The Sprint Retrospective

What it is & tips for making the most of your meeting
An illustration showing stickie notes with the benefits of a sprint retrospective

A sprint retrospective brings your scrum team together to discuss the previous sprint. The purpose is not to evaluate work outcomes but to talk about the interactions, tools, and processes the team used during the latest period of work.

Retrospectives are usually held at the end of each sprint. Whether you’re using a retrospective as part of implementing the scrum framework or another agile way of working, it helps you and your teammates assess how you work together and strive toward ever-better collaboration.

What Is a Sprint Retrospective?

Sprint retrospective: The scrum event in which the team reflects on the past sprint. Areas for improvement are identified, and action items are carried forward into the next sprint.

A common question for scrum masters is, "why do we have to do retrospectives?" It’s easy to get hyper-focused on the work that needs to get done. But taking a moment to pause, reflect, and evaluate is an important way for a successful team to continuously improve. The focus is on how the team worked in the last sprint, including:

  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Process
  • Tools
  • Systems
  • Work environment
  • Missing competencies
  • Collaboration with external parties

Retros need not be limited to inspecting the last sprint. You can also use a retrospective format to inspect the team's daily scrum, cross-functional capabilities, and many other aspects of how the developers, scrum master, and product owner work together.

Pausing to reflect gives us an opportunity to enhance processes and output. It also provides a chance to find ways to improve the quality of work-life as you focus on communication barriers and other factors that are blocking success and progress.

The retrospective is not an event to evaluate an individual’s performance or to play the blame game. A retrospective is an opportunity for the scrum team to:

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” - from the principles of the Agile Manifesto

A retrospective is one of the five scrum events. It is also so much more than that. Retros are safe spaces for a team of people to be open with one another. All voices should be heard. A scrum master or facilitator may need to keep discussion items timeboxed so that everyone has a chance to contribute. It’s held at the end of each sprint or agile iteration when information and observations are still fresh in everyone’s minds.

Because the retro takes a look at how the team worked together, the event should include the whole team:

The retro is a private team event, closed to anyone else. The privacy helps to increase focus and create a safe space for open communication.

The scrum master usually facilitates this event (although others can step in to facilitate if needed) and uses various techniques and visual tools to build good habits and to support the team in its discussion of:

  • What went well/what they should keep doing 
  • What didn’t go well/what they should stop doing
  • How to improve how they work together going forward/what they should start doing 

It doesn’t have to be a complicated, burdensome undertaking; focus on those basics and action items that can be brought into the next sprint for incremental team improvement.

Retros for Remote, Distributed, and In-Person Teams

Location shouldn’t deter you. Retrospectives can - and should - be held for teams that are remote, distributed, in-office, etc. With so many digital collaboration tools available, scrum teams can easily contribute to the event no matter where they are. In fact, a retrospective is the perfect opportunity to discuss how online tools and remote work environments affected the last sprint and whether anything can be modified, removed, or added to improve the way you work together.

Ideas for Sprint Retrospective Meetings

There are many ways to structure sprint retrospectives. According to the Scrum Guide, the event should have a timebox of three hours maximum for a one-month sprint. A shorter timebox is often reasonable for shorter sprints. You may find that different timeboxes work for your team, depending on the situation. Having the duration be the same every time will help the team settle into the expectations and rhythm of the event.

Outside of those general guidelines, the format and template of the meeting are largely up to the person facilitating it, perhaps with input and feedback from all the participants. There are many ways to conduct a retrospective with the core purpose of reflection and team improvement.

Here are some tips for making the most of this scrum event:

Cultivate positivity and energy. The routine and regular cadence of a retrospective may make it feel stale to participants. A positive tone, interactive visuals, and lots of participation are a few ideas for keeping the experience an engaging one.

Determine if a focus area is necessary. While you can reflect on everything that happened in the previous sprint, some teams choose to switch things up and pick a specific focus for a retro. For example, your team could decide you want to do the next retrospective on the topic of something like: “how good are we at shortening time to value?”, or “how is our ability to focus?”). This may be a good way to vary the format if people are beginning to feel like retrospectives are simply “going through the motions” and failing to yield any progress.

Do a warm-up or icebreaker. You can set the tone and get started on the right foot with an icebreaker. Get the team in a reflective frame of mind by first asking them to rate the sprint with a number. Or, use a fun and lighthearted icebreaker to get people in the mindset to share and to talk (try would you rather: “would you rather have the ability to know what’s going to happen in the next half hour or in 100 years?”).

Encourage all voices. The most outspoken team members are usually the ones who are pretty good at pointing out when something isn’t working and they may do so reliably, even outside of a retrospective. Engaging quiet colleagues means the scrum team will have a more complete picture of how the sprint went. Provide time and space for everyone to share.

Create a safe space. What’s shared in the retro is for the team, and it doesn’t need to be shared outside the team unless the group agrees on sharing out certain findings. Psychological safety is a critical part of a scrum team’s ability to be transparent, inspect, and adapt.

Use visual and interactive tools. Watching a presentation or staring at someone speak gets a bit boring, plus the heart of a retrospective is team interaction. An engaging, immersive retro involves visual or in-person whiteboards, collaboration apps, stickies, and other tools that make it possible for the team to express their ideas, identify hurdles, list potential solutions, and prioritize action items.

Focus on process and people, not the product or output of the sprint. While you may discuss the outcome of the sprint and progress toward the product goal as part of a sprint review, the retrospective should focus on how team members interacted, how their processes helped or harmed their work, and how they can adjust and improve the ways they worked together

Rotate templates and tools to keep things interesting. There are many digital tools and apps you can utilize for retros, including Miro, Google Docs, Trello, and many, many others. Instead of using the same template and format over and over again, revitalize the retrospective with a fresh experience each time.

Have the goal in mind. Although venting and tough conversations are certainly a natural part of this type of meeting in real-world practice, stay focused on moving from complaining to actionable learning. Most people don’t want to leave a meeting feeling more frustrated and toxic, which is why deciding if there are actionable items to move forward is so important. 

Related Article: Real Examples of Retrospectives

Guide Teams as They Reflect and Adapt: Become a Certified ScrumMaster

If you facilitate retrospectives or coach a team, consider taking the next step in your career by becoming a Certified ScrumMaster. Retrospectives are an essential event for an adaptive, self-organizing team that values openness and respect for colleagues. You can teach teams how to use the scrum framework - including retrospectives - as a Certified ScrumMaster. Find a certification course.

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