Agile Retrospective: Best Of Summary

Ruth Hadari
Ruth Hadari
Agile Advocate, Engineering Ops Expert
Posted on
Feb 4, 2022
Updated on
Mar 16, 2023
Table of Content

2023 has certainly offered its fair share of challenges for the software industry. With work-from-home becoming the norm, worldwide economic uncertainties and political tensions, productivity, and communication have been put to the test.

One of the silver linings that has come out of this year is the resurgence of interest in improving efficiency with strong agile retrospectives, which help team members reflect on their progress and identify potential improvements.

We thought we would take this opportunity to provide an overview of the best and most effective resources and posts for learning more about agile retrospectives. Below, you'll find a summary of each concept, a link to the article, and some insights as to why they matter.

What Is An Agile Retrospective? 

Before we start, let’s see what the original definition of the retrospective is according to

“The Sprint Retrospective is an opportunity for the Scrum Team to inspect itself and create a plan for improvements to be enacted during the next Sprint.”

What is an agile retrospective, and how does it differ from a sprint review? Agile retrospectives are vital to the agile process. They help teams understand what works well, what needs to be improved, and how they can become more efficient.

Similar to other scrum ceremonies like the daily scrum and sprint review, retrospectives are held at the end of each iteration (or timeboxed period). They have a straightforward structure: team members discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of their work during the previous iteration. The scrum master then ensures action items are created for any identified improvements.

Retrospectives look to improve the process over time by:

  • Identifying what works well and what works poorly
  • Making actionable improvements

This continuous improvement is one of the most critical elements of agile and distinguishes it from Waterfall and other methods.

How Is It Different From A Sprint Review?

Some people confuse an agile retrospective with a sprint review. Though they sound similar, they are very different events. An agile retrospective generally focuses on how the team plans to build the actual product. In contrast, a sprint review is centered around what they are trying to develop.

  • Retrospectives are also about improving results, whereas reviews are about demonstrating them.
  • Sprint reviews are specifically designed for product owners and other key stakeholders to see the work completed during the sprint. Agile retrospectives encourage teams to share lessons learned, identify changes to make, and hold themselves accountable for adding those improvements.

Who Attends The Retrospective

The scrum guide states that all members of the Scrum team should be invited, because they all have something to contribute to the meeting,

"The Sprint Retrospective is an opportunity for the Scrum Team to inspect itself and create a plan for improvements to be enacted during the next Sprint.

Who exactly is on the scrum team? According to the scrum guide, there are three personas:

Product owner: This role is responsible for maintaining the product backlog, which contains all the tasks associated with delivering the final product.

Scrum team: This is the team that actually works on the project during a Sprint.

Scrum master: A professional who understands and applies Scrum processes and workflows. They ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to Scrum theory, practices, and rules.

It seems to us that we can widen this a bit. The retrospective should be attended by all members of the team, with a facilitator leading the discussion. The facilitator can be a scrum master, a product owner, or it can rotate among team members. We encourage you to include designers, marketers, and anyone else who contributed to the current sprint or iteration.

How To Choose The Right Format For Your Retrospective Meeting

The retrospective meeting is a critical part of continuous team improvement. The main goal is to inspect, adapt, and improve upon the processes used within the team and its daily interactions.

For a compelling retrospective, we recommend matching the suitable format to the retrospective meeting with the team’s size. Big groups, for example, can use emoticons and speed dating retrospective sprints. Smaller groups should focus on lean iterations.

Teams can also make the process fun with formats like the superhero, diamond/charcoal, and constellation/embrace pop culture with retrospective sprints that remind them of the Oscars.

For instance, some teams add a lottery element to the retrospective meeting process to make it fun and engaging. This is where people draw from a hat or turn over cards with random ideas. You can even consider adding smiley faces to the notes that participants write.

The suitable format depends on the size of the team, the goal of the session, the number of meetings per week, and even the facilitators.

The bottom line is that teams can get their creative juices flowing in whatever format as long as they can accomplish their objectives. They can achieve this with tools like GoRetro boards.

Sprint Retrospective Meeting Agenda

A retrospective meeting is useless when you don’t have a plan or a clear idea of the process. Contrary to what most people think, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Instead, do what works for the team.

Here is our five-step retrospective agenda if you are looking for a guide:

Step 1 - Set the Stage: State the goal(s) of the retrospective, who is present (allies), and establish ground rules.

Step 2 - Gather Data: What went well and didn’t go so well with the sprint? What can the team do to improve? What data do you have to work with?

Step 3 - Generate Insights: What are the patterns in the data? What root causes helped these patterns come to life?

Step 4 - Create your Action Items: What are the options? What should the team decide to do next?

In the aftermath of a retrospective, there is a sense of satisfaction that the team's feedback has been captured, that they have been engaged and that they have come up with some good ideas. Each was captured, written down and voted on, and actions have been decided on. However, how can you ensure actions are taken on the items captured in the retrospective?

Generally, action items can be separated into two categories based on the expected delivery timeframe:

  1. Reminders/ongoing items: These are points that should always be kept in mind by the team. These include action items related to interactions with other teams and activities. In successive retrospectives, you can determine whether or not the team still needs to be reminded of this action item. These action items can be kept open until the team decides they have been conquered and no further reminders are necessary.
  2. Direct/specific action items: These represent actions that the team or a team member should carry out once, which makes everyone's life easier. It can be a report, a discussion with another team, or setting up an automated process that will benefit everyone. In the next retrospective, the team can assess whether this specific action item achieved the team's desired outcome and decide whether to consider it complete.

How to Create Clear Action Items

Every time we talk about a direct action item, the three W's are always considered: What, When, and Who:

  • Who? Essentially, this is the individual who will be handling the task. This action item will state clearly who is responsible for completing this task.
  • What? This is a very important component of the action item. Due to the fact that it is the description that tells the person what he or she needs to do to complete the task. In addition to being clear, the Why also needs to be short and to the point so that no ambiguities remain. 
  • When? This is the timeframe within which the task should be completed. In some cases, it is referred to as a deadline.

It is recommended to stick with smaller action items that can be completed within a logical time frame like a month, so that the team remains motivated and enthusiastic. Assured small wins are a more robust tactic for continuous improvement than aiming high right away.

Step 5 - Close the Retrospective: Celebrate wins, connect, and create your goals.

A retrospective is only as effective as the action items set, and how they are followed up on. 

The definition of a retrospective states the team must look to “improve” their processes, but this concept is subjective, vague, and does not enforce accountability. There must be a better way to accomplish these goals. This is where the SMART goals framework comes in. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-sensitive. You can read more about SMART goals here.

A retrospective meeting doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Our five-point process, for instance, takes 25 minutes or less, depending on the topics and team size. Keeping it short and sweet ensures that you don’t lose momentum.

Sprint Retrospective Formats: Retro Ideas For Scrum Teams

Are you the type of person who doesn't like to get stuck in long boring meetings? Don’t worry, you're not alone! We don’t either. That’s why we love sprint retrospective meetings: they’re short, but they get the job done.

But it doesn’t stop there. GoRetro introduces 21 retrospective formats to suit the size of your team, process, meeting agenda and goals. These include:

  • The Start-Stop-Continue retrospective is an organized way for team members to share their ideas. It starts with what people should do next, what they should stop doing, and, finally, what they should continue doing.
  • The Lean Coffee retrospective is a structured meeting that  does not require an agenda. Instead, team members decide what they want to talk about and prioritize before the meeting. Then, they vote with dots or thumbs up/down on their topics and discuss those voted most important.
  • The Sailboat sprint retrospective is creative and straightforward: Draw a sailboat with its sails, anchor, some rocks, some clouds, and some islands. The anchor tells you what slows the team down or holds them back. The clouds signify everything that helps the team move forward, while the islands are future goals and visions. The rocks represent risks the team must take to achieve those island goals.

Overall, these formats make every meeting more valuable, responsive, and engaging.

Note that we do not provide an exhaustive list of all possible formats and techniques you can use for retrospective meetings. Your mileage will vary! What worked brilliantly in one retrospective might prove utterly useless in another.

Indeed, the primary purpose of sprint retrospective formats is not to find the “perfect” one, but to explore the topic itself and discover new retro ideas that might help you improve the process of retrospectives with your team.

Fun Retrospective Games And Activities 

Did you know that you can make retrospective meetings less dreary? In fact, you can make them so much fun that your team loves doing this process over and over. Here are some brilliant and truly fun retrospectives

  • One Word Retro Game: A flexible activity that enables team members to speak up and share their perspectives. The facilitator asks the group a question. Each person writes down one word on a sticky note that best represents their opinion.
  • Draw the Sprint This activity works similarly to charades. The facilitator writes out the problem, idea, or solution. Team members need to draw it without speaking, while the rest have to figure out the drawing before time runs out.
  • Two Truths, One Lie: Team members write down three things they think no one else knows about the previous sprint. One of them is a lie. The other team members then have to guess which statement is false.

However, we strongly recommend that you don’t settle on these activities alone. Some companies implement game mechanics like leveling up (i.e., the more points accrued, the higher level achieved), giving rewards, etc., that encourages team members to be part of the fun retrospective activity every time. The sky’s the limit! 

Sprint Retrospective Questions: The Ultimate List

You need to come prepared to make your sprint retrospective effective and avoid wasting time. We highly recommend planning your questions ahead of time.

Here is a list of the most common retrospective questions at every stage of the sprint process. Feel free to browse through them, use them all, or take one question that feels appropriate at the moment. 

  • What went well during the sprint?
  • What could have gone better in our team dynamics? How can we improve on that for future sprints?
  • Was there anything blocking you or slowing you down during this sprint? What can we do to prevent or avoid these things in the future?
  • How can we improve the way we manage dependencies?
  • What can we do to avoid these types of problems in the future?
  • What process of improvement should be introduced in the next sprint to make us even better?
  • Did this sprint meet our expectations?
  • Are we happy with the process improvement introduced in the last retrospective?

The answers to these questions will eventually dictate the outcomes of the meeting. Hopefully, it will result in concrete actions you can execute the SMART way.

Agile Retrospective Ideas For Your Next Meeting

If you haven’t gotten the message yet, an agile retrospective is scalable, flexible, highly engaging, and creative. We have 12 clever ideas to ensure the meeting doesn’t end up being a snoozefest:

  • Icebreakers and Games: Set the mood right with icebreaker questions and games. They are here to make participants comfortable with each other and get their brains working.
  • Leaderboards: Leaderboards reward the most hardworking team members while motivating the rest to step up. 
  • Change of Scenery: Change location and vary how you hold your retrospective. It can be anything from a lunch break to a trip to the pub.
  • Sticky Notes: Participants use sticky notes to write their ideas of what they think is essential for improvement. Write down notes (with colors) that represent actions, people, timeframes, and so on.
  • Draw it: Participants use whiteboards to draw a picture of what they think is happening in the project and how it could be improved.
  • Prizes and Giveaways: Give away candy, beverages — anything — and let participants win something. This is a great way to celebrate the small victories and make retrospectives fun and engaging.

Top Retrospective Tools

You can use over 30 free and paid retrospective tools to make the retrospective process enjoyable, accessible, and actionable! Here are our favorites:

  • The GoRetro free retrospective tool makes the process of a retrospective easy. You can create boards, allow comments, sort and filter cards and comments, and use them to start discussions. This interactive tool is perfect for scrum meetings.
  • Retrium is a program that helps you hold better conversations. You can use it for meetings and play many games to make the sessions fun. If you try Retrium for free, you get access to all of the features in Team Edition for 30 days. Our favorite part is how intuitive it is!
  • TeamMood helps you find out how your team is doing. It takes less than 5 seconds to answer a question, and then you receive an email about it the next day. In addition, you can check up on people’s moods and see if they are happy or not. It costs $2 per user with a 30-day free trial, depending on the size of your team.
  • EasyRetro is another tool for running retrospectives. You can customize the board to your liking and export data to other integrated tools. It costs $25 per team, but it doesn’t cost anything more if you only use public boards.

In Summary

Agile retrospectives are a valuable tool that can help scrum teams improve their processes and workflows. By taking the time to reflect on their past work, teams can identify areas for improvement and make the necessary changes to become more effective.

Contrary to popular belief, agile retrospectives don’t need to be complicated or take a lot of time. With a few of the tips and tricks you've just read, you can make agile meetings fun, enjoyable, and efficient for your team.

Despite the numerous challenges of the last year (or two!), software companies are continuously maturing and implementing agile retrospectives. As agile methodology grows and evolves, you'll see retrospectives being used in new and interesting ways. 

Hopefully, these posts will boost the quality of your retrospectives in no time, so your team can enjoy their many benefits! Best of luck.

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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