Inspecting the Past to Improve the Future: A Step-by-Step Guide to Effective Retrospectives

Have you ever experienced a cohesive eye rolling from your team when you let them know we’d be running a retro for the gazillionth time? If so, I’m glad you’re here. In this article, we will explore the standard retrospective agenda and interject some resources along the way to help you elevate your next retrospective. 

Retrospectives are not a one-size-fits-all activity. Each retrospective should be adjusted to meet the needs of your team and their specific circumstances for that moment in time. As you keep your team and their situation in mind, the following sequence of events and the time spent on each is considered the conventional agenda by skilled and experienced facilitators for a 60 minute retrospective. If you’re facilitating your first retrospective, this is a stellar track to follow. If you’re an experienced retro facilitator, leverage this flow and make it your own.

  1. Set the Stage (10 minutes) - This includes icebreakers, check-ins, team health checks, etc.
  2. Gather data (20 minutes) - Some form of what went well, what didn’t and what do we want to change?
  3. Generate Insights (10 minutes) - Why did x go well/not well, what did we learn and grouping of items.
  4. Decide what to do (10 minutes) - Filter ideas about what actions to take to improve.
  5. Conclude with purpose (10 minutes) - Refine all the findings from the retrospective into a handful of action items and important outcomes. 

Let’s dive deeper into each.

Set the Stage

Take the first few minutes of the retrospective to allow the team to settle into the retrospective. 

Asking the team to immediately jump into examining the last sprint and looking for ways to improve is not an ideal way to elicit helpful dialogue, ideas and action items. Everyone will be in some form of context switching –  either coming from other meetings or doing heads down work. Depending on the circumstances, some team members may look forward to the retrospective and others may dread it. Take time to briefly welcome and acknowledge the team. As you welcome the team, look and listen for cues in team members’ responses. Their reply and tone can often convey how they feel and be a guide to you as you facilitate the retro. 

Next, remind the team of the purpose of the retrospective, and give them an opportunity to check-in through a brief activity like an icebreaker, energizer, health check or team builder helps everyone settle in, build trust and establish communication. If the team is newer and just getting to know each other, a brief icebreaker is helpful to open lines of communication and establish trust. For teams who have been together for some time and know each other well, choose a check-in activity to initiate communication, stimulate the team and quickly capture how everyone feels the sprint went. It’s also useful for you to evaluate what’s going on and how you proceed with the retrospective. 

As a retrospective facilitator, it’s a great idea to have a library of icebreakers and check-ins to choose from to keep the Set the Stage portions of your retrospectives effective and interesting. Some of my go-to icebreakers and check-ins are Two Truths and a Lie, Safety Check, Rate the Sprint, One Word, Weather Report and Sprint Soundtrack are a few of my favorite Check-Ins.

As the team wraps up the icebreaker or check-in, it’s time to segue to the meat of the retrospective. Before you do that, take a moment to remind the team the purpose of the retrospective – to inspect their past to improve their future – and to set parameters for the meeting. Now you’re ready to dive into the next phase – Gathering Data. 

Gather Data

Gathering Data is the phase of the agenda that fits the definition of retrospective as this is when the team reflects and inspects their past. This reflection is based on some format of what went well, what didn’t go well, and what did the team learn. 

The gathering data phase is an opportunity for the team to arrive at a shared experience of what happened during the last sprint. How each team member experiences and interprets events will be unique. This phase allows the team to not only share their experience with others but expands each team member's frame of reference in regards to what happened during the iteration. Finally, it is the first step in surfacing what is most important to address.

Beyond gathering data through a what went well, what didn’t go well, and what did the team learn based activity, this is an excellent time to remind the team of the previous sprint’s goal, review action items from the previous retro and look at metrics the team may use such as work in progress limits, average cycle time and average throughput. As facilitator, it is important to gather this information prior to the meeting. 

Having a collection of data gathering activities to leverage will help you keep the gathering data phase fresh for each retrospective. Some of my go-to gathering data activities are The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Mad, Sad, Glad; 4 Ls - Loved, Learned, Lacked, Longed for; and Repeat and Avoid.

Explain the activity you have chosen to the team and give them 5-7 minutes to remember what happened and capture their input with stickies if in person or in a digital tool if you're virtual. Take time to read all the notes and identify patterns. Use this as input for the next phase of your retrospective – Generate Insights.  

Generate Insights

The goal of Generate Insights is to carefully inspect at least one or two of the items from the Gather Data phase to uncover the root cause why certain things happened and then seek out options for a potential resolution. Human nature is to jump to solutioning but it is important to identify the root cause of an issue. By doing this, lasting change – versus quick fixes – can take place.

Guide the team to determine which items trouble the team the most. Sometimes there is easy agreement about what needs to be discussed. Other times, the primary problem is not obvious. In this circumstance, it is helpful to gather a pre-selection of possible issues – items that multiple team members have mentioned in the Gather Data phase – and ask the team to vote through a simple dot voting exercise.

Once the team has arrived at an item to explore, it’s time to analyze the root cause of the issue. Like the Gathering Data phase, a generous amount of potential activities are available to arrive at the core of an issue. Sites like retromat are a great resource. That said, my go-to method for this phase is to lead a conversation – easier said than done, right? 

Actually, because you’ve built trust and open communication during the Set the Stage phase, it will be easier. Also, your facilitation skills play a crucial role here to ensure team members feel heard and known. As with any group of people, some will be forthcoming and direct. They will readily give their opinions. Others will listen quietly and you’ll have to ask them directly for their comments.

As the conversation happens, capture important notes that point to the root cause on your virtual retro tool or on stickies in person. Guide the team to identify what is truly at the heart of the issue through their discussion. 

If a discussion doesn’t meet specific circumstances, it can be helpful to have a structured activity like the Five Whys to drill down to a root cause. It may look something like this for a team who didn’t reach their average throughput last sprint and want to know why:

  1. Why were we below our average throughput?
    Because we didn’t complete as many stories as we usually do. 
  2. Why did we not complete as many stories as we usually do?
    Because we were constantly context switching. 
  3. Why were we context switching?
    Because we were not focused.
  4. Why were we not focused?
    Because we were not sure what to work on.
  5. Why were we not sure what to work on?
    Because we didn’t have a clear sprint goal.

Now that the team has arrived at the root cause of the problem, it’s time for the Decide What to Do phase of your retrospective.  

Decide What to Do

For all the action-oriented readers, it is finally time to fix the problem of the past to improve the team’s future. Don’t skip this step! While most teams understand the purpose of the retrospective is to identify what can be improved and take action to make those improvements happen, some teams see the retrospective as an opportunity to complain or make a “to-do list” on how to improve. Neither of these approaches lead to continuous improvement and the value of the retrospective quickly erodes.

The team has discovered possible root causes of the previous sprint’s problem and have potential solutions in mind. Now is the time to decide what action to take in the next sprint to improve. For change to happen, what the team decides to do should be clear and actionable, small, preferably only one or two items and visible to everyone. Let’s break those down.

First, the action item should be clear and concise. Something that states precisely what needs to be done and when it should happen. For example, “We will agree on a clear sprint goal at the beginning of planning.” Next, the action item should be small enough to not impact team capacity and can be done quickly. If the proposed solution is going to take multiple days, consider breaking it into smaller steps or, if appropriate, create a user story. Then, don’t have too many action items – a maximum of three with one or two being ideal. Too many action items and chances of success decrease. Finally, make the action items visible to the entire team in some way. If in person, have stickies on your physical board, if remote, leverage the team’s virtual board or preferred communication channel.

Once the team decides on the small amount of action items, remind them that change is difficult and it will be important to have patience, try the new action, see if it works and learn from it to further improve. 

Now that we have a few, small, visible and clear action items, we can segue to the last phase, Conclude with Purpose. 

Conclude with Purpose

Whew! Everyone made it through the retrospective. Don’t be shocked if both the team and you need a break. At this point, it’s easy to say “All done and thanks! But don’t rush out just yet. Take just a few minutes to close the retrospective with purpose. This can be a simple activity like One Word Before Leaving, Note to Self or Acknowledge a Teammate. Take a moment to thank everyone for their engagement and let them know how to access the retrospective notes, and where the action items will be visible. Closing is also a great opportunity to quickly “retro” the retrospective. Have the team anonymously leave a sticky note or provide an anonymous survey through Google, Slack or your preferred communication tool. Ask them what was their favorite part, their least favorite and if their outlook has changed since the beginning of the retrospective. Take the results and make adjustments for your next retrospective.That’s it! Thanks for reading and check out our next post on tools, techniques and tips to personalize retrospectives to meet your team’s personality and circumstances.