The Agile Retrospective is the central tool of agile teams which is accelerating learning and continuous improvement. With this blog post, we will discuss how to best use agile retrospectives to drive team success, offering useful resources and tips from experienced professionals. Learn how to be a master of retros!
The Importance of Agile Retrospectives
Definition and Purpose of Agile Retrospectives
An Agile Retrospective is a meeting to discuss any lessons that can be learned from a period and identify actions for improvement. Even if the word “retrospective” refers to the past, the focus is the future: What can be improved in the future to be more effective in what we do? Additionally, the teams can take proactive steps towards addressing risks before they become serious issues. Some people therefore prefer to use the word “Foretro“.
Becoming a master of retrospectives 🏅💪
Running an effective retrospective is high art. Soft skills are required to detect emotions in the conversation, let everybody participate in the meeting, and refocus the people on the outcome.
Your first retrospective may be a frustrating, as you may not reach a single agreement during 2 hours of meeting. The outcome of retrospectives are not only actions, but also learning and team building.
An effective retro moderator can set the pace of the retro. He must get continuous input from the team: have we already discussed this topic, or should we move forward?
After doing many retrospectives you will learn as moderator and as a team to reach more quickly solutions and commitments from the team. Retrospectives are a very structured meeting format which requires months of experience to start being effective at it.
It’s by forging that one becomes a blacksmith; however, you also learn very quickly by joining as observer a retro from an experienced agile master.
Benefits of Agile Retrospectives
Agile Retrospectives are like ax sharpening 🪓
Imagine a woodsman who is tasked with chopping down trees in a forest using an axe. As the woodsman works, the ax becomes dull due to the repeated impact against the trees. If the woodsman continues to use a dull ax, their efficiency and effectiveness in cutting down trees will decrease over time. The process will become slower and more labor-intensive.
At the end of each retrospective, the team becomes a little bit better: problems get solved, communication is improved, and people are more engaged and accountable.
Agile Retrospectives are like teeth brushing 🪥
Imagine you’re a person who brushes their teeth daily. You understand that brushing your teeth regularly prevents dental issues and maintains your oral hygiene. You don’t wait for a major dental problem to occur before you start brushing. Instead, you perform this small activity every day to avoid bigger problems down the line.
Issues are like caries; they are generally not visible although you do a deep inspection. Just as you take care of your teeth before they start hurting, Agile teams work proactively to identify and resolve issues before they impact the work progress or the team’s morale.
Making the elephant in the room visible 🐘
The elephant represents a problem that people do not want to talk about because it is too personally, embarrassing or controversial. Imagine there’s a large elephant sitting in the middle of a room where a group of people are gathered. Despite the obvious presence of the elephant, nobody mentions it. However, the elephant’s presence is so significant that it affects the dynamics of the room and the conversations taking place. The bigger the elephant is, the harder it is to speak about it.
By acknowledging the elephant and discussing it openly, the team can work towards finding solutions and prevent the issues that could lead to a desegregation of the team.
When to run agile retrospectives?
Doing retrospectives frequently is very important for young teams, as they may be in the storming phase, and conflicts must be solved very quickly. During the first weeks in the team life, I used to do a weekly retrospective.
Learning in the team in team should be continuous. Performing a retrospective on different time periods takes you to different perspectives. Here are some examples of retrospectives:
- Ad-hoc retro
Some Scrum Masters decide to start a retro of 15 minutes at the end of a daily meeting in case issues need to be addressed quickly.
- A retro at the end of a day
You may use the retro format at the end of a workshop to analyze what can be improved for the next day.
- A recurring retro
In the Scrum Framework and retrospectives are held at the end of Sprint, so generally after two weeks. It is generally a good frequency.
- At the end of a product release
The release of a product to the customer may be a good opportunity to speak about what went well and what well wrong.
- Quarterly retro
In the quarterly retro you can address tactical topics like the review of the OKRs (objective key results).
- Yearly retro
The end of the year is generally a good opportunity to review the main events that occurred and speak about the strategic objectives for the next year.
Running an agile retrospective
The most common format for an Agile retrospective follows a set of steps, often referred to as the “Five-Step Retrospective,” as outlined by Norm Kerth in his book “Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews.”
1. Set the Stage
Choosing the right place and time
Begin the retrospective by creating a comfortable and open atmosphere. Choose a time when the team has sufficient energy, preferably in the morning or at the beginning of the afternoon. The duration of retro may vary between 15 and 120 minutes, 90 minutes being an average. According my experience, young teams may need the 120 minutes, experienced teams only need one hour every two weeks.
If you are at the office, choose another meeting room than the team is used to. The reason is linked to our reptilian brain: New places put people in a new emotional state.
If you are having a remote meeting, ensure that people activate their webcam. That is very important to check the energy and the emotions of participants.
For hybrid or remote meetings you can use a whiteboard tool like Microsoft Whiteboard, Miro or Mural. Of course, take a look also at the retro feature in teammeter which your agile retrospective more fun and effective.
With a little ice breaker or game, you can warm-up to lighten the mood and foster creativity during the session. Here are three popular games for retrospectives:
Typical ice breaker questions let people know people better each other to increase trust. Plan 2 minutes per participant to prepare their answer.
Examples of ice breaker questions:
- If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
- What is the best trip you have ever been on?
- What was your (first student) job?
A very nice game to open a retrospective is “Black stories”. It is a set of enigmas which are solved by the team by asking questions to the moderator. The team must generally think out the box to find the correct answer. Plan 15 minutes for this game.
In the emotion map, each participant choose picture corresponding to their emotional state. There are some variants:
- Picture showing people’s or monster faces in all possible emotions.
- Characters in different emotional states placed on a tree.
- A map continual visual metaphors like “vale of tears”, “climbing wall” or “power source”.
Give at least 2 minutes to each participant to describe his emotional state with the picture.
Rules of the agile retrospective
At the beginning of the meeting, Remind the team of the retrospective’s purpose and the importance of continuous improvement. Introduce the rules for an effective retrospective:
- The Prime Directive from the book of Norman Kerth: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
- “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas” (Confidentiality)
If the team is new, I add some rules about openness to improve the quality of discussions:
- “Every perspective is valid”
- “Understanding instead of justifying”
- “Do not leave the room before to say what you wanted to say”
Request all participants if they have questions and if they agree these rules before starting the retro.
2. Gather Data
To goal of this step is to collect information about the sprint or iteration. This can include metrics, data, feedback, and observations. Share metrics for quality, performance and customer feedback to ensure that the team is working from a common set of facts.
It is also the right time to perform a health check to assess various aspects of their work using a predefined set of questions or statements. Each aspect is rated, and the team discusses the results to identify areas for improvement. It helps teams gauge their overall performance, collaboration, and satisfaction.
A popular health check is the Spotify Health Check with 11 questions. As it may be boring for the team to answer each time the same questions, our team health check chooses automatically questions over a list of 50 excellence criteria.
Choosing a retro template
Retro templates are great help as they contains questions to facilitate the discussion around predefined themes called retro dimensions.
The most popular templates are:
- Start-Stop-Continue: This simple template asks team members to identify things they want to start doing, stop doing, and continue doing in their Agile process.
- Glad, Sad, Mad: Team members express what made them glad, sad, and mad during the sprint. It helps identify both positive and negative aspects of the iteration.
- 4Ls – Liked, Learned, Lacked, Longed for: Participants share what they liked, what they learned, what was lacking, and what they longed for during the sprint.
- Sailboat: In this metaphorical template, the team visualizes their journey as a sailboat. The wind represents driving forces (positive aspects), and anchors represent hindrances (negative aspects). They discuss how to reduce anchors and catch more wind.
Request each member to write cards anonymously in each dimension to avoid anchor effect. Limit the number of cards per participant, for example 2 cards per dimension, to let people reflect on their most important topics and avoid having too many topics to vote.
3. Generate Insights
In this step the team analyzes the data collected and identifies patterns, trends, and areas of improvement.
Once you have selected the most important topic, you must decide whether a deeper analysis is required.
For complicated subjects, like technical ones, it may be required to do a 5 whys analysis. It is a problem-solving technique that involves repeatedly asking “why” to identify the root cause of an issue. By iteratively probing deeper into the underlying reasons behind a problem, it helps uncover the fundamental cause and enables effective solutions.
The analysis can be represented on a fishbone diagram which represents the issue causes grouped in dimensions like people, methods or hardware.
When the problem is too complex, there is no clear relation between cause and effects and a root cause analysis would take too much time. Moreover, stirring up the problems decrease the team’s energy. In that case, move forward to the solution space. Complex problems can be solved by doing small experiments and learning from them.
4. Decide What to Do
In this phase, you will take each prioritized topic, and decide which action to be done in the next iteration. Plan between 15 and 20 minutes for each topic to be discussed.
- Request to team to brainstorm action proposals
- Group similar actions and ask them to vote for the ones that they would like to discuss.
- Vote for the action items that will have the most significant impact on the team.
- Refine the action to make them specific enough according the SMART framework.
- Evaluate between 1 and 5 the likelihood of the action item to be implemented. If it is lower than 4, then request the team to improve it.
If actions are not reviewed regularly, the probability is low they will be implemented, as the team is generally busy with operations. Start the next retro by reviewing the last decided action items. First it reminds the team what is the retro outcome. Secondly a failing implementation of actions may be another topic to be discussed in the retro.
5. Close the Retrospective
The retrospective, is closed as you can already guess, by a retrospective😁. Plan 10 minutes to summarize the retro and reflect on the retrospective process itself. Run a ROTI poll (Return On Time Invested) and collect feedback on how the retrospective can be improved for the future.
Do not measure the success of my retros in the number of actions the team had decided. Focus on the most important topic and decide 2 or 3 good actions that really make the difference for the team.
Do not worry if the feedback is not so good as expected. A successful retrospective is not relying on the performance of the moderator only, but from the whole team. The team will learn along with you how to increase the quality of discussion and outcomes. The success of the retrospectives is indeed a good indicator of the team’s overall performance.
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