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Optimising Team Performance: The Art of the 4L Retrospective Technique

Elevate your agile teams (or any team, including the executive leadership team) retrospective with the 4L Approach:

In our business coaching practice, we utilise two distinct tools that, while less common in general business contexts, are staples in agile software development: retrospectives and premortems. When applied through business coaching, these methodologies offer unique insights and forward-thinking strategies, adapting agile principles to enhance overall business performance and decision-making processes.

This concept may be entirely new to you, or perhaps you’ve previously attempted retrospectives but without success. Are your company’s retrospectives falling short of producing actionable results? I observe a common issue: teams dedicate excessive time to past events without a clear, structured plan for future actions. This lack of focus can hinder the effectiveness of retrospectives in driving meaningful change. The session is just a huge moanfest ensuring everyone feels negative.

If this sounds a little too familiar, it’s time to try the 4L method. This straightforward technique focuses on what your team liked or loved, learned, lacked or loathed, and longed for, effectively identifying challenges and successes. By using the 4L framework, you can convert discussions into tangible actions, fostering meaningful growth and development in your team. Let’s delve into how the 4L Approach can transform your retrospectives into powerful tools for team progress.

  • Dive Deep with the 4Ls: The 4L retrospective framework (Liked (sometimes written as Loved), Learned, Lacked (sometimes seen as Loatheed), Longed for) provides an easy and repeatable structure for continuous team improvement by covering wins, lessons, deficits, and aspirations. You pick the Ls that work best in your culture.

  • Cultivate Transparency: Creating a safe space (developing psychological safety) is crucial for honest reflections during retrospectives, with a skilled facilitator and the correct tools and materials guiding the process towards constructive outcomes.

  • Turn Reflections into Tangible Improvements: The very essence of a retrospective must be to catalyse action—prioritise objective feedback, create actionable plans with clear goals, and establish accountability to ensure consistent team progress and learning.

Exploring the 4Ls Retrospective Framework

Sticky notes used in a retrospective

The 4Ls Retrospective: More Than Reflection: Designed by Mary Gorman and Ellen Gottesdiener, this agile technique helps teams critically analyse their sprint experiences, focusing on successes, failures, and areas for growth. Its straightforward yet effective approach aids agile teams in extracting valuable lessons from each sprint or OKR review session, fostering continuous performance enhancement.

What distinguishes the 4Ls retrospective from other techniques is its focus on four key areas:

  • Liked: What aspects of the project or process did the team like?

  • Learned: What lessons or insights did the team gain from the project or process?

  • Lacked: What resources, skills, or support did the team feel were lacking?

  • Longed for: What goals, outcomes, or improvements did the team wish for?

Framing the retrospective around these four areas enables teams to reflect on their performance from multiple perspectives, gathering comprehensive insights. However, it must be considered that what puts one team in flow might cause disruption for another. Enabling an open conversation means a company can find ways of working that benefit employees on both an individual and team-member level. This depth of reflection is key to its success, enabling teams to identify a wide range of potential improvements.

    Creating a Safe Space for Honest Feedback

    Obviously, ensuring there is a supportive environment is crucial for honest feedback during retrospectives. When team members feel safe to voice their thoughts, they share authentic insights and propose impactful improvements. Trust and open communication are essential. During a brilliant conversation on Mind Your F**king Business Podcast with David Horsager, CEO of Trust Edge Leadership Institute (found here), we explored the very essence of trust in the workplace. Following the same theme, check out this recent blog I wrote here.

    Seek to consistently enable comprehensive feedback for a deeper understanding of team experiences. Creating this safe space is the role of the team leader or manager, and if you feel this is amis under your leadership, you need to question yourself as to why that is.

    How do we create this safe space? The key lies in setting the right tone. Here are some steps you can take:

    1. Encourage each team member to share their thoughts and feelings.

    2. Make sure everyone knows that all feedback is valuable.

    3. Give each person uninterrupted time to speak.

    4. Ensure everyone is heard.

    Creating such a supportive environment fosters a culture of trust and collaboration between participants, paving the way for more effective retrospectives in the future.

    Setting the Stage for Successful Retrospectives

    A successful 4l retrospective is more than a meeting; it’s a strategic opportunity for team learning and growth. Achieving this requires meticulous planning, expert facilitation, and appropriate tools and materials. From selecting the right facilitator to preparing essential resources, every aspect is crucial to lay and complete the groundwork for a fruitful and impactful retrospective session.

    The facilitator is key in steering a retrospective. Their role involves guiding discussions and ensuring every team member’s perspective is acknowledged, and the dialogue remains productive. While challenging, an adept facilitator equipped with the right skills and attributes can dramatically enhance the effectiveness and results of a retrospective.

    This is a time for radical candour and encouraging fresh perspectives; everyone should come away feeling like their point was taken onboard and that there is transparency surrounding what actions are being taken once the meeting is over.

    Additionally, having the right tools and materials can help gather feedback, ensuring nothing important is missed and that the team can focus on the most important issues for continuous improvement. The team can make data-driven decisions for better results by seeking objective feedback.

    Choosing the Right Facilitator

    Choosing the right facilitator is crucial in setting the stage for a successful retrospective. A good facilitator can guide the team through the retrospective process, foster open and honest communication, and ensure that the meeting stays focused and productive.

    What defines a good facilitator? The key lies in the qualities they embody. A good facilitator should:

    • Be able to create empathy

    • Understand team challenges

    • Facilitate effective conversation

    • Provide feedback

    • Maintain a positive attitude throughout the process

    They must adeptly manage conflict, steering the group and team towards constructive resolution and productive handling of disagreements.

    Preparing the Tools and Materials

    Tools and materials are vital in a retrospective, aiding the team in collecting and structuring feedback, thus simplifying the process and task of pinpointing improvement areas and devising actionable plans.

    Whether using software like Miro for managing retrospective activities or traditional tools like sticky notes, markers, and a whiteboard, the right mix of digital and physical materials is crucial. These tools help document feedback effectively and ensure shared reflections are visible and understood by all team members. Conducting the 4Ls Retrospective with Your Team

    For the next and last iteration of the 4Ls retrospective, it’s essential to strike the right balance. This involves initiating and guiding discussions, fostering open and honest dialogue, and steering towards a productive and constructive outcome.

    The process begins by initiating the conversation about likes and learnings, allowing the team to discuss and share their positive experiences and lessons learned. But it doesn’t end there. The retrospective technique also involves addressing the lacks and longings, ensuring that all aspects of the group or team’s performance are examined and opportunities for improvement are identified.

    Initiating the Conversation: Likes and Learnings

    The first step in brainstorming the 4Ls retrospective is initiating the conversation about likes and learnings. This is where team members and participants get to share what they enjoyed about the sprint and what they learned along the way. Kicking things off with positivity sets a tone for the more challenging parts of the conversation.

    By starting with the positives, the team is encouraged to brainstorm ideas, reflect and think critically about their past performance, identify what worked well, and consider how these successes can be replicated in future sprints.

    These learnings provide valuable knowledge and insights into how the team can improve their performance and overcome challenges in the future by implementing new ideas.

    Addressing the Lacks and Longings

    Following the likes and learnings, the team can then address their lacks and longings. During this part of the retro, the team shares what they felt was missing in the last sprint and what they long for in the next sprint.

    Confronting areas where we can improve can be challenging but crucial for team growth. By fostering a supportive, non-judgmental space, teams can openly address these issues, transforming perceived setbacks into opportunities for development and progress.

    Turn priorities into actions

    The power of the 4Ls retrospective lies in its ability to transform discussions into decisive actions. Merely talking about successes and failures isn’t sufficient. Teams must use these insights to shape future actions. This involves prioritising feedback, setting actionable plans with defined deadlines, and ensuring accountability for improvements. A proactive approach enables continuous performance enhancement, learning from past sprints, and achieving better outcomes in future endeavours.

    Prioritising Feedback and Formulating an Action Plan

    Transforming feedback into impactful actions begins with prioritisation. The team can target improvements that significantly boost performance by zeroing in on the most crucial issues. The next phase involves crafting a concrete action plan: setting attainable goals, delegating tasks, and establishing deadlines. This plan acts as a roadmap, guiding the team towards enhancement and clarifying the importance of each member’s role in driving collective success.

    Ensuring Accountability and Follow-through

    For actualising to manifest as tangible actions, accountability and follow-through are essential. An action plan without accountability remains a mere wishlist. When accountability is woven into the fabric of the team’s operations, every member becomes committed to actualising the improvements. This commitment can be solidified by assigning specific individuals to oversee each action item and employing tools like Jira, Trello, or Asana to collectively monitor progress on action items. Such a systematic approach guarantees that insights from retrospectives are translated into concrete steps, with every team member fully aware of and responsible for their part in the collective progress.

    Adapting the 4Ls Retrospective for Remote Teams

    Back view of business woman talking to her colleagues about plan in video conference. Multiethnic business team using laptop for a online meeting in video call. Group of people smart working from home

    Adapting the 4Ls technique for virtual teams is crucial in today’s distributed work world. This method can be as effective online as in person with the appropriate digital tools. Remote 4Ls retrospectives thrive on platforms like Miro offering online whiteboards and digital sticky notes, allowing for organised and accessible feedback. Tools like these mimic the in-person experience and offer advantages like auto-saving and effortless sharing for future reference. These digital solutions allow teams to engage in smooth, collaborative retrospectives, transcending geographical boundaries. Not all that long ago, I had a fantastic discussion on Mind Your F**king Business Podcast with J Arthur, who shared some insights into scaling her fully remote business, which I recommend listening to if you haven’t already.

    Beyond the Basic 4Ls: The Emotional Perspective in Retrospectives

    Retrospectives benefit immensely from acknowledging team emotions, illuminating morale and collaboration quality. Employing tools like smiley-sad face scales or formats like ‘mad, sad, glad’ effectively tracks these feelings. Integrating emotional insights into retrospectives cultivates a supportive atmosphere, ensuring every team member feels acknowledged and valued.

    Leveraging Retrospective Insights for Future Success

    The 4Ls retrospective is designed to pivot from blame-laden insights to achieving future objectives. It’s about harnessing lessons from past experiences and fine-tuning strategies, thereby elevating team performance in forthcoming projects or sprints. More than just an assessment tool, these retrospectives are vital catalysts for ongoing improvement, fostering a culture of perpetual learning and growth within teams. Enhancing a growth mindset in all involved and bolstering physiological safety.


    Our exploration of the 4Ls retrospective has revealed its significant impact on improving team performance and fostering continuous development. We’ve dissected its four core components, outlined methods for conducting productive retrospectives, and explored ways to convert introspective insights into concrete actions. The 4Ls retrospective is not merely a mechanism for reflection; it’s a driving force for team progression. It promotes open communication, appreciates candid feedback, and turns insights into actionable steps. Incorporating the 4Ls into your next team retrospective could be a game-changer, potentially elevating your team’s efficiency and contributing to its overall success.

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    Written by business coach and CEO mentor Dominic Monkhouse, read more of his work here. Read his new book, Mind Your F**king Business here.

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