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Running inclusive retros: 10 tips for growing as a team!

Do you ever run retros with your team?

At CDS, we’re big fans of blameless retrospective sessions that let us look back at what went well and what could be improved moving forward, after a period of time we call a “sprint”. We conduct retros to improve team communication and foster collaboration, encouraging our teams to produce impactful, human-centered work.

My name is Clementine and as a Product Manager at CDS (on multiple teams since 2019), I’ve run a lot of retros and have many lessons to share from those experiences.

Keep reading for helpful advice on team retros and tips for retro facilitators!

Helpful advice on team retros

1. Run retros regularly!

At CDS, our product teams do retros after 3-week sprints with set goals and planned work. These sprints are fast-paced and it is easy to miss something. Running retros to reflect on each sprint helps our product managers maintain a close feedback loop with their teams.

Retros are helpful for connecting the team for many reasons:

  • They help mark milestones or important events regularly.
  • They wrap up a “cycle of work” or “sprint” (make retros part of your team’s rituals).
  • They re-connect team members after a communication issue or misstep. But remember that something doesn’t have to go wrong for people to learn and grow together!

2. Aim for no blame!

We all make mistakes. In our retros, we aim to learn and grow, not point fingers or assign blame. These aren’t reports—but we still use them to document stories, as we can’t change what we don’t identify.

To keep a space “blameless” and safe for everyone to contribute, the team can:

  • Avoid labeling experiences as failures, mistakes or not helpful, as people may have different perspectives on what happened. Instead, say things like “I think we could improve this for better impact” or “based on our learning experience during the ‘sprint’, I think this action item could help the team do this more efficiently.”
  • If a discussion becomes heated, take a step back, keep the perspective in the past and focus on your own experience and emotions. It’ll help the team talk about the source of the disagreement, without needing to feel defensive. Identify and acknowledge external blockers. The team will want to avoid getting caught-up in things they cannot change. #LetItGo

3. Avoid brain exhaustion!

At CDS, we try to be mindful that different people have different information-processing experiences and needs, as this can impact how team members participate. For example, team members who are neurodiverse, may get over-stimulated by things others don’t, like too many people talking at once.

Help retro participants avoid brain exhaustion

  • Be mindful of your pacing. Speaking too quickly can result in people missing important information, especially if it’s not their first language.
  • Be moderate in your media usage (like GIFs), as they can be extra distracting for neurodivergent people when played continuously. If you want to use them, make sure you can stop the loop or close it after playing.
  • Be aware of your background: reposition your camera to avoid any distractions.

Tips for retro facilitators

If you’re facilitating a retro activity, you’re the one responsible for designing an inclusive, productive experience for participants. Think about what you and the team are looking to get out of the meeting and design the activity to achieve greater impact.

As the retro facilitator, you can shape and improve participants’ experiences!

  1. Set expectations for the meeting, both in the invite and at the start of the activity. Adding the planned agenda to the meeting invite makes it easy to find. Give people the means to achieve your expectations; make sure everyone has the relevant documents, information, and time necessary to review and reflect.

  2. Acknowledge the context of how you’re entering the retro – like if personal, work or world events may impact participants’ ability to participate. Being authentic and open can lead to more genuine conversations and improve team morale during the meeting.

  3. Know your people and engage with them. Make sure the “quiet ones” have an opportunity to speak up. You don’t just want to hear from the loudest voices in the room. Ensure there are multiple ways to participate — group activities and the in-meeting chat are some great options. We’re not sprinting to perfection – it’s more like a marathon of continuous team nurturing and growth.

  4. Create space for feedback – it’s a gift. If people are brave enough to speak up, we need to be humble enough to listen and respect what they have to say. We do not have to understand or agree, but we need to care. Empower participants to voice their feedback, using multiple tools (like anonymous cards on retro boards or virtual sticky notes).

  5. Switch up facilitators for a new dynamic — ask someone outside of the team to run the retro. It can encourage the team to stay focused on their goals for the meeting, helping them create intentional and impactful action items.

  6. Clear your schedule before and after a retro to let your mind rest. Facilitating retros takes a lot of energy and brain space. Participating in retros is also tiring! Don’t expect your team to tackle a big milestone right away — give their brains some time to re-energize.

  7. Don’t forget to set aside some time to share back and assess outcomes. Taking the time to document and plan action items will help the team continue improving for more impact. If you don’t act on what the team identified as areas for improvement, then the same things will likely come up at the next retro.

Want more tips? The Canada School of Public Service (CSPS) has a checklist for virtual facilitation!

Have tips of your own to share? The #GCDigital fam on socials would love to hear.

Tag us in your tweet tips @CDS_GC or on LinkedIn so we can learn from y’all too!