Sprint Retrospectives Made Simple

David Pereira
David Pereira
Product Leader, Content Creator, Speaker
Posted on
Mar 9, 2022
Updated on
May 23, 2022
Table of Content

It's Monday, the last day of the Sprint. After receiving critical feedback from the client, Björn took the time between the Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective to address some issues. He is uneasy because the client complained about some of the features he worked on. The time seems insufficient, and he starts wondering: "Damn it! I have no time to work. Now, we will have this stupid Sprint Retrospective."

Björn sees no value in the Sprint Retrospective; he wants to skip it and keep working on something else. Without hesitation, he calls Floki, the Scrum Master.

Björn: "Hey, Floki. May I skip the retro today? I've got a lot on my plate, and I really don't want to be in a room for 2 hours bullshitting around."

Floki: "Bullshitting around? What's that?"

Björn: "Come on! Let's be honest. We stay in this room for 2 hours, complain, curse a bit, give flowers to each other. Then, two weeks later, the same happens. What's the point?"

Floki: "Björn, you know we are very picky about Scrum, and the Sprint Retrospective is a mandatory event. I am sorry, but you cannot skip it. Please, share your frustration with the team during the event."

Björn: "I'm tired of this. Meetings, meetings, and more meetings. I've got work to do, and I see no value in gazillions of meetings.Three Sprints ago, I shared my frustrations, and no actions were defined, I felt ignored. So why would I do that again?"

Floki: “Björn, I am sorry to hear that but you know, we have room to identify opportunities to become a better team, and this is the Sprint Retrospective. If you skip it, you’re just giving up on us as a team. Is that what you want?

Björn: “I am not giving up on the team but I feel our retros don’t leave me with a feeling of becoming a better team.

Floki: “What about addressing this as a team?

Björn: “You got me. But this is the last time I am trying this. Let’s make this attempt worth it.

Now, let me ask you a simple question: What's the point of doing a Sprint Retrospective? Take your time before you answer it. During this article, I want to share what is not a Sprint Retrospective and how you can benefit from great ones.

What's Not a Sprint Retrospective?

Although many retrospectives become a blame game and nothing happens, that's a massive anti-pattern. This event isn't the moment to complain and become powerless.

A bad Sprint Retrospective will end up with the following:

  • Talk, talk, talk: The team exchanges information and ideas about everything, but they don't come to a point or cannot agree upon anything.
  • Powerless: If the world outside were sunnier, we would be happier. When the attitude is about complaining about external factors, the team becomes powerless.
  • No clear actions: Even after a long talk, the team doesn't commit to any action for the next Sprint. Team members leave the retro with empty hands and a bitter taste in their mouth; they may wonder, "have we just wasted two hours of our lives?"

Without clear actions, Sprint Retrospectives are a waste of time.

What's a Sprint Retrospective?

What is the purpose of a Sprint Retrospective? Let's have a quick look at the Scrum Guide, 2020.

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

It sounds straightforward, right? As a team, we want to be proud of what we create and be more effective in working together. That's why the Sprint Retrospective exists; we give ourselves time to evaluate how we function as a team and how we can become a bit better.

A common mistake of a retrospective is trying to solve everything at once, which will only overwhelm the team. Like product development, we should have a vision and then, step by step, get closer to it. A great Sprint Retrospective results in small steps that help the team function a little better.

Successful Sprint Retrospectives in 5 Steps

I've been working with Scrum for around a decade. This means I've been to incredible and horrible Sprint Retrospectives. Some of them I facilitated, and some I acted as a participant. I am not a Scrum Master or an Agile Coach, but I love helping teams become better. That's why I am super enthusiastic about retrospectives; I perceive them as an excellent opportunity to improve as a team.

Let me share my recipe for successful Sprint Retrospectives. It works well for me and people who work with me, and maybe it could help you as well.

1. Set the Stage

A vital part of any meeting is to ensure participants are mentally present. In other words, that their attention goes entirely to the meeting. Therefore, helping people arrive at the meeting is crucial. I like doing the following steps:

  • Prime directive and goal: Make it a safe environment. It may become repetitive, but I experienced more openness once I stated how the event works; here is an example: "Goal: We agree on actions to improve as a team. Prime Directive: Regardless of what we discover today, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could."
  • Make it funny: Help the team get comfortable and not overthink. You can make a 3 minutes game or something funny. For example, ask everyone to make the emoji face you present. It makes a massive difference in the room.
  • Tune in: Let everyone connect to the event. You can do this in several ways; for example, describe the last Sprint with an image or three words. Give the team 2 minutes to prepare, and then around 10 minutes to tune in.

2. Evaluate the Last Actions

As I mentioned before, great retrospectives result in clear actions. However, defining the actions isn't enough; you have to evaluate whether they were done or not.

After the tune-in comes the moment to look at the previously agreed-upon actions and navigate the results. What did the team do about them? I like to keep it simple: a Kanban Board is enough – open, keep, done, drop. The point is to evaluate whether it was beneficial for the team or not.

Warning: If the team constantly skips actions, you need to review the reason.

3. Generate Insights

Everyone sees the world from different perspectives. The retrospective is the moment to share how each member viewed the last Sprint. This part is potentially the longest one of the events. There are several ways of generating insights, but the most important thing is to ensure everyone has the chance to openly share what happened during the Sprint from their perspective .

Here are some dynamics I like using:

  • Sprint Timeline: Draw a matrix where X represents the time and Y the mood. Invite each team member to draw their Sprint timeline and share the highlights and low points. This technique is helpful and open.
  • The sailing boat: Draw a boat, wind, anchor, sharks, and an island. Give the team 5 minutes to collect ideas and 20 minutes to share. The anchor represents what slowed them down, while the wind means what speeded up. The shark relates to the potential risks for the next Sprint, and the island represents the opportunities. This technique is practical and often quite revealing.
  • Keep, Drop, Improve, Start: Looking at the team's collaboration, what should they continue to do the same, stop altogether, improve a little, or start doing? Give each member 5 minutes to prepare and 20 minutes to share. This method is straightforward and valuable.

There are tons of dynamics you can use. Each situation is different; you should evaluate what makes sense for you and pick the most suitable option.

4. Define Actions

Talking about the last sprint isn't enough for a successful retrospective. After you generate insights, it's time to define the actions you want to carry over the next sprint. Be sure the agreed action is achievable during your next cycle.

Agreeing upon actions can be tricky. Before trying to commit to anything, I'd suggest doing the following:

  • Cluster: The team may share common points; try clustering them to facilitate the discussion.
  • Prioritize: After you have clustered, you need to choose where to direct your attention to. You don't need to talk about all of the identified items; rather, choose what to explore deeper. You can either decide spontaneously or do a dot voting, for example. It depends on the size of your team and how it functions.
  • Discuss: Once you know where to put your energy, it's time to discuss with your team and identify the bottlenecks. Gaining clarity is the goal of this part.
  • Agree on actions: What's the next step you can take to improve? Set a measure for that. Ensure your definition is actionable and appoint an owner.

A common mistake is defining too many actions or, even worse, putting dependencies outside the team’s influence. Generally, two or three actions per sprint are more than enough.

5. Close the Sprint Retrospective

After you agree upon actions, you need to close the session. I like closing in a positive mood to ensure the next sprint starts well, but you can explore different closing styles.

I call the closing part a tune-out. Let me share some approaches you could use:

  • Kudos: Invite team members to give kudos to each other. Positive feedback boosts the mood.
  • Take away: Ask everyone to answer these questions: What will I do differently? What should we do differently as a team? This format is more on a commitment level.
  • Confidence: You can evaluate how the team feels for the next sprint. You can ask them how confident they are for the next interaction on a scale from 1 (not confident at all) to 5 (totally confident). Encourage them to say why; this will help you define how to act during the sprint.
  • Feedback: If you want to understand how the team perceived the retrospective, ask them. For example, how satisfied are you with the value of this session on a scale from 1 (totally unsatisfied) to 5 (totally satisfied)? Invite them to share the reason behind it; this will help you design better retrospectives next time.

Final Thoughts

Retrospectives shouldn't be boring, tiring, or annoying. The great ones are engaging, motivating, and encouraging.

High-performing teams don't shy away from conflicts. On the contrary, they embrace conflicts to figure out how to work better together.

Use retrospectives to ensure everyone knows how everyone sees the world. Identify conflicts, and address them. The more you do that, the stronger the team gets.

About the author

David Pereira
Product Leader, Content Creator, Speaker

Product Leader with 15+ years of experience. Currently located in Munich, Germany and striving to help companies create value faster. I'm a Partner at Value Rebels and Interim Chief Product Officer at omoqo. My passion is helping product teams overcome their challenges and deliver REAL value faster. Almost every product team is trapped somehow, untrapping them is what drives me.

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