10 ideas to facilitate company retrospectives

Last week I had to facilitate a retrospective with 90 people from the same company. I have to say that it was very challenging to be just one facilitator. I could count on the help of great guys to prepare it, and 2 people inside the organization supported me during the event.

 The result was a success based on the results of the session and the feedback I got from the attendants, which made me decide to write this post and share some of the ideas I consider was important to obtain that result.

The next list of ideas is a mix of my thoughts before the retrospective and the feedback gathered from the attendants in the following days after the event.

1.- Open Space, but provide an action plan.

The main part of the day was formatted in an Open Space format. The open space format is perfect to have lots of interesting conversations and lots of ideas arising, but for its nature, one of the weaknesses is that no actions are taken there, but in the best case just a decision that requires further execution. Obviously this really depends on many things, but in a 90 people organization ( embedded in a 1500 people bigger organization ) some things require more people than just the ones who decided to start changing things.

So we went for a limited open space, but keeping the last time slot for action: During that time, every person should choose his favorite action proposed during the day and in group should start working in the next steps to achieve that action: dependencies, required people, time restrictions…

As a result, we left the event not only with an action, but also with an action plan. So the feeling of “nothing will be moved” was decreased.

2.- Create a Timekeeper team.

As facilitator, one or your responsibilities is to hold the time. In these events, people usually get passionate about the topics, even the session facilitator which is usually the most focused on the topic he proposed. It’s your responsibility to ensure that all the sessions proposed in the market can have their time, and we leave the event on time. You cannot expect a group of 90 people to give you 15 extra minutes under the excuse of being such a special day. People have other commitments.

For this reason, at the beginning of the day, bring to the stage all those people who need to leave on time. Make them look at each other, give them the goal to hold the time. Now they are a team, they are the timekeepers. The rest of the attendants, they should give this team the responsibility and therefore assume that when one of them reminds him about the time, it’s for the good of all those people there.

3.- Hold the space. Use every channel to help people navigating the right emotional fields at any time.

Use music, videos, papers, foods… Anything you think it’s important and useful to help people move from one emotion to another through all the day. For example, you might want them to end up the day with energy, so why not lots of sugar and happy music to finish the event? What about the beginning? If you need them to start remembering, thinking on what was the last year for them, Wouldn’t it be great to have some calm and safe environment with private conversations about myself, or recognitions, over a calm music base with a beach sunset on the screen?

4.- Be inspiring. The whole event.

A company retrospective is not only about improving processes, but also about offering strong energy for the next year. You usually find teams who have experienced a hard year, and lots of complex discussions will take place that day. Navigating to a different reality level helps people solve conflicts. Have them remember good times they lived together, or dream future successes. Have them feel again the same positive emotions they experienced together when they met, or when they succeeded together in the past. These are key secrets to help teams switch from a fighting to a building context, which definitely takes them to the required mood to solve problems.

5.- Honor and mirror the attendants. Continuously.

Everyone who is really giving their best this day, and most likely it’s a high percentage of the attendants, are deep in their conversations, and lots of emotions arise. As a coach, you can mirror what you are seeing, but never show interpretations on the signs you see. For example, you might see some of the attendance are smiling, others exhaling, others might decide to sit down on the floor. As a coach, reflecting those behaviors and asking what is behind them makes the whole group aware of what is going on. Don’t ever run the risk to express what you believe is behind the signs, because you might be wrong and could generate noise in the group.

On the other hand, it is really good encouraging people to continue giving their best, energize them and support their passion. Give a clear vision on the agenda for the rest of the day, and let them know how the timing is going. That way everyone can control the energy he puts in every moment.

6.- This is a self-criticism day. Don’t jump to discuss before everyone understands it.

When teams start a big retrospective they tend to come with lots of ideas to change in others: my manager, another team, another department… But they forget that it all starts on themselves. Nothing will really change if they don’t understand they all need to make an internal change, and give their best to make impact on the next year. Again, use all the channels possible.

7.- Get ready to leave your agenda if the team needs it.

During the event, interesting things might happen and you might want to break your agenda partially to work deeper in any topic. Don’t be afraid to do it if you see a big impact on it, everyone will understand the value of solving the most critical issues and will be thankful.

8.- Some sessions might require expert facilitators.

It is an open space, so you won’t limit how many people decide to join and discuss on a topic. The hottest topics might be really crowded, and without the help of an expert facilitator, the session might be time wasted, with nothing agreed. After the initial ideas market, if you have asked the attendance to say what sessions they are interested, you can help the facilitators to prepare the hottest topics, giving them ideas on how to organize the session or simply asking them to facilitate the session yourself.

9.- Don’t be too pushy with your voice, use visuals instead of sounds.

Use visual resources instead of your voice, they are as effective as the second but they do not interrupt conversations.

10.- Some topics might require longer time to discuss.

Because we want to leave the day with actions, if during the market you see any topic that might be super hot, or the facilitators mention it, don’t feel bad to propose a longer time slot for that topic. However, if you allow this, many other facilitators might want to extend their sessions, so take care and ensure they understand when it is allowed to do it. If during the sessions you realize nothing is going to come out, and it is not due to lack of facilitation but because the topic is more complex, ask the whole organization what they want to do.

I hope these 10 tips are useful for you when you have to facilitate the next event. Please, don’t hesitate to write back with any feedback or more ideas.

10 ideas to facilitate company retrospectives

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