Every team has its challenges and opportunities for improvement. As a scrum master (or project leader / team leader) you want to tackle those.

In a “sprint retrospective” you look back at the past sprint (typically 2 weeks) and look for opportunities for improvement.

In an agile company, the retrospective sprint is part of a ‘sprint day’. The sprint day is the first day of the sprint. I plan the sprint day as follows:

  • 10 am to 11 am sprint review: demo and discussion of the results of the last sprint
  • 11 am to 12 pm retrospective sprint : discuss and improve internal functioning
  • 1 pm to 3 pm sprint planning: next sprint planning
  • In a non-agile project structure you can still hold a retrospective meeting (sometimes also called post-mortem) at a regular time.

Below you van find my tips about the retrospective meeting.

Tip 1: Let the entire team speak

Agile & SAFe (Scaled Agile Framework) promote self-managing teams.

Frederick Herzberg showed that self-organizing teams maximize their motivation.

The entire team must be involved in a retrospective, not just the extroverted people who can easily speak. The involvement of the entire team also ensures that the actions are balanced, and provides a buy-in for the implementation and change afterwards.

By using post-its you ensure that everyone provides input, and not just the most assertive people.

Retrospectives with a part of the team, or even nobody from the team present, are doomed to fail.

Management decisions about internal teamwork easily miss their goal, because management typically only sees the broad lines of the problem and possible solutions.

Management can be involved by the team to help them with exceptional problems (such as team composition). In a SAFe organization, the RTE (Release Train Engineer), sometimes also called Delivery Lead or Program Manager, is the first person to be involved in complex problems.

Tip 2: Alternate the format

When I was just a scrum master I only asked two questions in the retrospective: “what went well” and “what could be better”? The same questions were addressed in every retrospective.

The result? Always the same discussions, with little added value.

Vary the format in each retrospective as not to repeat discussions from two weeks ago.

By varying the format, the angle of approach is different, and other points automatically come up.

Below are the formats that I often use.

At first they seem a bit childish, but I use them successfully in junior and senior teams, including teams that manage critical business processes.

The hot air balloon

Name? The hot air balloon
Useful for? Collect general feedback
Drawing? Draw a hot air balloon with sandbags underneath on a large sheet.
Steps?

  • Explain the metaphor: the balloon pushes us up and the weight of the sand boxes pull us down.
  • Ask the team what pushed our last sprint up, and what pulled us down.
  • Each team member writes the answers on post-its, and sticks them on the drawing (next to the balloon and next to the sandbags)
  • Briefly go over the post-its. The author of the post-it can clarify briefly.
  • Do a dot-vote (see later in this article) and define actions.

The LLL (Liked – Lacked – Learned)

Name? The LLL (Liked – Lacked – Learned)
Useful for? Collect general feedback
Drawing? Divide a large leaf into three. Label the parts with “Liked”, “Lacked” and “Learned” respectively.
Steps?

  • Ask the team what they liked (Liked), what was missing (Lacked) and what they learned (Learned).
  • Each team member writes the answers on post-its and sticks them on the paper
  • Briefly review the post-its. The author of the post-it can clarify briefly.
  • Do a dot vote and define actions

The racetrack

Name? The racetrack
Useful for? Focus on speed
Drawing? Draw a race track with a hare, turtle and dead sparrow.
Steps:

  • Explain the metaphor: the hare is moving fast, the turtle is moving slowly and the dead sparrow is not moving one feet at all.
  • Ask the team what went fast (hare), slow (turtle) and stood still (dead sparrow).
  • Each team member writes the answers on post-its and sticks them on the magazine.
  • Briefly review the post-its. The author of the post-it can clarify briefly.
  • Do a dot vote and define actions.

The racing car

Name? The racing car
Useful for? Focus on speed
Drawing? Draw a racing car with a brake parachute on a large sheet.
Steps:

  • Explain the metaphor: the racing car drives us forward, the brake parachute slows us down.
  • Ask the team what has accelerated and slowed down our last sprint.
  • Each team member writes the answers on post-its, and sticks them on the drawing (next to the car and the brake parachute)
  • Briefly go over the post-its. The author of the post-it can clarify briefly.
  • Do a dot-vote and define actions.

The Three Little Pigs

Name? The Three Little Pigs
Useful for? Focus on quality
Drawing? Draw a straw, wooden and stone house on a large sheet.

Steps?

  • Ask the team who can explain the fairy tale. The metaphor is: the straw hut has been blown over, the log cabin stands a little longer but can be improved and the stone house remained standing.
  • Ask the team what was blown away in the last sprint (straw house), what was OK but could be improved (wooden house) and what remained stable (stone house).
  • Each team member writes the answers on post-its and sticks them on the drawing
  • Briefly go over the post-its. The author of the post-it can clarify briefly.
  • Do a dot vote and define actions.

Tip 3: Use dot voting to select two actions

A retrospective with too many actions is a lost retro.

Why?

Teams are under pressure to deliver results for the business. There is only limited room for improvement actions. If too many actions are defined, there is a good chance that they will not be delivered.

Without implementing actions, the retrospective has not had any result, so people start questioning its usefulness.

That is why you better focus on 1 or 2 actions per sprint for the entire team.

You do this via dot voting, and proceed as follows:

  • Everyone on the team comes to the board with the post-its
  • Each person chooses which post-its action needs, and puts three dots in total
  • The three dots of a person may end up on the same post-it, or spread over different post-its. As long as there are only three per person.
  • When everyone’s put their dots, count the total dots per post-it
  • Discuss the top 2 post-its with most dot votes.

What about the other points outside the top 2?

As a team this is not currently being worked on. The comments may remain in the mind of the people in the team. Where possible, something can be taken into account.

Tip 4: Create a safe environment

“Errare humanum est”, making mistakes is human:

  • Sometimes developers create code with bugs.
  • Sometimes the business changes its approach.
  • Sometimes the requirements of the analysts are unclear.
  • Sometimes a release fails.
  • Sometimes the cooperation is just as difficult within a team.
  • Sometimes there is an incident that causes the production environment to fail.
  • Sometimes customers complain.

All these things are normal, and you cannot completely avoid them. The more you want to exclude them, the more expensive it becomes. Perfection is priceless.

What you can do is learn from the mistakes, and optimize your operation as good as possible within the provided budget.

Avoid having discussions about the past and who made a mistake. Focus on the facts behind the mistakes, and what can be done about them in the future.

Conflict situations

Having open discussions about conflicts is important. If the problem is not raised, then it cannot be discussed and it will not be solved.

Conflicts are part of daily life, a team needs to learn to deal with this without becoming personal or emotional.

If the tension nevertheless rises somewhat, I apply the following:

  • Do not take a side yourself as facilitator. I sometimes say to someone that I understand his/her point of view. When I say that, I usually do it for both parties.
  • Make sure the persons have the opportunity to present their side of the story. Listening heals conflicts.
  • Avoid that people repeat themselves. As a facilitator, interrupt if necessary. Write the arguments on a post-it and stick them to the wall. This ensures that the person understands that his point is made.
  • Repeat the facts without explicitly naming persons by name. Briefly summarize the situation and arguments, and then ask to look further for solutions. Repeat if necessary.
  • Say and explicitly repeat that we cannot change the past.
  • Say and explicitly repeat the goal: we are here to improve how we work as a team and look for solutions.

 

If the tension is very high, I first do a group exercise about personal values ​​at the start of the retrospective.

The ‘personal values’ exercise is as follows and takes approximately 10 minutes:

  • The conflicting persons are sitting together in a room
  • Ask each person to write his / her values ​​on post-its and stick them on the wall.
  • Go through the post-its. The person who wrote the post-it can briefly elaborate. Avoid discussions, that is not the goal of the exercise.
  • Intervene if personal reproach is given. That is not the purpose of the meeting.
  • Group post-its around the same value
  • At the end of the exercise, the conflicting individuals find out that they – although they disagree about certain things – still share values. The conflicting persons have (unknowingly) also successfully done an exercise together, which is binding.

A separate preparatory meeting with the people involved can also help. By listening as a facilitator and asking questions, the person can get rid of his frustrations a little before the start of the meeting.

Growth mindset

Members of a high performing team work as much as possible in a growth mindset:

  • Ability to improve skills and talents
  • Setbacks are learning opportunities
  • Challenges are not avoided
  • People are actively working on their own development.

Actively encourage the growth mindset of your team members. Encourage training and personal development.

Tip 5: Understand the cause behind complex problems

Sometimes the cause behind a problem is clear enough. In this case you can immediately start looking for actions to improve it.

Sometimes there is a pattern visible, but the underlying cause is not clear. For example, automatic tests that start to fail, releases that no longer go smoothly, satisfaction of the business that goes down.

If the cause is not clear, you should first clarify it with the team .

For difficult problems I use the following tools:

  • Ask someone to draw the problem on the board. Drawing it out often makes it clearer.
  • Ask what the symptoms are of the problem. Then ask for the underlying reason. Ask the question “why?” Several times to dig deeper into a cause (this technique is called the “5-Why”).
  • Ask the team to brainstorm for the underlying reasons, and to think about different categories (for example ‘tools’, ‘processes’, ‘people’ etc.). Draw a fish structure on a large sheet of paper of which each category is a ‘bone’ of the fish. Stick the post-its on the bones of the fish. (this technique calls the ‘Ishikawa diagram’ or the ‘fishbone’ – see drawing below).

Tip 6: Focus on the zone of control and zone of influence

Teams sometimes want to find actions on issues that frustrate them but that are outside their zone of control . For example: budget limits, standards within the company, etc.

Such actions are doomed to fail in advance.

“You can’t change the weather”.

Focus on matters that you can control and change, such as the internal functioning of the team.

Optionally, you can also tackle issues that are outside the zone of control, but that can still influence. For example, the collaboration with another team.

If your team deviates too far, use the following sentence as a facilitator: “What can we do within our zone of control & influence?”.

Tip 7: Focus on small actions that can be done in two weeks

Actions must be feasible in the coming sprint (2 weeks). Because after two weeks there is a new retrospective, with new actions. You do not want to start piling up unfinished actions. Actions therefore expire after two weeks, whether they are done or not.

Unrealistic actions that immediately want to completely solve the problem are doomed to fail and have no value.

Therefore, look carefully for actions that take a small step forward and that can be realized in the coming sprint.

If your team deviates towards unrealistic expectations, you can use the following sentence as a facilitator: “Which step in the right direction can we take in the coming two weeks?”

I notice in practice that the small step is usually sufficient, and after two weeks another problem has become more important to include. Exceptionally, the item will be returned to the retrospective within two weeks, and a next step can immediately be considered.

Tip 8: Schedule the two actions and do a daily follow-up

Imagine, at the end of the retrospective meeting, that you have defined two feasible actions that address the most important problems in the team’s functioning. Nice!

But is that sufficient? No.

The actions are quickly forgotten because of the daily pressure.

To avoid that, you should do a daily follow-up. This can easily be done by adding them on the sprint board with a follow-up in the daily stand-up.

With an electronic board you can create a ticket for it, and include it in the upcoming sprint.

Conclusion

A retrospective is a meeting that can bring a lot of value, but also has pitfalls. I have seen teams that seized their retrospective meetings because there was no value in it. After investigation, this was due to one of the following reasons:

  • There is no variation in the format, the same discussions were repeated.
  • No actions have been defined, the meeting is only about complaining.
  • The project leader or management defines the actions instead of the team.
  • Too many actions are defined. The action plan became longer and longer until it became unworkable and was put aside.
  • The actions are unrealistic and want to immediately create an ideal world
  • The actions are not recorded or followed up.

A retrospective meeting to improve the functioning of the team requires good facilities techniques.

Credits and literature

I’ve learned a lot from other people, in particular Catherine Coubergs, Benjamin Geens and Rowin Heymans.

You can find the variants of the retrospective on www.funretrospectives.com.

Deming, W. Edwards. Out of the Crisis. The MIT Press.

Dweck, Carol S.. Mindset . Random House Publishing Group.

Herzberg F., “One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees?,” Harvard Business Review (January/ February 1968): 53–62.

Leffingwell, Dean. SAFe 4.5 Reference Guide. Pearson Education.

Taiichi Ohno;Norman Bodek;Norman Bodek. Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production