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The Why, What and How of Research Retrospectives

Here’s an explanation of why retrospectives are so important and how you can structure them in order to deliver value for your team and your client

Continual learning perhaps the most important skill any professional – no matter what industry – needs to have.

‘By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.’ (Confuscius)


Life in an agency or an internal research and insight team is a busy one. So much so that it’s often very difficult finding the time and moment to stop. But taking time to pause and reflect is one of the most valuable things you can do.


Stopping and taking time to reflect gives you the space to learn – from your mistakes as well as the successes. Through this critical feedback that you and your team provide, you’ll set yourselves up for innovative new thinking where breakthrough ideas thrive, and a new heightened level of productivity and efficiency may be born.

As Henry Ford once put it, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got". For organisations to truly benefit from this way of thinking however, they need not focus on big change programmes which can be fraught with tension and politics and look at smaller incremental shifts in process and operations. They will deliver the 1% changes that add up to big wins when done regularly.

Leadership must get behind this idea of retrospectives and small changes, as they are the ones who need to create the space and environment for them to happen. The change itself needs to come from those delivering the service and working directly with clients and stakeholders.

From experience, I suggest that you look to setup retrospectives regularly. This can be at the end of each project, or on a monthly or quarterly basis, whatever feels achievable and sustainable. No matter what level you sit at within your organisation, continuous improvement in your and your team’s performance will only come from regular retrospectives that are clearly structured where everyone knows why they are involved and what’s expected of them before, during and after they take place.


Structuring your retrospective

Here at Further, our team consists of a blend of researchers, software engineers, project managers, customer support teams and finance. Given the range of skills and competencies, we try to keep the retrospective simple so that everyone can be involved, where relevant.

There are two formats that we follow. The first can be described as Start, Stop, Continue, and it involves each member of the team sharing their views and opinions on what the team should quite literally start doing, stop doing and continue to do. The simplicity of this format makes it a favourite of ours and our clients, who we also look to involve in the retrospectives if possible.

My personal favourite type of retrospective is a much more visual one known as the Sailboat Retrospective (sometimes called the Speedboat Retrospective). It is effective because of its visual nature, making it easy for people to participate in, and often quicker.

It works by taking a series of metaphors;

  • Wind: the thing(s) that drove your research team’s work forward. This also represents a is a great place to thank individual members of the team for their contributions.
  • Anchor: the internal things that slowed down progress, decreased productivity and resulted in disharmony and unhappiness.
  • Rocks: The external problems that the research team navigated.
  • Sharks: the risks or future problems that may now lie ahead for your research team, from what you’ve learned during the work.
  • The Island Paradise: the goals to be achieved, and the actions required now to work towards success (productivity, happiness etc.)


To carry out the Speedboat retrospective, simply put a picture up on the wall like the one above – as large as you can – and spend the first 10-15 minutes of the session with your team putting up post-it notes organised with the headings above.

sailboat retrospective

The next step is to walk and talk through the most interesting and though-provoking comments that have been posted and agree as a team on which of the items you want to place on the Island Paradise. Don’t expect to get through all of the notes as there are likely to be a lot, and time is of the essence. Allow maybe 10-15 mins per theme (above).

With the priority items identified, you can move on to develop an action plan for your next project or initiative.

These are just two retrospective styles among many, but in my experience, these work well for research teams due to their simplicity and the visual nature of the Speedboat Retrospective in particular. They are the cornerstone of any agile team are easy for people of all levels and skills to participate.

Remember to keep them regular and look to involve your clients if it feels relevant. Some clients simply won’t have the time, but those invested in the relationship with your research agency will value them enormously.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn new ways to up-skill and improve the performance of your research team take a look at these two articles:

How To Win More Online Qual Projects

How To Run Successful International Online Qual Research Projects


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