How Retrospectives Improve Project Success


Imagine you just completed a big project. For the most part, you consider it a success, but inevitably no project goes 100 percent according to plan. While the “woulda/shoulda/couldas” are fresh in your mind, it’s easy to assume you’ll remember them when it comes time for the next project. The temptation of progress is strong as well; you’re eager to close the book on this one and move on.

But is there something that your current self could do to help your future self? Yes! Simply note anything you’d like to remember in a year from now for the recommencement of this project. There are myriad reasons you may not want to: There are new, seemingly more pressing priorities; you’re burned out from this project and want to move on; you (wrongly) assume you’ll remember everything you’ll need to for next year.

I would argue that 1) taking the short time to reflect right now is an investment in next year’s project; 2) a little short-term pain will be long-term gain in the future; and 3) humans are horrible at knowing what they’ll remember, and they can’t always rely on the accuracy of their memory. So take some time to do a retrospective!

What Is a Retrospective?

A retrospective is simply the act of reviewing a project, task, effort or any general process and reflecting on it. Specifically, retrospectives are used to improve that process next time it happens. By reflecting on what went well and what didn’t, you can make sure you do better next time the process comes around.

Retrospectives can take all forms. They can be conversations amongst project members, a survey shared at the end of a project or multi-day workshops. For the sake of brevity and applicability, I’d like to describe a relatively simple format for a retrospective that should get anybody reading this pointed in the right direction.

The Components of a Retrospective

What Went Well?

Inevitably, some parts (or most, hopefully) of the project went well. Ask yourself what you want to make sure you do again, exactly the same way. If something works well, double down.

What Didn’t Go Well?

Maybe the most important part of a retrospective is fully documenting what went wrong. This will be a huge help next time you undertake the same project. Humans are notoriously bad at estimating their quality of memory – take time to be honest about what didn’t go well and give yourself the opportunity to improve next time you undertake the same task.

What Would I Do Differently?

This is your opportunity to be honest with yourself and make plans to improve the next iteration of this process. Right now, you probably could name 10 things you would do differently. Write those down immediately. For every day that you don’t record those updates, you’ll likely forget at least one, if not more. Use this step to commit to getting better by recording any change you would make. You will greatly appreciate reading these items next year.

What Do I Still Not Understand?

The value in this question doesn’t evidence itself next time you undertake the project. Instead, this question gives you the opportunity to think hard over the next few months and find ways to tackle these unknowns. Often, these items are broad, challenging questions that don’t have immediately obvious answers. Give yourself ample time to do some research and prepare yourself for the next time these unknowns appear.

How Would Retrospectives Apply to Your Agency?

Government entities experience recurring events all the time. Elections recur, budgets are often annual and various government initiatives are often seasonal. Amongst all candidates, government is actually a great option to wholly embrace retrospectives. Knowing that continuous improvement can be a real strategic advantage, members of the tech industry often conduct these in one or two-week cycles. While weekly or biweekly may be too frequent for a police department or CIO’s office, building in reflection as a habit will provide value for any group. Everything you just read may seem obvious to do – and that’s exactly why people don’t do it. Give yourself some time at the end of your next project to set you future self up for success.


Matthew Polega is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.


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Avatar photo Nicole Blake Johnson

Thanks for sharing these tips, Matthew! We do a lot of retrospectives at my office, but one area I need to focus on is “what do I still not understand.” Noted for the next retrospective. Thanks!