Starting with Scrum: The Retro

Erik de Bos
Erik de Bos
Scrum Master & Agile Coach
Posted on
Dec 14, 2022
Updated on
Dec 15, 2022
Table of Content

This is the seventh and final article in the Starting with Scrum series.

In this article, we discuss the final event of the sprint: the Sprint Retrospective.

What is the Sprint Retrospective?

According to the Scrum Guide:

The purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to plan ways to increase quality and effectiveness.

This sounds quite simple, but this humble sentence holds what I find to be the essence of the Scrum framework: continuous learning.

Using the Scrum framework means we are constantly learning. During Sprint Planning we learn how we want to approach the goal of the Sprint. In the Daily Scrum, we learn how our approach is working. In the Sprint Review, we learn how happy the stakeholders are with our approach.

However, in all these events the focus is on solving problems in a relatively linear way. You have a problem, you find a solution. Too many issues to deliver the Sprint Goal? Adjust the scope. Stakeholders unhappy with the Increment? Let them make an informed decision about what should be delivered in the next Sprint. Someone getting overworked? Gather the team to help him out.

The Sprint Retrospective is different. It is a session dedicated to really standing back from the daily work and reflecting on the way we work. Double loop learning. This is not the moment to look for obvious solutions; instead, it is a time to dream and get creative. We are looking for that stroke of genius.

The Sprint Retrospective is about things where the outcome is unclear. The only option is to try and learn the most from the experience. The Sprint Retrospective is all about creating experiments and understanding the results.

The Basics

The first step is to collect subjects to discuss. Usually, I give the team 5 minutes to write their ideas on post-its. What goes well, what is problematic, what can be improved; whatever inspires them. Then we discuss the results, trying to find patterns. A Conversation Cafe is brilliant for this.

The next step is thinking big. What would be an awesome solution? What crazy ideas do we have? Here a 1–2–4-All works great, gathering the best of all ideas into one goal.

And that is it. This phase of joint discovery usually leads to so much energy, that it is usually quite easy to move on to thinking about how to try it out. Creating an experiment, with a method - a set of action points - and a plan of the results we expect and how to measure them.

The Hard Bit

This all sounds rather easy, but in practice, it is anything but. Creativity is something that doesn’t come naturally. Our daily busyness makes it hard to step off the hamster running wheel, and it keeps us in the wrong state of mind. And the problem is that an effective Sprint Retrospective without creativity is problematic. So the challenge is to create an environment that encourages creativity.

Source unknown. Creativity depends on the ability to stand back and think. Those two guys have learnt to be brilliant experts in moving a cart with square wheels.

For me, creating that environment is all about fun. Fun is essential for inventiveness, creating the safety and playfulness necessary to unleash creativity. In a quite primordial way, having fun together leads to implicit trust in each other.

So make jokes and fool around! I think this is the perfect moment for the Scrum Master to shine. We are all so serious at our work — it’s what we are used to. But we live in a time where fun has become acceptable. Make the best out of it.

The trick is to remember that the fun needs to tie into the work, otherwise, it becomes cheap, having fun for fun’s sake. Make jokes about the work, not jokes about your cousin.

To get started, nothing works better than an energiser; something short but fun, that helps us connect as a team; this sets the vibe, making everything else after that so much easier.

Liberating Structures are a godsend. Using them, we never have meetings anymore, we have workshops. Efficiency gives teams a kick — reducing meeting times by 50% is nothing special -  but it is the effectiveness of Liberating Structures that makes them so much fun. With Liberating Structures, not only is getting results ridiculously easy, but engagement and energy levels go through the roof.

A change of venue is great too. Before COVID I would do my best to move the team to a new environment. I’ve done garden retrospectives, sticking post-its on trees, on a wall, or at the local pub.

With COVID, I have a dedicated digital whiteboard for each of my teams, which I use for everything from retros to brainstorms to energisers. I encourage colours, pictures and the odd quote or graph to make this a team wall full of past work and past fun.

However, the focus is never on the board. To me, that is putting the process above the interactions. I like to see where the team takes me so I keep my retros quite straightforward. And very flexible.

I never share the board in advance. And there is no agenda. You can’t plan a retro as a strict thing, as you risk sacrificing creativity. Too busy following the plan to realise you just stumbled over the real solution! As Bruce Lee puts it, be like water. The trick is to be ready for any eventuality and just go with the flow of the team, channelling them towards the best result.

And if it doesn’t work, keep it light, don’t force it. Better a fun conversation and a good discussion than leaving the event frustrated that we didn't come up with anything. Creativity is unpredictable and ideas come unexpectedly.


I can imagine that the ideas I describe in this article may seem counterintuitive. Having fun? Playfulness? It all sounds rather unprofessional. They are ideas which sit uncomfortably with how we think we work as human beings, but the reality is that the way we work is changing dramatically.

We adopt Agile because it helps us to embrace a new way of thinking that fits with those changes. The ideas I describe tie in intimately to a new way of thinking which involves concepts like the growth mindset, lateral thinking and slow thinking.

Check this talk by John Cleese on Creativity. Most of what I speak about in this article is covered in this brilliant talk of his.

The bottom line of this new way of thinking is creativity. If you take away but one thing from this article series, let it be the fact that Scrum and Agile are about learning. Experimenting. Empiricism.

It is not about solving problems, it is about inventing stuff.

About the author

Erik de Bos
Scrum Master & Agile Coach

I started life as an ecologist, but found better employment opportunities as a programmer… and soon started wondering why project management never seems to work. Convinced we should be able to enjoy our work much more, I embarked on a quest to find solutions. For me, Agile is the silver bullet, a win-win proposition, and the new competitive baseline against which all organizations are measured. I am a Scrum Master, Agile Coach, writer, speaker and editor. I work at Scrum Facilitators with a group of idealists, where we are committed to helping everyone to understand and adopt Agile.

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