7 Creative Ideas for Conducting Effective Agile Retrospectives

Discover innovative ideas for conducting Agile retrospectives that drive continuous improvement and foster self-organizing teams. From classic approaches to unique methods, ensure your retrospectives are productive and actionable.
In my opinion, a retrospective is the second most important meeting every team absolutely needs (the first one being the daily standup).
It allows teams to achieve continuous improvement, critically assess processes and outcomes, and keep moving towards excellence. From my viewpoint as an Agile coach, well-organized retrospectives empower teams to fully own their processes and become truly self-organizing.

In this blog post, I want to share a few creative ideas for conducting retrospectives with a focus on regular ones (conducted every 2-4 weeks). It's important to note that there are also one-off types of retrospectives: post-mortem (after a completed project or serious issue) and pre-mortem (before starting a project, trying to identify potential risks). All of these retrospectives are important. No matter the style you choose, the goal should always be generating actionable work items that help the team move forward and succeed. We should never waste time blaming each other or looking for scapegoats; instead, we should focus on the future.

Another tip for running retrospectives is to avoid using words related to emotions (this is why I'm not a fan of Sad/Happy retrospectives). When we use emotion-related prompts (e.g., "What made you happy in the last sprint?"), we risk derailing the discussion from work and processes to things beyond our control (like the weather or a new coffee machine). This can make it difficult to generate actionable items.

With this in mind, let's start.

Classic Retro (What Went Well, What Went Wrong, What Could We Try)

When in doubt or starting retrospectives for the first time, use this bulletproof approach. Divide the whiteboard into three columns (What Went Well, What Went Wrong, What Could We Try) or use an online tool like Trello or Miro. Give everyone 5-10 minutes to generate ideas and put them on the board. Then, go through all the notes, cluster them together as needed, and create action items (to be put on a separate board).

At the end, prioritize the action items and move the top priority ones to the team's backlog, ideally assigning them right away. Each retrospective, spend a few minutes reviewing old action items and re-prioritizing or discarding the ones no longer needed.

Starfish Retro (Start, Stop, Continue, More, Less)

The Starfish Retrospective is a versatile and insightful format. Divide your whiteboard or virtual board into five sections: Start, Stop, Continue, More, and Less. Ask team members to write down activities or behaviors they think should be started, stopped, continued, done more, or done less. This format encourages a comprehensive review of the team’s processes and activities, fostering a balanced discussion.

After collecting the inputs, discuss each section thoroughly. Cluster similar items and generate actionable work items from the suggestions. Prioritize these action items and integrate the top ones into the team's backlog.

The Sailboat Retro

This format uses a sailboat metaphor to help the team visualize their progress and obstacles. Draw a sailboat on the whiteboard, with the following elements:

  • Wind: What is pushing us forward? (Positive forces)
  • Anchors: What is holding us back? (Negative forces)
  • Rocks: What are potential risks or dangers ahead? (Risks)

Give team members time to write their thoughts on sticky notes and place them on the relevant parts of the sailboat. Discuss each element, cluster similar ideas, and identify actionable items. This format helps in identifying both strengths and potential risks.

4Ls Retrospective (Liked, Learned, Lacked, Longed For)

The 4Ls format encourages reflection on different aspects of the team’s experiences:

  • Liked: What did you like about the last sprint?
  • Learned: What did you learn during the last sprint?
  • Lacked: What was missing or needed improvement?
  • Longed For: What do you wish we had done?

Divide the board into four sections and ask team members to contribute their thoughts. This format helps in capturing a wide range of feedback, from positive experiences to areas of improvement and future desires. Discuss and prioritize actionable items based on the team’s feedback.

Start-Stop-Continue Retro

Similar to the classic retro, this format focuses on three main categories:

  • Start: What should we start doing?
  • Stop: What should we stop doing?
  • Continue: What should we continue doing?

Divide the board into three sections and give the team time to write their thoughts. Discuss each item, cluster similar ideas, and generate actionable work items. This straightforward format is effective for teams that prefer a simple yet structured approach to retrospectives.

Lean Coffee Retro

The Lean Coffee format is a structured yet flexible approach that allows the team to discuss topics of interest without a predefined agenda. At the start of the retrospective, team members propose topics they’d like to discuss. Each topic is written on a sticky note and placed on a board. The team then votes on which topics to discuss first.

Start with the highest voted topic and discuss it for a set time (e.g., 5 minutes). If more time is needed, the team can vote to extend the discussion. This format ensures that the team’s most pressing issues are addressed and can lead to highly focused and productive retrospectives.

The Learning Matrix

The Learning Matrix retrospective focuses on four areas:

  • Puzzles: What puzzles us? (Questions or uncertainties)
  • Risks: What risks do we see? (Potential challenges)
  • Appreciations: What do we appreciate? (Positive aspects)
  • Wishes: What do we wish for? (Improvements or new ideas)

Divide the board into four sections and ask the team to contribute their thoughts. Discuss each section, cluster similar items, and identify actionable work items. This format encourages a balanced view of the sprint, from challenges and risks to positive aspects and future aspirations.

By using these creative retrospective ideas, you can keep your Agile retrospectives fresh, engaging, and productive. Remember to always focus on generating actionable items that help the team improve and succeed. Happy retrospectives!
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