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5 tips for ensuring your retrospective adds value

Teams sprinting their way to delivering amazing products often follow the typical Scrum ceremonies: sprint planning, daily stand-up and sprint review.  There’s one more that many teams skip or often don’t find time to include, the sprint retrospective.  I have fallen victim to managing projects and teams that fail to include this highly valuable reflection exercise, and when I do, I notice the difference in team performance.  Without a retrospective, teams continue to stumble over the same process issues and roadblocks instead of learning and improving from things that didn’t work well.  So why is this ceremony so beneficial and how can you ensure when hosting a retrospective that it’s adding value to your team? 

Benefits of an effective retrospective

Sprint retrospectives are typically an activity for the Scrum team to reflect, inspect and adapt on the processes of the last sprint cycle.  Teams reflect on what went well, what didn’t go well and what action items the team should take to improve for the next sprint.  Reflecting and making changes to processes encourage a team environment of continuous improvement, one of the core beliefs of Agile teams.  This allows the team to reflect on how they did and control how they work in the future.  Teams that are self-organizing and self-improving through retrospectives create a positive employee experience by allowing employees to contribute to how they work and stop doing activities they don’t find valuable.   How do you ensure a retrospective is adding value to your team?  Here are 5 tips I have found helpful to ensure retrospectives are adding value.

1. Define the purpose of your retrospective

Start by ensuring your retrospective has a purpose and the team knows the purpose for the retrospective.  If there’s no purpose set, there is no reason to continue forward.  The retrospective should focus on reflecting on the previous sprint or project to highlight what worked well and create a list of action items to improve on.  Include the team in defining the purpose and ensuring they all agree why they are performing a retrospective.  

2. Set the environment and ground rules

It’s important to create a team environment of safety, respect, and transparency.  Set some ground rules that include: all ideas are welcome, no personal judgment or attacks against teammates, and all issues/ideas should be constructive and concise.  If team members seem hesitant to open up or there are some underlying team conflicts, address individually prior to the retrospective.  Facilitating the retrospective session can be easy with many tools available.  Some examples of tools include MURAL or Trello to host a virtual retrospective with templates.  Alternatively your backlog management tool such as Jira or Azure DevOps have options for retrospective boards built in.      

3. Expand your insights

Allow the team to contribute as many ideas of what worked well and wishes for what could have been done better.  Treat this as a brainstorming session where no idea is a bad idea and we aren’t solutioning.  Encourage team members to think through the sprint cycle and recognize people or activities that really added value and those that don’t add value.  Gather as many as possible in a timebox period of no more than 10 minutes.  

4. Narrow your focus

Once insights are gathered, group like ideas together to find patterns of areas that have the most impact for improvement.  If there are many ideas, dot voting could be used to allow the team to vote on what they want to focus on for improvement.  It’s difficult for a team to take action on more than 3-5 items in a short sprint cycle so ensure to narrow to the most important ones.  

5. Take Action

Don’t leave the retro without determining next steps.  A good retrospective should spur discussion and ideas. Similarly, a great retrospective takes the next step of actions to improve for the next sprint.  Action items might require a team member to take ownership and lead it going forward to ensure success.  Assign items out to team members with due dates and have the Scrum Master follow up.  If needed, create user stories for the next sprint. This helps to account for the work effort being spent to improve the delivery processes. 

It’s difficult to have a culture of continuous improvement. Similarly, this is especially true if a team doesn’t reflect and adapt on processes and work delivered.  I would highly encourage teams to host retrospectives at any point in a project. I would recommend it even if it is complete, or in progress.  There is value in understanding what went well and where to improve for the next iteration or project.  

Scrum is built on 5 core values as Scrum Alliance outlines.  The retrospective session embodies all 5 of these values to encourage teams to continuously improve.  Ensure your retrospectives find value by following these values through your session.     

  • Courage
  • Focus
  • Commitment
  • Respect
  • Openness


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Pam Glick is an engagement manager with Mindset's Delivery Excellence team. With over 15 years delivering business and IT projects, she has a passion for ensuring customers have the best experience with Mindset. In her free time you will find Pam exploring the Arizona landscape in her Jeep or on foot and trying new foods at every stop.

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