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Project Management |

Conflict-Free Leadership: The Value of Retrospectives [Part 4]

Retrospectives—the secret behind highly successful teams. Learn why retrospectives are necessary, who should be included, and how to maximize their value.

Travis Draper

Travis Draper

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A retrospective refers to the last stage in a development cycle—reflection. Retrospectives present an opportunity to assess the process based on the experience and inform future practices.

Consider the retrospective not merely as a pro forma but as a necessary step to concluding a project or sprint. The clarity of hindsight and distance from conflicts and stress allows for change and growth when coupled with a meaningful conversation.

In this post, we’ll cover how to run retrospectives so that everyone involved will learn something and feel valued.

Why Are Retrospectives Important?

Retrospectives happen, well, retroactively. A well-run retrospective opens the door to an honest evaluation of the roles, goals, and expectations put into place at the beginning of the project or sprint. Now, everyone should be able to look back and provide feedback based on the experiences they had throughout the development cycle.

Discussing issues that surfaced during the project allows us to delve into the root of a procedural or interpersonal conflict and examine the task conflicts that arose most frequently or caused delays.

It’s important to remember what you learned in the last post about approaching difficult conversations with empathy. Retrospectives aren’t meant to be a Festivus-style Airing Of The Grievances. Rather, you should focus on how you, your process, and your team can improve going forward.

Look at each type of conflict as an opportunity to make the next project or sprint better than the last. Evaluating task conflicts often provides insight into best-fit roles for team members and alterations to a project's timeline, while examining procedural and interpersonal issues will guide future decision-making and allow everyone to better solidify goals and expectations in the future.

Thus, performing retrospectives can inspire team growth and development, increasing the likelihood of successful future projects. In addition, the retrospective helps solidify meaningful relationships with teammates and clients by providing an opportunity for closure, expressions of gratitude, and acknowledgments—things that are more than mere courtesy when it comes to making a lasting impression.

Who Should Be Involved in Retrospectives?

From a consulting perspective, the priority should be the discussion between you and the client team.

The client team has a different perspective, and the challenge of consulting comes from integrating your team into another and improving existing infrastructures. Setting aside time at the conclusion of a project and discussing the positives and negatives with the client will leave you with invaluable insight into how processes can be improved in the future.

If time allows, setting up a retrospective with your internal team can be a beneficial bonding experience. After your meeting with the client, set aside time to debrief your team. This is a moment for accolades and constructive feedback.

When your team knows there’s an opportunity for feedback, they’ll come to the meeting prepared to reflect. This creates a healthy culture where team members feel they can speak up, celebrate one another, and seek help.

Leave time for questions and ask for their feedback. How did things feel from their perspective? It’s likely that as you are managing your team and the client, you may have missed a few crucial learning moments. Pay attention to who shares and what they have to say. It’s a great way to look for future leaders and ensure everyone is in a position that capitalizes on their strengths.

What Should I Expect from Retrospectives?

Anticipate that there will be both positive and negative takeaways during Retrospectives. Remind yourself that neither is more or less valuable. Positive and constructive feedback go hand-in-hand to help you and your team improve.

Let’s say a project was completed on time, with little conflict, and all parties are pleased with the outcome. Do you skip the retrospective and chalk this up to a win? No. Projects that go especially well are worth a thorough examination.

Not only will a reflection of the process uncover the small hinges that swung the big door, but they also present key moments of refinement. No project will ever go perfectly. So in moments when all parties are happy, it’s a perfect time to go through processes with a fine-tooth comb.

The same can be said for a project that does not go to plan. Be the leader who looks at a less-than-ideal opportunity as a chance to improve. Let the clients air their grievances. Let your team offer feedback. As a leader, you are still capable of improvement.

A bungled project, a missed deadline, an unmet goal—these are not desirable outcomes, but worse than a single failure is a repeated one. If you’re unwilling to confront your failures head-on, you’re unwilling to change. In these unfavorable circumstances, use emotional intelligence to accept constructive criticism with grace, digest it, and develop a plan to change the process in the future.

Whether the outcome is positive, negative, or somewhere in the middle, the point of reflection is always refinement.

What Questions Should I Ask in a Retrospective?

Below you’ll find a non-comprehensive list of potential questions to ask at your retrospective meeting. These questions are applicable to both the client team and your internal team.

  • How did our roles, goals, and expectations shift over the course of the project?
    • Were the shifts minor or major?
    • Could we have had a better discussion in the beginning to prevent these shifts?
  • What processes worked well?
    • Can we do more of these things in the future?
    • How can we protect the procedures that worked best?
  • What processes did not work well?
  • Where could communication have been improved?
  • What conflicts surfaced over the course of the project?
    • Were they procedural, task, or interpersonal conflicts?
    • What could we have done to prevent these conflicts?

It’s best to have a few questions prepared in advance of the retrospective meeting. These initial questions will help guide the meeting while leaving plenty of room for discussion.

Take notes and ask follow-up questions. If someone brings up something that did not work well during the project, be sure to ask when they initially discovered the issue, what steps they took to resolve it, and what they believe could have been done to prevent it.

These meetings can be difficult. No one wants to hear about their fallibility, but it’s important not to take constructive feedback personally. Managing a large team, meeting deadlines, creative problem-solving, and communicating effectively with relevant parties takes practice. Every opportunity to reflect will lead to improved methodologies for the future.


A retrospective is a crucial step in the development cycle. They provide an opportunity to reflect, assess, and inform future practices. Retrospectives allow for an honest evaluation of roles, goals, and expectations and an examination of task, procedural, and interpersonal conflicts.

With empathy and a growth mindset, retrospectives inspire team growth and development, increasing the likelihood of successful future projects. As a leader, it's crucial to use emotional intelligence to accept constructive criticism with grace, digest it, and develop a plan to change the process in the future.

Ultimately, retrospectives provide an opportunity for closure, expressions of gratitude, and acknowledgments, creating a healthy culture where team members feel they can speak up, celebrate one another, and seek help.

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