Johannes Thönes

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

When to Do a Personal Retrospective?

What is the right time to do a personal retrospective? As always, the answer is: “it depends”.


I have done personal retrospectives at different times, using different schemes.

There are two basic schemes I separate the timing of a personal retrospective into:

  • regular retrospectives
  • event triggered and topic oriented retrospectives

Regular Retrospectives

Let’s start with the regular retrospectives. A regularly held retrospective has a fixed time, when you do the retrospective regardless of your current situation. You do the personal retrospective simply because it is the time for it.

This has the obvious advantage, that you spot things about yourself in a retrospective, which you might not have noticed when you were in the middle of your daily stress. In a way such retrospectives are the more natural ones - their reason ia, to take time, breathe a little bit and notice things about yourself, which are important to notice.

Topics oriented retrospectives

There is one problem with regular retrospectives though, especially with the very short heartbeat retrospectives. You might feel the lack of time to think about an individual, but important topic. These topics can come up, in relation to a certain event in your life. For instance, when you moved into a new city or switched your job.

These topics can become the topic of a special targeted retrospective. You can prepare yourself thoughoutly, gather feedback from important peers and tailor the retrospective timetable towards this very topic.

The caveat of this kind of retrospective is, to not start them open minded. Preparation can lead you to conclusions before the retrospective. This can be fine - but it can also make you blindsided for other solutions.

My timing scheme

My current strategy is - as you may have guessed - a mix of both schemes:

  • A regular heartbeat retrospective every week
  • A topic retrospective at certain event or raised from the heartbeat retrospective
  • A regular year-end retrospective in the first week of a new year

I conduct my heartbeat retrospective every week. It takes place on the evening before the next work week starts. This is mostly sunday evening, but the rule is adaptive to covert e.g. a bank holiday on monday.

This type of retrospective helps me to notice, if there are topics I need to dive into. It is both a weekly planning session and a safety net, to notice bigger topics in my live to reflect upon. The heartbeat retrospectives are structured very simple - they take between 10 and 15 minutes and can be held nearly everywhere.

The topics raised in the heartbeat retrospective are extended into a topic oriented retrospective. This helps to keep the heartbeat retrospective short. A topic retrospective can take from one hour up to four hours. Sometimes they need some pre-research, e.g. in my private wiki, in my mails or in my calendar. Depending on the topic, I might talk to people and ask what they think about the topic in question.

A typical example for a topic retrospective is a retrospective I recently did, when I came back from India having been a grad of ThoughtWorks University. I reflected on everything which happened in these six weeks - and tried to infer the lessons I can learn from this time.

The final retrospective is the year-end retrospective. It takes up to 8 hours and when doing the retrospective, I try to look back on my whole year. I try to cover all important topics and distill the most important learnings from one year.

In terms of topics, I don’t do any research upfront. However, there is a lot of things I do in preparation in terms of time, food, material and ritual support.

What about you?

As I wrote before, everyone needs to develop his own way of doing his personal retrospective. So, do you have a specific timing scheme? What do you think might work for you?

How often do you do a your personal retrospective? What are your timing schemes? Where is you approach different from mine?