3 Pillars of a Successful Retro Meeting

Ruth Hadari
Ruth Hadari
Agile Advocate, Engineering Ops Expert
Posted on
Jan 12, 2023
Updated on
Jan 12, 2023
Table of Content

Agile is going mainstream. Perhaps fueled in part by an increasingly distributed global workforce, Agile adoption within software development teams has increased from 37% in 2020 to 86% in 2021. Yet there are still many challenges that Agile practitioners face, according to the latest State of Agile report. From ‘inconsistencies in processes’ to lack of ‘skills and experience,’ most organizations face significant barriers when trying to adopt and scale Agile practices. Out of all Agile techniques, 83% of the surveyed teams practice retrospectives meetings.

Scrum Masters are likely to spend up to 25% of their time attending meetings. If you’re going to spend a large chunk of your time in meetings, especially one as significant as a Sprint retrospective, you should ensure that they are as productive and efficient as possible.

In my role as a Scrum Master, I have continually strived to find new ways to enhance the efficiency and productivity of our meetings. My experience suggests three pillars for a successful retrospective meeting: the facilitator, the element of surprise, and feedback.

Facilitator

I believe the facilitator’s ultimate role is to get the team discussing, ideally sharing specific and deep observations that the team can examine together to form interesting discoveries about the last iteration. However, there is a fine line between a constructive discussion and a destructive conflict. Throughout my career I found that people who are excellent at Agile team facilitation display the characteristics such as leadership, awareness and presence while maintaining empathy.

With an Agile team facilitator present in the meeting, teams are better able to collaborate, participate, and be involved. Keeping participants focused, but relaxed. Maintaining a neutral stance while encouraging participation.

Being an insider, Scrum Master has biases and preferences that they find difficult to let go of, despite best efforts. I found out that there are two main things that can set the mode for a constructive retrospective meeting. First, to make it as frictionless as possible, members should start the meeting without any barrier. Second, I tailor every aspect of the meeting beforehand to match the need. I also ran a retrospective on the last retrospective meeting and learned what we can do better. For instance, do we need to blind-vote? Check the team mood and talk about it? Do we need a timer? Call the action items from previous meetings? You get it. I call this Facilitation Superpowers and I believe that each of us need to have a toolbox so we can tune the meeting to our audience.

Element of Surprise

Meetings can be really boring, and bored team members are less likely to participate. In fact, bored employees are more likely to read emails, work on other projects, or fall asleep. Regularly scheduled meetings, such as a retrospective, can become repetitive. If you see eyes glazing over and you keep getting the same answers to the same questions, you need to change things up a bit to get team members involved.

Ice breakers and mini warm up games

You can also try to add warm up games or other fun activities / icebreakers, to liven up the room and get your team more excited about participating in another retrospective meeting. Warm ups are a perfect way to:

  • Get to know colleagues better
  • Reduce shyness
  • Make team members feel comfortable
  • Keep participants focused and away from distractions
  • Encourage individual self-expression
  • Bond with team members on an emotional level
  • Develop empathy and strengthen team dynamic
  • Improve and increase team-wide communication
  • Boost creative thinking

GoRetro has mini games built right into the product, allowing you to quickly inject some juice into the meeting with a click of a button. Engage your team and get everyone in the right mood for your meeting.

Example of GoRetro's Icebreakers

Retrospective Templates 

As a Scrum Master, I like to start with a really simple retrospective template and stick to it for a while. This way, the team gets comfortable with it and doesn’t have to spend mental energy learning a new template format. However, retros can quickly become stale if you sleepwalk your way through the same agenda every time. In case I feel that the team might get fatigued, I quickly refresh a new GoRetro template for the next meeting with the click of a button. 

GoRetro's Retrospective Templates

It’s All About Feedback

Like a comedian in a room without laughs, I also attended retrospective meetings that lacked feedback. While I am not talking about silences here and there—something that a good facilitator should take into account and be comfortable with. I’m talking about  something deeper. The sense that the team just needs a spark. 

It is well known that a retrospective meeting should result in something tangible, whether it's a positive change in your process, a better team understanding of project goals, or simply a sense of kumbaya generated by an effective, collaborative and productive meeting. But, as there is no fire without smoke, we can’t gather feedback from participants if they are silent, arriving at the meeting with low energy and low expectations. It can also be the lack of diversity, where only few members share their feedback and over-voice the meeting. Besides, how can I overcome biased feedback? Most people are biased by nature, they are less likely to be the first to stir up a storm, while others have more “political” considerations when posting feedback and so on.

Addressing this is not an easy task, but luckily I found a few tricks that really helped me. 

The Power of Anonymous Feedback

Anonymous retrospectives help get the real pulse on the floor. It helps all the participants open up and talk about what they really feel deep down about the organization, the culture, the people, the leadership, the technology, the motivation factor, etc. I emphasize to the participants that this is an anonymous retrospective and encourage them to share their thoughts without having anything to worry about. To gather such feedback, simply use the GoRetro anonymous feature and protect the identity of the members.

It’s All About Data

We all experience the world differently, and our version of the facts feels real to us. It is difficult to determine what is objectively true versus what is subjective without a common set of data. 

Team members present their perception of the facts in the retrospective meeting as the absolute truth because it feels real to them. 

I believe that there are many data related metrics that your team can address during retrospectives, but usually I highlight two—cycle time and burndown charts. This will ensure that this recurring meeting and its takeaways are anchored by data, instead of subjective opinions. 

Cycle Time

Aside from learning if the task was planned/unplanned, its estimated time, subtasks and current status we also show the actual cycle time for each task. This offers the ability to breakdown cycle time per status and task in the Sprint and give you a better idea of what you spend the majority of your time on. Is it coding or review time? Maybe you need to allocate more resources for the review or refresh the priorities? Extracting the cycle time from Jira is a highly complex flow that requires you to even add a custom field to your workflow and then use excel sheets to post-process the data. You can learn more about measuring cycle time in Jira vs. GoRetro here

Let’s be honest: no one has the time to run those calculations before the retrospective meeting, and you end up leaving vital insights on the table. GoRetro does all of that in the background, giving you a detailed breakdown of each task cycle time as it moves between Jira statuses

GoRetro's holistic Sprint Dashboard

With a single view we can compare each task to its cycle time, find hidden treasures such as unplanned tasks that blocked your team’s progress, see the impact of carried over tasks and how they affected the Sprint.

Burndowns

As Scrum Masters, we used to spend countless hours before the retrospective meeting preparing all the data from Jira and other data sources, and consequently pulling our hair when we couldn't get things to just work. Let’s open Jira’s burndown chart for reference:

Jira's Burndown Chart

Yeah. It‘s super challenging to read, let alone use it to make accurate predictions. Experienced Scrum Masters would like to know how many planned/unplanned and carried over from the previous Sprint when they prepare their burndown chart for our upcoming retrospective meeting. By doing so, we'll be able to have an in-depth discussion about the iteration, baked with facts instead of guesses. 

GoRetro's Burndown Chart

GoRetro’s burndown chart has a few super handy features that will save you tons of time. Aside from showing you the split between planned, unplanned and carried over tasks it also lets you drill down. By clicking on each daily bar you can drill down on all the changes that happen throughout each day. You can see completed, removed, and progressed work in a daily view. This in turn provides insight into the timeline and Sprint progression.

My main goal here is to help the Agile team keep track of what’s been done, what needs to be done and how much time is left in the project. Predict your team's likelihood of completing their work in the time available. It’s also helpful for keeping the team aware of any scope creep that occurs and alerting you quickly to any potential problems or bottlenecks. 

Jokers: My Secret Weapon 

I can create statistics upside down and backwards, but without any context, they're removed from reality. GoRetro incorporates the feedback right into the board as a card. You can think of it as if someone from an external team turned around and said, “Oh, did you know you keep changing the priority of your tasks? Maybe you should talk about it.”   This shadow/external team member doesn't have any sort of baggage, politics, or any reason to say something without the clarity of goodwill. 

For instance, cycle time isn’t something the team thinks about, but as a Scrum Master, I do. Seeing it as part of the retrospective meeting kind of changes their perspective on how the movement of the tickets actually happened. It is in context—the meeting’s context.

GoRetro’s shadow team member analyzes your Sprint work and adds insightful data-driven cards to your board before the retro meeting. They can highlight things like if you're working according to priority, how you compare to the previous Sprints in planned vs. actual tasks added mid-Sprint, priority misalignments, resource allocation, cycle time, over or under capacity, planning issues and much more. On average, the Joker's cards increase participation and engagement to more than 80%, while also focusing the discussion on what matters. Best of all, it requires zero time preparation for this meeting! 

About the author

Ruth Hadari
Agile Advocate, Engineering Ops Expert

Highly experienced in leading multi-organizational teams, groups, in-shore as well as off-shore. The go-to person who is able to simplify the complex. An agile advocate, experienced in all common methodologies. Responsible for the entire software development lifecycle process from development, QA, DevOps, Automation to delivery including overall planning, direction, coordination, execution, implementation, control and completion. Drives execution, and communicates on status, risks, metrics, risk-mitigation and processes across R&D.

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