

Often projects close with a cheer and pat on the back, or in this age of social distancing, a virtual high-five. After the virtual high-fives, it is time for the project retrospective. The project retrospective is a review of a project and learning from both the successes and the failures so the team and organization can improve going forward.

The timing and cadence of the retrospective are dependent on the size, scale, and complexity of the project. Retrospectives may occur at the end of a sprint/iteration, project phase, and/or project.

Below are some best practice tips on planning your next retrospective:


  • At the beginning of the project suggest to key team members to proactively keep a log with input and notes with specific examples for successes and challenges. It is difficult to recall specific things that worked well or that needed improvement at the end of a project. Especially if the project duration is lengthy.

  • Identify, schedule, and invite participants:

    • Invite everyone involved in the project, including internal team members, remote team members, contractors, technology partners, etc.

    • Schedule the retrospective using video conferencing such as ZOOM, WebEx, or other platforms so participants can have a greater presence.

    • Pre-session communication, which can be included in the meeting invite, to be sent out to participants beforehand with a link to a collaboration document to answer the project review questions with notes prior to the retrospective session: successes, what went well; challenges, what could have gone better; and what action items need to be taken to improve in the future.

  • Recruit a neutral third party to help facilitate the meeting. This will encourage greater participation and uncover more insights. This could be a team member that has a facilitator or project management experience that was not directly involved in the project.

Retrospective session

  • Welcome, setting the stage, and creating a safe space

    • Provide an overview of the retrospective goal and objectives.

    • Review the project milestones, achievements, share any funny stories, and team “shout outs”. Lighten up the session and celebrate the good.

    • Create a safe space: Make it clear to participants that everyone’s viewpoint needs to be respected. The questions use the word "we", rather than "I" or other singular phrases. The goal of a retrospective is to reflect on the team’s ability to collaborate and improve. Therefore, when a challenge arises, it isn't the fault of a specific team member, but of the team as a whole.

  • Project review and discussion. Focus your questions on three main areas and document the thoughts in a collaboration document.

    • Successes: What went well?

Start with the positive. Have each team member write down what the team did well, and group similar or duplicate ideas together. Discuss each one briefly as a team.

Success example: The API initial mapping was completed and sent to the team for review prior to the mapping session, which resulted in a productive and efficient mapping session.

  • Challenges: What could have gone better?

As the American Philosopher, John Dewey once said, “We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.”

No project is perfect. In every project, no matter the complexity, you can find areas to improve. Often, the team will identify areas around communication that could use tweaking. Have each team member write down challenges, and group similar or duplicate ideas together. Discuss each one briefly as a team.

Challenges example: The 8 am daily stand-ups were too early and regularly participants were late to join the stand-ups.

  • Action planning: Identify specific ways to improve future work.

Your team should engage in dialogue to identify possible remedies for the areas in need of improvement. The solutions should be as specific as possible.

For example: The project manager or technical lead to schedule daily stand-ups at 8:30 am to ensure all participants attend.

Turn each prioritized idea into an action plan. Get specific. Document who will do what by when, and when the team can check back to see results.

Close, Results and Follow-up

  • Thank everyone, recap what you’ve accomplished, and tell everyone when and how they can expect to see the meeting notes.

  • As a final step before you leave, or in a follow-up email, get feedback on your meeting. You want to know if people found it useful and how to improve the meeting design next time.

  • Document every retrospective and the outcomes your team agreed on. Include a list of who attended, the purpose of the project, and any other details to explain the context of the retrospective.

The motivational aspects of celebrating wins, recognizing individuals, and encouraging growth takes the concept of “lessons learned” from a negative review of the past to a forward-looking meeting to improve the team's execution. By integrating the practice of retrospectives into the project management life cycle, teams are empowered to own their growth and leverage organizational knowledge.


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