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3 popular ways to run a productive retrospective

PostsProject management
Brandi Gratis

Brandi Gratis

May 17, 2024

The Scrum framework of project management is based on four basic Agile meetings, i.e., ceremonies: the sprint planning meeting, daily stand-up, sprint review, and sprint retrospective.

Continuous improvement is one of the biggest benefits of working in an Agile work environment, and in the Scrum framework, the driver of improvement is the retrospective. Retrospectives offer multifaceted benefits, including fostering team cohesion, identifying actionable insights, and aligning with project goals.

In this article, we’ll explain retrospectives, provide three popular examples of how to run them, discuss how to overcome common pitfalls, and share how to tailor your retrospectives to your team.

What is a retrospective?

Retrospectives are ceremonies held at the end of each sprint, during which team members collectively analyze how things went to improve the process for the next sprint. They’re usually facilitated by a Scrum Master and include only the team (not managers or other stakeholders, since their presence can deter teams from bringing up mistakes).

Teams identify key observations, like:

  • what’s working
  • what’s not
  • what can be improved
  • what can be added to the process
  • what can be removed from the process

People have devised various formats and exercises for approaching these topics, but they all face a similar challenge: keeping the retrospective engaging and productive over time. Unfortunately, no single approach is a silver bullet.

People tend to adapt to new habits fairly quickly. After a few sprints with the same kind of retrospective following each time, you’ll probably notice that team participation and the overall energy level people bring to the retrospective start to drop.

That’s why it’s important to mix things up! As one of my favorite bizarre sayings goes: there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And there’s certainly more than one way to run a retrospective. The best way to keep retrospectives productive is to continuously challenge the team to think of solutions in new and interesting ways and create an Agile retrospective format.

How to run a retrospective

Here are three popular ways to run a retrospective.

Start, Stop, Continue restrospective

One of the most straightforward ways to run a retrospective is the “Start, Stop, Continue” exercise. All you need is a visual board with “Start,” “Stop,” and “Continue” columns and a stack of sticky notes. Within each column, people write their observations about the sprint as they relate to the following categories:

  • Start: actions we should start taking
  • Stop: actions we should prevent or remove
  • Continue: actions we should keep doing and formalize

Start by giving your teams a set amount of time (5-10 min) to write and categorize their cards. When everyone finishes, address each item one by one to allow people time to share input. At the end of the discussion, set up a vote to decide which items are most important. Give each team member a set number of items they can vote for (usually three). Calculate which items got the most votes selecting the top few (no more than three), and keep those items as your area of focus for the next sprint.

start stop continue retrospective

Start stop continue template available in Cacoo

Review these focus areas at the beginning of your next retrospective to measure their success. Incorporate any feedback into your next “Start, Stop, Continue” board.

The Agile retrospective

The “Start, Stop, Continue” exercise may feel too brief and gets quickly repetitive for some. Esther Derby and Diana Larsen created a more in-depth approach in their book Agile Retrospectives. With a bit of tweaking for personalization, your team can use an Agile retrospective format. To follow, break up your retrospective into the following five stages:

  1. Set the Stage
  2. Gather Data
  3. Generate Insights
  4. Decide What to Do
  5. Close the Retrospective

Set the stage

‘Set the stage’ means priming your team for discussion. Start with a game, like asking each team member to summarize the sprint using only three words. Use the first few minutes of your meeting to establish an open and informal tone where people feel comfortable bringing up ideas.

Gather data

You can approach the data-gathering stage much like the beginning of the “Start, Stop, Continue” exercise. Ask each team member to compile their observations about the sprint onto cards.

Generate insights

To generate insights, lay out all the cards from your team and organize them by similarities. Sometimes you might notice that many people share the same point, which probably means it’s worth addressing. Other times people may realize that all the cards seem to relate to a specific stage in development. Now is the time to pay attention to recurring themes, patterns, and issues that might cause one another.

Decide what to do

Next, it’s time to decide how you will put those insights into action. The team should brainstorm solutions and put a plan in place to actualize the best ideas. It’s best to limit the number of changes sprint-to-sprint, so you can isolate their effects when reviewing them at the next Retrospective.

Close the Retrospective

Finally, it’s time to close the retrospective on a high note. Too often, meetings end when people simply run out of things to say. Close your retrospective with a summary of findings and praise things done well. The ending of these meetings should be a celebration!

Good, bad, better, best retrospective

For some, both of the above approaches rely too much on the Scrum Master. Because Scrum teams are self-organizing, many want to emphasize team members working together rather than “reporting to” the will of a Scrum Master or Project Manager.

The “Good, Bad, Better, Best” model starts much like the “Start, Stop, Continue” exercise and the data-gathering stage from Agile Retrospectives. Give your team 5-10 minutes to write down their observations about the sprint on separate cards.

Once people finish writing, take turns going around the room one by one, with each person discussing one card per turn. Unlike the other two formats, present all cards before discussions start. This is the discovery phase. Questions from the team are fine, but debate can’t begin until the last person finishes. Continue the discovery phase until all cards have been read and placed on the board, then discuss as a whole. Each item should be categorized as follows:

  • Good: Things that went well, i.e., areas where the team met or exceeded expectations
  • Bad: Things that didn’t work well, i.e., areas where the team didn’t meet expectations or where unexpected problems occurred
  • Better: Opportunities for improvement, i.e., suggestions on how to do something better
  • Best: Things that deserve recognition, i.e., outstanding performances and people who went above and beyond

The most important differentiator of this process is that the Scrum Master (or whoever is serving as the facilitator) is not to editorialize, comment on, or summarize the discussions. The Scrum Master is an observer, gathering information related to the project overall. The team should drive the conversation. Team members are also responsible for deciding on action items and next steps to prevent the Scrum Master from taking on a delegatory role.

Benefits of retrospectives

Once your team has regularly practiced retrospective exercises, you will begin to notice a number of  advantages to teams and projects, including:

  1. Continuous improvement: Retrospectives foster a culture of continuous improvement by providing a structured mechanism for reflection and adaptation. Teams can identify what went well and areas for enhancement, leading to iterative refinements in processes and practices.
  2. Team cohesion: By encouraging open communication and collaboration, retrospectives strengthen team cohesion and trust. Team members feel empowered to voice their opinions, contributing to a sense of ownership and accountability for project outcomes.
  3. Problem identification: Retrospectives enable teams to identify and address issues proactively. By examining past experiences and outcomes, teams can uncover underlying challenges, bottlenecks, or obstacles that may hinder progress.
  4. Learning and knowledge sharing: Retrospectives facilitate learning and knowledge sharing within the team. Team members can share insights, best practices, and lessons learned from both successes and failures, promoting professional development and skill enhancement.
  5. Alignment with goals: Retrospectives help ensure alignment with project goals and objectives. By evaluating progress against predefined metrics and milestones, teams can course-correct as needed to stay on track and deliver value to stakeholders.

Challenges in retrospectives

Despite their benefits, you may also face several challenges. But knowing what to look for can help you prevent or mitigate them. Look out for:

  1. Lack of participation: One common challenge is low participation or engagement during retrospectives. Some team members may be reluctant to speak up or share their thoughts, leading to incomplete or biased feedback.
  2. Dominance of individuals: In some cases, certain individuals may dominate the discussion, overpowering quieter team members or steering the conversation in a particular direction. This can inhibit diverse perspectives and hinder the generation of actionable insights.
  3. Identifying actionable insights: It can be challenging to distill insights from retrospective discussions into actionable items or improvements. Without clear prioritization or follow-up plans, teams may struggle to implement meaningful changes based on their reflections.
  4. Time constraints: Time constraints can limit the effectiveness of retrospectives, especially in fast-paced or high-pressure environments. Teams may feel rushed or pressured to complete the retrospective quickly, compromising the depth of reflection and analysis.
  5. Sustainability: Sustaining momentum and engagement in retrospectives over the long term can be challenging. Without ongoing commitment and support from team members and leadership, retrospectives may become viewed as routine or irrelevant, losing their impact.

Tailoring retrospectives

If you do come across one or more of the above challenges — or simply don’t feel like one of the exercises we introduced is producing the results you’d like — you can always tailor them to suit your needs. Tailoring retrospectives to suit the specific dynamics of each team is essential. Some strategies for tailoring retrospectives include:

  1. Customized formats: Experiment with different retrospective formats and techniques to find what works best for your team. Consider factors such as team size, project complexity, and organizational culture when selecting a format.
  2. Facilitation style: Adapt your facilitation style to promote inclusivity and participation. Encourage active listening, set clear expectations, and create a safe space for sharing ideas and feedback.
  3. Frequency and duration: Adjust the frequency and duration of retrospectives based on project cadence and team preferences. Shorter, more frequent retrospectives may be preferable for fast-paced projects, while longer, in-depth retrospectives may be suitable for larger initiatives.
  4. Feedback loops: Establish feedback loops to incorporate ongoing feedback into retrospective practices. Solicit feedback from team members after each retrospective to identify areas for improvement and refine the retrospective process iteratively.
  5. Continuous improvement: Treat retrospectives as opportunities for continuous improvement. Encourage the team to reflect on the retrospective process itself and identify ways to enhance its effectiveness over time.

Remote retrospectives

As more work is conducted remotely, it’s important to address the specific challenges and opportunities that these situations create. Some strategies for successful remote retrospectives include:

  1. Utilize digital tools: Leverage collaboration tools, video conferencing platforms, and digital whiteboards to facilitate remote retrospectives. Choose tools that support real-time collaboration, document sharing, and interactive exercises.
  2. Establish clear communication norms: Define clear communication norms and expectations for remote retrospectives. Establish guidelines for participation, turn-taking, and virtual etiquette to ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute.
  3. Adapt facilitation techniques: Adapt facilitation techniques to suit the virtual setting. Use icebreakers, breakout rooms, and polling features to engage remote participants and maintain their attention throughout the retrospective.
  4. Address connectivity issues: Anticipate and address potential connectivity issues that may arise during remote retrospectives. Provide alternative communication channels or backup plans in case of technical difficulties to minimize disruptions.
  5. Encourage documentation: Encourage documentation and record-keeping during remote retrospectives. Capture key insights, action items, and decisions in shared documents, wikis, or project management tools to ensure accountability and follow-up.

Metrics and tracking

Last but not least: if you want to ensure that you’re getting the most out of your retrospectives, you’ll want to have metrics you can look to and assess. Some metrics and tracking strategies to consider include:

  1. Team satisfaction: Measure team satisfaction with the retrospective process using surveys or feedback forms. Ask team members to rate their experience and provide suggestions for improvement.
  2. Action item completion: Track the completion of action items identified during retrospectives. Monitor progress over time and assess the impact of implemented changes on team performance and project outcomes.
  3. Process efficiency: Evaluate process efficiency and effectiveness based on retrospective insights. Measure key performance indicators (KPIs) such as cycle time, lead time, and defect rate to assess the impact of process improvements.
  4. Stakeholder feedback: Solicit feedback from stakeholders on the outcomes of retrospectives and the resulting improvements. Capture stakeholder perspectives on project performance, delivery quality, and alignment with business objectives.
  5. Iteration over time: Analyze trends and patterns in retrospective outcomes over time. Identify recurring themes, areas of improvement, and emerging challenges to inform future retrospective discussions and action planning.

By addressing these aspects, teams can maximize the value derived from retrospectives and drive continuous improvement in their projects and processes.

Retrospective tools

There are many other retrospective formats and activities you can use to enhance these meetings. If your team starts to fall into a rut using one format, switch to another, or alter aspects of your current format. Small changes — like putting all cards on the board at once vs. going around the room one at a time — can be enough to re-spark engagement. Keep things interesting, and don’t be afraid to try new formats just because they don’t have the same features as your old ones.

Once you’ve settled on an update or change to your process, be sure to track how those changes affect your workflow and output over time — project management software can be especially helpful here. Whether you’re running Agile as a development team, product team, or whole business, retrospectives will give you invaluable insights that incrementally improve your teamwork over time.

This post was originally published on November 14, 2016, and updated most recently on May 17, 2024.



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