I love retrospectives. It doesn't matter if it's an informal process that occurs naturally as team members interact or it is a formal process that occurs at the end of a meeting, an iteration, or a release. It's an opportunity for the team and organization to make things better. It most certainly is on the minds of others today. I've read about the goals of a retrospective on George Dinwiddie's blog and also retrospectives - wronger and righter on Bob Marshall's blog.
I honestly believe we should be constantly looking for things to start doing, stop doing, do less of, do more of, or keep doing to improve the things we do. I have been a part of projects where a Lessons Learned meeting was part of the Project Closeout activities. What good is it then!? We should constantly be learning and constantly trying to make things better.
Shades of Gray
Depending on the team, I may use the four-quadrant grid, starfish retrospective diagram (or both) to capture ideas. I love the format of the four-quadrant grid, in that the team can communicate what is working, what isn't going so well, any ah-ha moments they've recently had, or appreciations they would like to note for their teammates. Unfortunately, just as some organizations or teams think of writing documentation as an afterthought, I see them doing the same with retrospectives. Retrospectives are a critical component of any process. Without them taking place, you are pretty much guaranteed to make the same mistakes twice, a third time, ad nauseam.
When to do it
Don't wait until the end of your current iteration, release, or project to document and improve. On a team board or flip chart, draw a circle. Segment the circle into five quadrants: Stop Doing, Do Less, Keep Doing, Do More, Start Doing. Please note that these are merely recommendations. The content and order are not retrospective commandments. Have a stack of Post-It notes and a Sharpie nearby. Encourage the team to add notes to the board when the mood or event strikes them. Don't wait!
If you struggle to get cards on a regular basis, perhaps a facilitated retrospective is in order. The act of collecting ideas is not just to make people feel better. Notes captured on this board are all candidates for conversion to action items. If you have the fortunate problem of having too many ideas on the board, use a concensus strategy like fist of five or dot voting to identify the most valuable action items.
Keep Doing (=): Capture good things that are happening. As a facilitator, ask the team what they would miss if something was taken away from them.
Do Less (<): Anything that might need a bit more refining or that is simply waste. Is there something that adds value but not as much as something else could?
Do More (>): Are there value-add activities the team may want to try more of but are not necessarily taking full advantage of?
Stop Doing (-): What are some things that are not very helpful or not adding much value? My prime target is long formal meetings.
Start Doing (+): Suggest new things! You read or heard about something that helped others like you. What do you have to lose?