3 Warning Signs That Your Sprint Retrospective Is Failing, and 3 Ideas to Fix It

The Sprint Retrospective, arguably the most important and also the most commonly-forgotten Scrum event for many new Scrum teams, is likely the source of many headaches for you and your team. Why is it so difficult to get value out of the Retrospective? I have many theories, but the one I share most frequently is that fact that most teams do not understand or appreciate the power of continuous learning; this is a challenging mindset to acquire for those who are used to doing things a certain way or doing what they are told by their superiors unless told otherwise.

So, what are some possible signs that your Sprint Retrospective is not working? I will share a few common examples which I hope will help you diagnose your team’s issues.Sprint Retrospective

Warning sign #1 – Product Owner is not invited or does not attend consistently

One of the most common problems with deriving benefits from the Sprint Retrospective is the Product Owner being absent.

Warning sign #2 – Your team repeatedly discusses issues that they cannot resolve

Another common error that Scrum teams make is to dwell on the same problems that the team has no way to resolve. Some teams face issues presented by organizational constraints or dysfunctions which they have minimal influence to address. While it is often important for the team to “vent”, it is also not productive to keep focusing on things that they cannot change. In this case, the Scrum Master should escalate such matters to management, then try to redirect the team and help them pay more attention to things within their realm of control related to interactions, processes and tools.

Warning sign #3 – No improvement actions are identified

One of the worst mistakes that I see teams make in Retrospectives is to walk out of this meeting with nothing to show for it; this means that the team airs all of their frustrations but does not explore root cause or make a commitment to do something about it. This behavior puts the team in a bad position in two ways. First, the team gains no long-term benefit from venting. Second, the team misses out on an opportunity to learn from real-world experience. Poorly-executed Sprint Retrospectives can often create a vicious spiral that is very difficult to get out of; as teams continue to flounder in the Retrospective, their desire to keep having this meeting continues to degrade, which in turn diminishes their ability to learn and improve. The best way to avoid this cycle is to advise the team to identify a single action to take; simply making a choice to take some type of action, however small it may seem, can help the team build a pattern of positive thinking.

To close this brief article, it is very easy to struggle with Sprint Retrospectives because very few teams (and Scrum Masters) have invested sufficient effort to make this a productive part of their standard routine. At times, it will feel awkward, like writing with your non-dominant hand, but that is normal. Try taking just one small step by making a small change and seeing it through will likely make a bigger lasting impact than your team realizes in the moment. Do not be discouraged at the first sign of trouble. Keep the momentum going and things will feel much more natural after a few sprints!

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Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai