Sprint Retrospective vs. SAFe Iteration Retrospective –
3 Big Differences You Need to Know

If you are familiar with Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), you should be aware of the many similarities that SAFe has with Scrum in terms of specific practices. With exception of some of the terminology (i.e. “sprint” versus “iteration”), most of the practices between “classic Scrum” (i.e. the Sutherland/Schwaber version of Scrum as formally documented in the Scrum Guide) and SAFe are nearly identical. One characteristic of SAFe that deviates from Scrum in a meaningful way is the Iteration Retrospective. On the surface, it may appear that the Iteration Retrospective is essentially the same as the Sprint Retrospective. However, this is not the case at all. There are some major differences that are important to be aware of because they can affect your team’s effectiveness in the application of SAFe. I will share a few of these briefly to help you succeed with SAFe.

Difference #1 – Iteration Retrospective is not just about the process

Sprint RetrospectiveA major difference between the SAFe instantiation of Scrum and classic Scrum is that the Iteration Retrospective consists of two components: quantitative and qualitative reviews. In a class Sprint Retrospective, the only focus is the qualitative review where the team examines the people, processes and tools and attempts to implement improvements in subsequent iteration/sprint. Within the SAFe approach, the quantitative portion is added to emphasize team performance and metrics, which is addressed in Scrum within the Sprint Review.

You may be curious as to why the founders of SAFe decided to deviate from Scrum in this manner. My theory is that this is designed purposefully to simplify the Iteration Review so that the team can focus on the state of the product and not be distracted by metrics.

Difference #2 – Iteration Retrospective is timeboxed to only 1 hour

Within classic Scrum, the recommended timebox for a Sprint Retrospective is 3 hours for a 4-week sprint, which equates to 1.5 hours for a 2-week sprint. Conversely, in SAFe, this timebox is 1 hour (for the assumed 2-week iteration in SAFe). While this difference may appear to be trivial, my opinion is that the 1-hour timebox for the Iteration Retrospective seems aggressive given that the scope is great than that of the Sprint Retrospective (with qualitative and quantitative parts).

Difference #3 – Iteration Retrospective includes problem-solving

Another seemingly trivial yet important difference between the Sprint Retrospective and the Iteration Retrospective is the fact that Scrum does not mention problem-solving of any kind during the Sprint Retrospective approach. In contrast, SAFe states that the team is expected to use the Iteration Retrospective to investigate the root cause then identify process improvement actions for a future iteration. I have personally witnessed teams that struggle with the identification of the right tasks because they did not conduct an effective exploration of the problem prior to taking action. I feel that while Scrum makes a concerted effort to avoid being too prescriptive, the SAFe guidance in this area is much more useful to teams that are learning to apply these practices for the first time.

To sum up this short article, if you are familiar with Scrum, you may assume that you will be able to adopt SAFe very quickly with minimal effort. I caution you against making this assumption too quickly. SAFe is a vast framework that contains many nuances that may or may not offer your team additional benefits. As a result, I recommend all seasoned Scrum practitioners to take a closer look at SAFe before deciding if/how this framework may work for your organization.

Leading SAFe® with Certified SAFe® Agilist (SA)

View Course
Eugene Lai
Eugene Lai