How to run a great retrospective

Retrospective is a term which is often used in the same sentences as agile, collaborative work, scrum and teams. But what exactly is an agile retrospective? Since there are many different ways to run a retrospective one might ask which is the best practice. One thing is for sure: there is no perfect way to do it. Instead there are some best practices and everyone has to adapt it to make it work best for their team. 

To find out what works best and how agile retrospectives can improve your teamwork it’s helpful to answer one question in advance: 

What is an agile retrospective?

Agile retrospectives are defined as regular meetings of a team to examine past collaboration and to derive suggestions for improvement for future cooperation. They offer teams the opportunity to reflect on current events and behaviour in short, iterative cycles – usually every 2 weeks. In essence, the retrospective answers the following 3 questions:

  • What has worked out well in the last few weeks?
  • What has not worked out so well?
  • What will we do differently from now on – and how?

Even though the concrete questions can be formulated in many different ways.

The continuous exchange leads to problems being identified quickly and work processes running more smoothly. Isn’t that a goal for any team? 

5 Phases of a agile retrospective

To gain further insight in how to set up a retrospective it is useful to have a look into the 5 phases retrospectives should include. 

Retrospectives allow teams to evaluate the collaboration together and learn from it. In order to facilitate this reflection process there are 5 phases that need to be fulfilled:

  1. Set the stage
    In the beginning it’s important to create an open atmosphere where every team member is comfortable talking about the open discussion points. The general assumption should be that every member has done the best possible work regardless of the open discussion points. 
  2. Gather information
    Gathering information sounds quite simple: Look back on the previous work and examine what went well and what needs to be improved. The challenge is to get the team to reflect and share their thoughts openly.
  3. Develop insights
    In the third phase teams should identify the causes for previous challenges and problems. This serves not only to eliminate the superficial problems, but to successfully eliminate the causes.  
  4. Decide what needs to be done
    This phase is used to plan concrete and realistic steps to be implemented in the next sprint. It helps the team to solve former problems and improve their collaboration.
  5. Closure
    Last but not least, the agile retrospective is completed by documenting the results and planned next steps. 

These 5 phases of agile retrospectives give you an first insight into how to plan retrospectives for your team. Of course there are some aspects of agile retrospective techniques which need to be looked at more detailed. 

Probably you’re still wondering how an agile retrospective is performed exactly?

Therefore, we provide more detailed information about what makes a good retrospective.

Dos and Don’ts of agile Retrospectives

In order to run successful agile retrospectives there are some Dos and Don’ts that have to be considered. Since there are many different agile retrospective techniques that can be used it can seem quite intransparent what should and shouldn’t be done. 

Dos

  • Be prepared
    It’s important that the moderator (or Scrum Master) of the retrospective prepares a schedule for the meeting. This needs to be done in order to have a structured meeting and enough time to discuss all of the important topics. 
  • Create an atmosphere of trust
    So that everyone feels comfortable talking about potential problems there needs to be an atmosphere of trust and respect. Make sure that no one gets interrupted and that people who do not feel comfortable talking are able to write their issues down. 
  • Refer only to behaviour and work – not to the person
    This aspect is also part of the  Prime Directive: Don’t criticise and blame one person for being responsible. Instead look for possibilities to improve your working conditions and processes as a team.
  • Take responsibility for the taken decisions
    If you are making decisions as a team, make sure that you’ll get things done together. Allocate the tasks and check the process throughout your agile retrospectives.
  • Observe and analyse your working behaviour and environment
    It is a useful habit to observe your work behaviour during the sprint. Ask yourself questions like: What works out well? What doesn’t work out so well? What are our main hindrances and how can we tackle them?
  • Build a team – be a team
    Since you’re probably going to work together for quite a well, invest some time in getting to know each other. Trust and respect are key factors for efficient teamwork.
  • Have a meeting host
    It’s always good if someone hosts the meeting. Either a scrum master, a team leader or a moderator. This provides structure and efficiency.  
  • Discuss and clarify
    Make sure that all team members have all the information and that there are no misunderstandings before decisions are made.
  • Meet in regular intervals
    In order to check the team’s progress you should have agile retrospectives in regular intervals. This ensures a continuous exchange. 
  • Summarise the results
    Summarise the results at the end of each retrospective. So you have a list of points, which you can consider in the future.

Don’ts 

  1. Use retrospectives to complain about everything
    Agile retrospectives aren’t meetings to complain about all of your problems. Rather, they serve to find ways to improve and to better yourself as a team. So besides bringing problems, also bring the mindset and willingness to solve these problems as a team. 
  2. Allow boredom
    If the meeting is boring chances are that the members will digress and stop to participate. Therefore you should take into account that every team member needs to be included. Make sure you are using various retrospective formats to keep the team engaged.
  3. Sharing information without the team’s approval
    An atmosphere of trust is very important to ensure that everyone feels safe and comfortable. Sharing information without the team’s consent could harm the trust and therefore lead to useless retrospectives.
  4. Too much (information) to handle
    Don’t overwhelm your colleagues with too much information. Do not try to improve everything at once. Small steps lead to success.
  5. Pointing fingers – getting personal
    Keep in mind the Prime Directive. Don’t blame people personally. Instead work on solutions as a team. 

How to run a agile retrospective – Examples

There are different techniques on how to create the different phases of your agile retrospectives. To give you some ideas, I will describe short examples for each of the five phases.

  1. Create framework conditions
    Check-In: Ask every team member how they feel on a scale from 1 to 10 and why. This will lead to open communication and makes sure that everyone feels included.
  2. Gather information
    Hang up two flipcharts and hand out sticky notes in two different colours. Choose one colour for “Keep it up” and one for “Work on it”. Let your team members write down things they liked and didn’t like and stick it onto the flipcharts. Discuss afterwards.
  3. Develop insights
    After discussing the flipcharts in phase two hang up a third flipchart with the two sections “Causes” and “Ideas”. Try to find out why things didn’t work out as they should have and what you can do to improve your work process.
  4. Decide what needs to be done
    Create a flipchart with “What”, “Who” and “Until”. Specify your next steps and allocate specific tasks. 
  5. Closure
    Give a short feedback on how the retrospective itself went and what you can do better next time. 

As you can see, there are many different ways to conduct an agile retrospective. It’s important that you adapt it to your team’s needs and continuously work on improving it. 

If you keep the previous points in mind, you can already start doing good agile retrospectives. In our next articles we will show you specific agile retrospective techniques. We promise you: You’ll soon be agile retrospective professionals and the agile retrospectives are an integral part of your everyday life.

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