The Four Questions of a Retrospective and Why They Work

DZone 's Guide to

The Four Questions of a Retrospective and Why They Work

Conducting Retrospectives frequently and regularly supports a team to continuously improve their performance — but what’s the best way to go about it?

Free Resource

How to Improve Your Team Productivity

Retrospectives are used frequently to give teams the opportunity to pause and reflect on how things have been going and then, based on those reflections, identify the improvements they want to make. Conducting Retrospectives frequently and regularly supports a team to continuously improve their performance — but what’s the best way to go about it? We have four simple questions to get you started!

How to Get the Most out of Your Retrospectives

Numerous approaches are used for Retrospectives. Some are longer and aim to mine the group’s experience — some take a quantitative look at the team’s history, still, others use exercises to incorporate fun into the event, and the team itself. At the root of what we want to do, however, is team productivity improvement so the technique we turn to most often is “The Four Questions” — a quick and easy approach that guarantees your team will be improving immediately.

In this article, we’re going to explain the importance of the four questions and how to make sure that you’re getting the most value you can from your team retrospectives.

In short, a Four Question Retrospective gets the team to reflect on the last, short period of time working together (often 2 weeks) and answer four specific questions:

  1. What went well?
  2. What didn’t go so well?
  3. What have I learned?
  4. What still puzzles me?
Then, based on the answers, the team will decide on actions to improve in the future.

Sounds simple, right? It is. But as with all things simple, it’s not necessarily easy. In our experience, understanding the background of the technique and the importance of the wording of the questions helps teams immensely in getting real value out of their retrospectives.

Where Do Retrospectives Come From?

Retrospectives are popular in the team-working world of the Lean and Agile community but the technique was inspired by the wonderful work of Virginia Satir, the “mother of family therapy”. She developed a technique called the Daily Temperature Reading, aimed at keeping relationships healthy and happy. Her questions were different, but the core of the method is first reflecting on what has happened in the past (both positive and negative) and then deciding on what to do in the future to improve.

We Look at the Past to Improve the Future

Before we delve into the specifics, it’s important to note that when we’re answering these questions, we must always be looking at the past. The four questions themselves address the looking back part of the process — we’ll tackle the looking forward part (actions to embed improvement) at the end of this article.

Each of these four questions plays a vital role in understanding how things went for the team in working together. Retrospectives are about improving the way teams are working — both what we do and how we do it - which will become even clearer as we elaborate on what each question is designed to focus us on...

The Four Question Retrospective

Question One: What Went Well?

In the quest to make improvements, it’s natural to focus on pain points: things that didn’t go well. But asking ourselves what went well starts the Retrospective on a positive note and allows us to acknowledge all the good things that have happened, too.

The Importance of Positivity

Why is this important? First, because it’s healthy to take the time to recognize all is not doom and gloom. Noticing the positive can help to balance out the negative. Second, by explicitly acknowledging the positive, we have the opportunity to be deliberate in ensuring we continue to do what we need to do to keep those positive things happening.

Some examples of things that have gone well might be:

  • “Talking with the customer gave us insights we hadn’t noticed ourselves.”
  • “By seeing what each of us was working on, we avoided some tasks that would have been wasted.”
  • “Our project sponsors were impressed with the presentation.”

Think Big and Be Specific

It’s not unusual for teams to think big with this question and talk about the project as a whole (and we fully support that!), but it’s also important to dig deeper, potentially surfacing more of the details. For example, “It helped me immensely when Sharita took five minutes to talk me through how to make the posting”. Throughout your respective, it’s good to focus on both the big picture and the low-level details of what has happened.

Question Two: What Didn’t Go As Well?

This question unearths difficulties, issues, and dissatisfactions that the team is currently grappling with. It’s often the most popular question, which shouldn’t be a surprise since the purpose of the exercise is an improvement. Where better to look to make improvements than where things are not going well?

The intention of this question is to identify things that happened which someone in the team thinks was less than ideal.

In answering this question, it’s important that we focus on things that actually happened - reflecting on the past and what did occur. For instance,

  • “We spent a long time making the decision on the ordering process” rather than, “It shouldn’t take us so long to decide the ordering process”.

The distinction is subtle but significant. The first version states an observation of something that didn’t go well, which invites the question “How could we improve that?”, while the second version implies a judgment as well as a preferred solution. The first version, which looks back on the past and states what actually happened, puts us in the right mindset for making improvements.

Observations on the Past Create Opportunities for the Future

Notice the difference between these two statements,

  • “Two pieces of work were rejected by our customer,” instead of “I wish our customer was more realistic about what we can deliver.”

Again, the first version is a simple observation. There are two issues with the second: it states a desire for the future, not an observation about the past, and it implies a single solution, which may or may not solve the actual problem.

We want to avoid identifying solutions at this stage because doing so can limit our thinking on our options. By just noting the facts, we leave more room for deciding how we want to make improvements.

Focus on the Facts

One more example could be,

  • “Our Tuesday meetings are running overtime” rather than “We keep getting bogged down in detail during the Tuesday meetings”

Our meetings may be going over time because we’re getting bogged down in details, and certainly, that could seem like the right answer for the one person in the room who is a manager and thus may be less interested in details. The rest of the attendees; however, maybe finding the detailed conversation the most salient point of the meeting.

Being clear about the problem we wish to address (of which there is only one), rather than our preferred solution (of which there are many options), keeps the focus on the problem and opens up a myriad of possible solutions.

Focusing on expressing the facts goes a long way in improving the outcome of a team’s retrospectives.

Keep the Team Positive

The final, but arguably most important, the distinction between the statements presented has to do with the power of keeping the team positive. As humans, most of us thrive on looking at facts and solving problems. Equally, many of us lose energy when faced with arguments, confrontation and differing opinions of the same event. Why not keep everyone’s energy up in the room by focusing on what actually happened? As you know, a positive, happy team motivated by their own forward progression is a tremendous force!

Question Three: What Have I Learned?

This is a powerful question and reflecting on it tends to open our minds to things we might not otherwise take notice of. It encourages us to look at what we’ve learned about the way we’re working. Some examples might be:
  • “I’ve learned that it works better to get away from the keyboard when I’m thinking through a tough issue.”
  • “I’ve learned that I get less distracted if I’m clear about what I want to accomplish before I sit down at the computer.”
  • “I’ve learned that providing context upfront improves how my message is received in a presentation.”
  • Of course, we can learn negative things too, such as: “I’ve learned that making last-minute changes isn’t worth the risk.”
  • Embed your Learning in the Team

    This question brings to our attention and thus reinforces, what we’ve learned. It also opens up the potential for others to make use of that learning, either by identifying an action to engrain the learning in the way that the team works (more about that in a moment!) or by simply voicing it, allowing others to decide if they’d like to individually try it out.

    Question Four: What Still Puzzles Me?

    Puzzles and open questions are almost the opposite of the previous question. This question liberates us to express things we wish we had the answers for, but don’t. Some examples might be:
    • “Why are we attracting fewer and fewer people to our product demonstrations?”
    • “Why is doing my work taking twice as long as it did last week?”
    • “Where does our product fit into the overall portfolio strategy?”
    As you can see, these puzzles express a question we have - a gap in our knowledge. This is also a fantastic opportunity to express concerns, misgivings, doubts or other sensitive topics because you can draw attention to your worry without making a statement. A question, after all, is more likely than a statement to spurn thoughts, insights and a positive outcome from everyone involved.

    Questions Build Participation

    Take, for example, the difference between the question, “How can we improve the flow of requests between us and the sales team?” and the slightly more aggressive tone of the equivalent statement: “The sales team are demanding too much work, too quickly, for us to keep up with”.

    Top Tip: At your next retrospective, you may want to consider trying to change your answers to “What Didn’t Go So Well?” into puzzles. We bet you’ll find it generates more buy-in and participation. Virginia Satir was one smart cookie when she designed the 4 Questions technique!

    Turning the Four Questions into Improvements

    By the time we’ve answered "The Four Questions", we have some insight into what happened over the time period we’re reflecting upon; the next step is to identify the actions we want to take to be sure that we improve in the future.

    Knowing that there’s only so much time available to devote to making improvements, we recommend that teams take on only a small number of improvements at a time. The simplest way of achieving this is to have the team review the answers to all four questions and identify the top three items to address in terms of importance and value.

    For some items, the team will want to take time to root out the cause of the situation. For example, we may decide it’s important or valuable to resolve this statement: “We spent a long time making the decision on the ordering process”. After a brief discussion, we might determine that access to a specific person could accelerate our discussions. Thus, the action might be to see if we can get access to that person the next time we need to make decisions about the ordering process.

    If the team were to decide that it’s important or valuable to resolve this puzzle: “Where does our product fit into the overall portfolio strategy?” the team might decide to arrange for the portfolio manager to give a presentation about the product portfolio and how the product fits into the long-term strategy.

    How Can You Improve Your Working Environment?

    Now that you know all of this, you may be wondering how to introduce all of this knowledge into your team. Grand question! Here are some tips that we’ve used in the past which we hope will help you to improve your working environment today:

    • If your team needs to improve their retrospectives, consider requesting 20 minutes at the beginning of your next session to have everyone read over this article and discuss their thoughts
    • If you’ve never done a retrospective with your team, start today! To learn more tips and tricks for running a successful Retrospective, check out our Tuesday Tip series on Sending Your Team’s Productivity Soaring With Retrospectives!

    There’s a good reason for the popularity of Retrospectives, both within the Lean and Agile community, and in the wider business community: they provide a simple, easy-to-adopt technique for coaxing valuable improvements from a team on a regular basis. Sticking points, positive working methods, hidden problems, potential improvements: all of these and more can be discovered using "The Four Questions", catapulting your team to new heights of productivity and effectiveness.

    Has your team utilized Retrospectives? Comment below and let us know if this was helpful!

    Article originally posted January 15, 2013.

    agile, lean, lean development, productivity

    Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

    {{ parent.title || parent.header.title}}

    {{ parent.tldr }}

    {{ parent.urlSource.name }}