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How to Hold Effective Retrospectives Without Wasting Time

Retrospective meetings are a key ingredient in successful Scrum and XP Agile methodologies. They provide a structured opportunity for teams to inspect and adapt, to look at what worked and what didn’t work, and to find better ways for everyone to work together within the bigger value chain.

The basic goal is kaizen, or, continual improvement. An effective retrospective ends with a solid list of executable action items that the team can use to make the next Sprint better than the last.

Unfortunately, if they’re facilitated poorly, retrospective meetings can end up causing more harm than good. They can be a confusing, frustrating, and unproductive waste of the team’s time.

So, learning to hold effective retrospectives is a vital skill for any successful Agile team to master.

The standard text professionals refer to when discussing Agile retrospectives is Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. It’s referred to again and again in reputable sources of information about retrospectives because their method works flawlessly when applied well. The following brief primer is based on Derby and Larsen’s five-step method for effective retrospectives:

Step One: Set the stage

Without allowing your meeting to digress into some New Age retreat-style team building joke, taking the time to consciously set the stage for the retrospective is a vital first step to making the meeting effective and enjoyable for everyone in attendance.

Take into consideration that everyone attending has other work they could be doing, and potentially problems they could be solving (rather than standing around discussing them). From a psychological standpoint, it’s not natural or easy for everyone to switch gears and enter an environment of open, honest communication, emotional discussion, and group problem solving.

To make the transition possible, you will need to begin the meeting by following this basic pattern of discussion:

• Thank all participants for their attendance and their willingness to help
• Outline the basic meeting agenda and time line
• Elicit a verbal response from each team member (helping to psychologically focus them on their own participation in the meeting)
• Review the team’s working agreements briefly (to establish a “safety zone” in which every member feels free and empowered to express themselves and make the meeting a success without hostility)
• Review the facts – good, bad, and indifferent – of the Sprint in order to establish the facts that will be discussed in the meeting (without any emotional baggage attached to any one fact)

While some facilitators downplay the importance of this step, studies and experience have shown that it truly is vital to effective retrospectives. Experiment with it and make an effort not to take too long accomplishing it, but don’t skip it.

Step Two: Gather data

With the stage set, the next step is to gather data about the Sprint from all in attendance.

Facilitators often attempt the “round robin” method of getting verbal feedback from every team member one at a time, but there are some significant drawbacks to this method. For one thing, it puts people on the spot, which could be uncomfortable. It also forces people to think and listen at the same time, meaning neither action is getting the full focus it deserves. And, it eliminates valuable consensus since it feels awkward to repeat what someone else has already said so people tend to cross items off their list if someone else has already brought them up.

A better option is to offer a set time period at this point in the meeting for silent brainstorming during which each participant fills out sticky notes that contain their observations from the past Sprint. This allows all personalities on the team equal opportunity to express themselves and may duplicate feedback for those areas of the Sprint that stuck with more than one team member. This approach offers a continually updated flow of ideas team members can use to enhance their own thoughts without being overwhelmed.

Step Three: Generate insights

At this point, the team can get together at the board where their ideas are displayed and discuss how each note relates to the others. Notes are grouped into general themes such as Story Content, Interruptions, Network Problems, etc.

Duplicate notes are grouped together, showing strong consensus. Vague notes that require further explanation are explained without judgment, and everyone comes away with a clearer understanding of what’s been supplied by the team.

Next, team members are given the opportunity to vote on what they feel are the 2-3 most important areas for improvement to focus on. The voting methodology should be experimented with to determine what is best for the team. Allowing each team member a set number of votes and having them mark the displayed notes will provide a quality outcome.

The votes are tallied, and the team comes away with 2-3 specific issues to focus on in the following step.

Step Four: Decide what to do

Using these 2-3 topics, the team then discusses how to improve these areas over the course of the next Sprint.

Again, each team and facilitator needs to experiment with the best methods for holding this discussion. Some find an open forum to be best while others split the team into groups to focus on only one topic. Many other potential methods that can be used.

However, the final goal in all cases is to come out with 1 or 2 specific executable action items that the entire team can discuss and commit to. This commitment is the vital key to actually benefiting from the retrospective because these action items keep the team focused on actually improving with each sprint.

If it’s appropriate for a particular action item, this may be the best time to assign a specific person to take ownership of getting it done, as well as setting a time frame or a specific due date. In some cases, however, the action item involves the entire team adopting a new practice or mindset, and will not be assigned individually.

Step Five: Close the retrospectives

While not necessarily a specific action, being sure the meeting is officially closed is psychologically important, just as setting the stage was in the beginning. It allows team members to switch gears again, focus on the work they need to accomplish next, and specifically the action items everyone agreed on in the previous step.

These action items should be posted for all to see as well as documented in a team wiki or other permanent record. All should be thanked for their contribution to the meeting and encouraged to embrace their agreed upon action items going forward.

If these steps are followed, making allowance for the unique needs and desires of your specific team, you’ll find your retrospective meetings provide a catalyst for continual improvement between each and every Sprint. Your team will come to enjoy them, and your productivity will improve as a result.

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