Johannes Thönes

Software-Developer, ThoughtWorker, Permanent Journeyman, Ruby Enthusiast, Java and Devils Advocate.

5 Phases of a Personal Retrospective

In this article I will write about the five different phases of a personal retrospective. If you are new to the topic of personal retrospectives, you should read my introduction.

The phases of a personal retrospective describe the different steps you can identify in virtually any retrospective. Everyones personal retrospective is unique - but these phases serve you as a framework, when planning your own retrospectives.

In terms of phases, there is really not much of a difference between project retrospectives and personal retrospectives. So I looked for phases in the literature - Norman Kerth names three phases: Start, Middle and End. These are a good starting point, however I think for the purpose of discussion it is better to use the stages Ester Derby and Dianne Larsen introduced.

For each phase you can select certain exercises or activities. These practices help people to recall and better understand what happened. They try to unearth hidden success stories and problems. You can find description of those exercises in

  • Kerth NL. Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews (amazon)
  • Derby E and Larsen D. Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great (amazon)
  • The Agile Retrospectives Resources Wiki (link)

Some of these exercises can be used in personal retrospectives. However every exercise needs to be adapted to personal retrospectives, as it needs to be adapted to your retrospectives. I will hint at those exercises during this article. In later articles I will focus more on the individual exercises.

Now lets look into the five phases.

Phase 1: Set the Stage

The goal of this phase is to create the atmosphere and mood for a retrospective. Stopping and thinking about yourself is not a normal activity. You have to get in the mood to take time to breath, to take time to think.

To get into this mood, I have for example a special music playlist I always play when I do my heartbeat retrospective. My brain is now, after some time, conditioned to switch into the reflection mode, if I hear the starting sound.

Another thing is, that I read an adapted form of the Retrospective Prime Directive to myself - aloud.

For the more extensive quarter retrospectives, I will move to a different table. Rather than working on my usual desk, I will position myself in the living room. This helps me, to recognize that I am not doing usual work - but reflection work.

Phase 2: Gather Data

In the Gather Data phase, you want to accumulate as much data about the retrospectives subject as you can get. The goal is, to gather objective information that help you, to check your experience with reality. You will remember things  better with these information.

The easiest way to gather data is with the information sources you already have:

  • I look into my calendar what actually was plannend. I occasonally correct the old plan with what really happend and add important unplanned events into it afterwards.
  • I have a task list, were I can check what were the task I completed in the retrospective time frame.
  • I look at who I made contact with in the time frame.

Another possibility is to use lists, as very nicely described in Ainsley Nies' presentation. For quarter retrospectives I use the “Timeline” exercise, were I put relevant events onto a long paper in relation to the time it happend in.

Phase 3: Generate Insights

In Generate Insights, you analyse the data to understand what it might tell you. You try to see patterns: What contributed to this success? Which action I did caused that breakdown?

In this phase, I use the data from calendar, task list and contact log. This data helps me to recall things - and see connections between the events. I use this, for example to write a few key-points for every day down during the heartbeat retrospectives.

On the timeline, I use colors to indicate how I felt about certain events. If you work with list, you can write down three things you ituitively associate whit each item. If you wan to have more ideas what you can do, you should really watch Aisley Nies' presentation - she calls this phase “Distill the Learning”.

Phase 4: Decide What to Do

From the Insights you gained, now you need to pick what you want to do. But be aware, you should not do everything immediately. Make one or two steps forward - and start with the easy one, which will make biggest impact in the short term.

I have essentially three types of ToDos:

  • Big goals, which are more like visions and ideas were I want to go. They are in the timescope of a year, a quarter and maybe sometimes a month.

  • To achieve these goals, I attach SMART-Objective to them. This means a Specific objective, were you can Measure if you completed it. Therefore it has to be Achievable. To make sense, it has to be Relevant for achieving the goal and it has to be Time-boxed - which means 6 weeks maximum for me. I learned about those from Andy Hunts excellent Effective Thinking and Learning - were you can and should read more.

  • Most of the time, a SMART-Objective has certain sub tasks. These will be concrete tasks in my task list - together with a concrete due date. Tasks which take longer to complete will also be put into the calendar at a heartbeat retrospective, to block enough time to execute them.

Phase 5: Close the Retrospective

In the Closing the Retrospective phase, you want to move back into the normal work after the retrospective. You need to appreciate yourself (yes you can do it!) for your work and your retrospective. You should as well reflect on how the retrospective went and what you might chance next time.

I usually close the heartbeat retrospectives with a special closing song - this is the only song with vocals.

In quarter retrospectives I write a letter to myself, to summarize the retrospective. I will open the letter the next quarter retrospective. Moreover, I will make my favorite cocktail and will enjoy the insights and lessons learned in the retrospective time frame and the retrospective itself.

Were can you learn more?

This article is the part of my Personal Retrospectives Series. I was strongly influence by other people - look at the Further Material section to find out more.