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6 tips for successful retrospectives

A retrospective is a key meeting for any Agile team, aiming to uncover and solve issues, leading to continuous improvement. Generally, there are a few kinds of retrospectives: the regular one, a part of Agile ceremonies to help the team regularly check and adjust their ways; a post-mortem retrospective, done after a big setback or project end to learn from it, and sometimes, teams might do a pre-mortem retrospective, which is like a post-mortem but done before a project starts. The idea here is to pretend the project failed and figure out what might go wrong. No matter the type, the main goal is always to learn from mistakes and find ways to do better in the future.
In this post, I'll share some tips on how to run a good retrospective, whether it's a one-time thing or a regular meeting. Let's get into it!

Tip #1: Keep Clarity of Purpose

Often, retrospectives falter when the team or individual members are unclear about the purpose of the meeting and their role in it. A retrospective can lose its effectiveness if it becomes a session for airing complaints, with an expectation that solutions will magically appear. To avoid this, it's vital to set a clear objective: identify and prioritize actions to improve the team's processes. This goal should be communicated explicitly, along with a clear outline of the meeting's procedure and everyone's roles. It's important for each team member to recognize that the responsibility for enhancing the team's operations lies with them. They should be proactive in spotting issues and contributing to solutions, rather than waiting for others to resolve problems. This approach ensures retrospectives are productive and focused on tangible improvements.

Tip #2: Set the Scene

Creating the right atmosphere for a retrospective is as crucial as the meeting itself. It's important to empathize with your team members, understanding their mindset as they transition from their usual tasks to this reflective space. Picture this: a team member, just minutes ago, was deeply engrossed in coding, handling a tense customer call, or managing back-to-back meetings. Now, they're suddenly in a room with sticky notes, asked to pinpoint what went right or wrong. It's natural for them to feel overwhelmed or even a bit resistant.
To ease into the retrospective, I often start with a casual conversation about the topic at hand, be it the last sprint, a specific project, or an event. This chat aims to jog memories about significant milestones, achievements, or notable incidents. In some cases, creating a visual timeline can be immensely helpful. It aids in immersing everyone into the context of the discussion, setting the stage for a more focused and meaningful reflection. It's also important to define the timeframe of the retrospective clearly, ensuring that everyone's contributions are aligned and relevant to the period being reviewed. This approach helps shift the team's mindset from the hustle of daily tasks to a more reflective and productive retrospective mode.

Tip #3: Avoid Priming

Priming is a psychological concept where an initial stimulus influences a person's subsequent responses, often without their conscious awareness. For example, if I quickly ask you to list five white objects and then inquire about what cows drink, you might impulsively say "milk," influenced by the context of the previous question. This type of priming can significantly skew responses, steering them towards certain types of answers, especially when little thought is given.
This concept is crucial to consider when facilitating retrospectives. Imagine starting a retro by grumbling about morning traffic or a malfunctioning coffee machine. This sets a tone that may inadvertently encourage team members to focus on complaints about factors outside their control. While venting can be cathartic, a successful retro requires a constructive mindset, concentrating on aspects within the team's power to change and improve.
This is why I'm particularly careful with the language used on our retro board. Words like "bad," "sad," or "unhappy" can inadvertently open a Pandora's box of emotions, leading to discussions more suited for a therapy session than a productive retrospective. Instead, I prefer using neutral yet direct prompts like "what went well," "what didn't go well," and "what could we improve?" This approach encourages team members to think constructively and focus on actionable insights, steering clear of unproductive venting and keeping the retrospective on track for tangible improvements.

Tip #4: Collect Ideas

The initial phase of most retrospectives typically involves a silent brainstorming session, where team members jot down their thoughts on post-its or input them into an online tool. This method is chosen deliberately to ensure that every team member has an equal opportunity to contribute, fostering a sense of ownership and responsibility for the team's processes.
While it might be tempting for facilitators to skip this step and dive directly into a group discussion, this approach can lead to several issues. Firstly, it might cause some team members, particularly the more introverted ones, to withhold their valuable insights, feeling overshadowed by more vocal participants. Secondly, it can lead to a situation where some members dominate the conversation, imposing their views on others. And perhaps most problematically, it can result in some team members disengaging from the discussion entirely, becoming preoccupied with work or distractions like their phones.
The silent brainstorming approach, on the other hand, ensures that everyone's voice is heard and valued. It prevents the conversation from being monopolized by a few and encourages a more democratic and inclusive environment. This is key in building a collaborative team culture where each member feels their input is important and can significantly contribute to the team's ongoing improvement.

Tip #5: Create Action Items

As you sift through the suggested improvements and dissect the problems identified by team members, it's crucial to translate these discussions into action items. I usually find it helpful to enlist a team member to assist in recording these action items as I lead the session. The goal during the discussion phase is to generate a comprehensive list of potential actions. Not all of these will make it into the team's backlog, but having a broad range to choose from is important for effective prioritization later on.
It's worth noting that action items aren’t always immediately apparent. Often, the proposed improvements might seem outside the team's responsibility or influence. This is where your role as a facilitator becomes key. Continuously prompt the team with questions like "What can we do about this?" Even in situations where the issues seem beyond your control, there's usually a way to make a positive impact. This might involve initiating conversations with the appropriate people or departments, or devising creative workarounds to alleviate the team's challenges. By consistently steering the team towards this proactive mindset, you help ensure that the retrospective doesn't just end with a discussion, but leads to actionable steps that can genuinely improve the team's work environment and processes.

Tip #6: Prioritize and Review

A retrospective without a clearly defined and team-agreed list of action items is, frankly, a missed opportunity. It's essential, therefore, to allocate time at the end of each retro to review the list of potential actions, prioritize them, decide which ones will be added to the team's backlog, and assign responsibilities for each item. Each action item should come with a clear expected outcome and a rationale, explaining its value and the specific problem it aims to solve.
Ideally, these chosen action items should be directly integrated into the team's backlog. If that's not feasible, or if the team prefers a different approach, these actions can be tracked on the retro board. However, in this case, it becomes crucial to revisit these items in subsequent retrospectives to monitor progress and tackle any emerging challenges.
In the case of one-off post-mortem (or pre-mortem) retrospectives, the approach shifts slightly. Here, the goal is to compile a document that outlines all the lessons learned, agreed-upon action items, and subsequent steps. This document should then be shared with all relevant stakeholders within the organization. This ensures that the insights and commitments from the retrospective extend beyond the meeting room, embedding themselves into the broader organizational context and driving meaningful change.
In summary, effective retrospectives are more than just meetings; they are catalysts for continuous improvement within Agile teams. By keeping the purpose clear, setting the right scene, avoiding priming, collecting ideas thoughtfully, creating actionable items, and prioritizing and reviewing these actions, retrospectives can transform from routine gatherings into powerful tools for team growth and development. The key is to ensure these meetings result in concrete steps that the team can take to enhance their processes, rather than just being a forum for discussion. Remember, the true value of a retrospective lies in the actionable changes it inspires, fostering a proactive and collaborative team culture.
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