I am a member of an 8 person team that is:

  • part of a non profit
  • distributed all over the country
  • trying to get started on a new initiative and find our footing; we are about 1 year old (I've only been here for 2 months)
  • just had our first offsite

At the offsite I witnessed a fascinating exercises in doing a retrospective on the past year's work that my boss, Dave Sifry, orchestrated. This is now my third time consulting for Dave Sifry and he and I have done this before but I never documented it so I wanted to write down how to was done.

What is a Retrospective Meeting?

A retrospective is when a team looks back and tries to determine:

  • What went well
  • What to improve
  • Possible questions

The idea of this type of retrospective is that you're doing it in a lightweight, agile fashion where you aren't spending days or even a day on it. You can literally review a year's worth of work in under an hour (I know this because we just did it).


Here's what you need to do this:

  • A shared Google Spreadsheet that breaks things down into columns you can vote on. Here's the template to use.
  • A timer; we used "Visual Timer 2" on an iPad which was awesome since it had great sounds but any count down timer would work. The key here is that you want it to be highly visible to everyone on the team hence using it on an iPad not a phone.

Step 1 - What Went Well

Here are the specific steps:

  1. Take the spreadsheet template and save it to a new name, something like "Project Name - Time Period - Retrospective". Our name was CTS 2019 Retrospective.
  2. Post the link to the spreadsheet in your team's Slack channel or email or something that everyone gets.
  3. Start the timer and announce something like "Ok. Starting now. We have 15 minutes to document what went well; GO !"
  4. Have everyone open the spreadsheet and start typing in things that went well. If someone is working in cell A2 then move to cell A3 (or A10 or whatever). No one should overwrite anyone's work.
  5. Announce "When you are done, return your cursor to A1".

If your experience is anything like ours, what you are going to find is that an awful lot of interesting things are going to emerge. For our group, one of the most interesting was that we operated without a leader for 8 months. Since I have just joined, I had no idea of this.

Step 2 - Everyone Votes on What Went Well

At this point we have a list of all the things that everyone thinks went well. But it is just a list and this list can be long (we had maybe 25 items). The trick now is to prioritize it and you can do this by letting people vote on the items. Everyone can vote on any item (including the ones they contributed).

Here's what to do:

  1. Set the timer to a lesser amount of time. Maybe 10 minutes if you spent 15 minutes to write all the tasks.
  2. Tell people "Ok. Now vote on things. Right now there is nothing in each cell and that's fine. If you want to vote on something then put a 1 where it here is nothing. If there is a 1 then make it a 2 and so on".
  3. Tell people to begin.

The next step is to sort this which requires using some of the better features in Google Sheets. Here's what to do:

  1. Mark a block in the spreadsheet from A2 (the first "what went well") down to the last column in the voting block for "what went well".
  2. From the Data menu, select the Sort Range command.
  3. Change the sort column over to B as you want to sort these by the vote and then by Z to A. This lets you sort by the descending value of the votes, from most popular to least popular.


Step 3 - What to Improve

The next step is repeat steps 1 and 2 but on the "What to Improve" section. Use the same timed model of listing and then voting. Be very careful when you story that you select C2 down to Dwhatever otherwise you'll mess up the data you carefully arranged in step 2.

Step 4 - Discuss!

The final step in all this is to a group discussion. This too should be time bounded, say 20 minutes and you should take notes in the Comments / Possible Questions columns.


I've now done this twice with Dave Sifry and both times it turned the normal process of a retrospective from something painful, lengthy and annoying into a less than hour meeting with a detailed, useful takeaway – the spreadsheet. While in previous career incarnations, I have been dubbed "The Antiprocess", any process that makes meetings better, imho, is beyond awesome. Thank you Dave!