According to Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” And while the mathematical genius was likely talking about quantum mechanics (whatever that is), the same concept holds true in project management. If something isn’t working the way you want it to, it’s crazy to just keep doing the same old thing. But in order to improve your approach, you need to reflect on how things are going. That’s where a sprint retrospective comes in.
Have you ever had one of those bad dreams where you keep making the same mistake over and over again? Like showing up to the final exam without studying or standing up at a meeting only to discover you’re not wearing any pants? Now, what if that dream became your team’s reality? (Hopefully, everyone’s still wearing pants!)
If you feel like your team keeps making the same mistakes over and over, they probably are. Luckily, there’s a tool you can use to break the cycle.
Sprint retrospectives are powerful enough to highlight opportunities for change, generate meaningful improvements to your workflows and processes, speed up future projects, and stop your team from falling into the same traps.
What is a sprint retrospective?
A sprint retrospective is a type of meeting within the agile framework that happens at the end of a sprint. During a sprint retrospective, teams reflect on what went well and what could be improved for their next sprint.
In Scrum, a sprint is usually a week or two-long working session with specific deliverables at the end. Organizing work this way gives teams the focus they need to work quickly, plus the opportunity to improve and iterate their process during each subsequent sprint. That’s why a sprint retrospective is an essential part of the Scrum process—it gives teams a chance to reflect and continuously improve their sprint process.
The ceremony is not restrictive of participation, and anyone who has played a role in the last sprint iteration can participate in the ceremony. The sprint retrospective meeting agenda in general will help the team identify the below
What went well
What did not go well?
What could be improved?
Sprint Retrospective: Its Purpose and Importance
Sprint retrospectives are actual ceremonies in the practice of work irrespective of the nature of the work. Agile Manifesto coaches us to respond to change following a plan and the Sprint Retrospective will be a key contributor to identifying those changes and their solutions.
Who runs a sprint retrospective meeting?
Retrospectives are facilitated by the Scrum Masters/ Agile Product Owner. They hold accountability for conducting the retrospectives at the end of every sprint iteration. This is a time-boxed ceremony and lasts about an hour on average. The scrum master holds the primary responsibility for arranging the meeting rooms and associated invites for this session. If there is no existence of the scrum master roles in a few teams, either the product owner or the delivery lead takes responsibility to facilitate the Sprint retrospective meeting. In a few other cases, the team members are provided with the opportunity to facilitate the meeting. This is to drive more participation and engagement for the team members.
5 steps to run an effective sprint retrospective and make real change
Ok. Now that we understand what a sprint retrospective is, when it happens, who attends, and what to watch out for, let’s get into the specifics of how to run one.
1. Prepare and gather your tools
If you think you’re going to bring your team together for a sprint retrospective and just wing it, well… Good luck to you!
Every meeting needs preparation to be a success and a sprint retrospective is no different. A few days before your meeting is set, take some time to prepare and gather the tools you’ll need. At a minimum, this means you should review the notes and actions for the previous retrospective and ask a few questions:
Did these actions actually take place? Why or why not?
Did you get the depth of insight you were hoping for? If not, what questions can you ask that will prompt your team to be more introspective?
Are there recurring themes popping up in previous retrospectives? If so, how can you dig deeper into them and find real solutions?
Next, you’ll want to gather the tools you need to properly conduct your sprint retrospective. These are collaborative meetings and so you’ll need to make sure you have:
Meeting space is booked for the maximum allotted time plus extra for set-up and tear-down
Whiteboard or somewhere else to put up insights
Markers and sticky notes for team members to write their thoughts
A timer to keep the meeting on track
Project management tool to organize insights and turn them into actionable tasks
Sprint retrospective template to keep you organized
2. Set a time for the meeting and send an agenda
Now that you’ve thought through your sprint retrospective and gathered your tools, it’s time to set a meeting time and invite your team (and anyone else who’s going to attend). However, simply setting a meeting time isn’t enough. As we wrote in our Guide to Running Effective Meetings:
Don’t just set a meeting and hope that things will progress on their own. You need to steer the ship. This starts with understanding exactly what you want to get out of the meeting. Every good meeting needs an agenda to set expectations and put everyone on the same page before they show up. At a minimum, outline what's going to be talked about, who's running the meeting, and your ideal schedule. Read more about how to keep your meetings on track with our Guide to better Meeting Notes.
You’ll also want to take a few minutes to gather data to help everyone remember what happened during the previous sprint. This is especially important if your sprints are longer (like one month). Go back into your project management tool and look at the completed tasks and issues from the previous sprint as well as what came out of your sprint planning meeting. For example, here’s a sample agenda for a 45-minute sprint retrospective:
Opening (5 minutes): Set the stage and discuss the goal and outcome of the previous sprint (or more)
What went well (10 minutes): Give everyone time to talk about the positive aspects of the sprint
What needs improvement (10–15 minutes): Move on to what needs improvement
Next steps (10 minutes): Concentrate on what you can do to improve or fix those issues you just identified
Closing (5–10 minutes): Leave a bit of time to thank everyone and run through the list of follow-up items, who’s responsible for them, and when they’re due
3. Before the sprint retrospective starts: Establish a set of ground rules
Once everyone has arrived for the sprint retrospective, take a few moments to welcome them and establish a set of ground rules that will guide the meeting, such as:
This is a positive ceremony: No matter how the last spring played out, make sure everyone knows that the point of the retrospective is to focus on continuous improvement of the team and processes. Stay away from the blame game and put the onus on ways to move forward
Don’t make it personal (and don’t take it personally): Project management is about people. But a sprint retrospective is about processes. Make sure everyone knows that they’re critiquing workflows, situations, and systems, not the individual actions of other teammates
Everyone gets an opportunity to speak without being interrupted: Respect the agenda and ask everyone to listen with an open mind
Set boundaries of discussion: Set a limit on what’s going to be discussed and don’t fall into the trap of “backpacking”—bringing up issues from previous sprints, quarters, or years
4. During the meeting: Run through what worked, what could have been better, and the next steps
Alright, now that everyone’s on the same page, it’s time to get into why you’re all here.
While there are many different ways to run a sprint retrospective the best is often the simplest. This means going around the team and asking people to quickly talk through their answers to two questions:
1. What should we have done better?
Meeting off on a positive note and discussing what went well, rather than staying high-level or issue-oriented, dig into specifics such as:
What motivated us to act this way?
What did we do differently from past sprints?
Which skills or knowledge contributed to the success?
How did the team work well together?
What was the process or workflow that made this success happen?
2. What should we have done better?
Once you’ve heard from each team member, it’s time to dig into what didn’t work as well. Again, this isn’t about the performance of an individual, but about the processes and workflows that held the team back. Ask about processes, tools, or even schedules. This might get awkward (especially if you’re the person who set some of these processes in place), but remember that this is an opportunity to improve for everyone. Don’t take it personally.
Allow each team member to speak and have their thoughts heard and then stick a summarized version onto the whiteboard (you can even use different colored stickies for the different questions). Have the facilitator or scrum master group similar or duplicate ideas together. Project management is about people, but a sprint retrospective is about processes. Make sure everyone knows that they’re critiquing the processes, not the individual actions of other teammates.
Finally, focus on the next steps you can take as much time to improve and fix these issues. This is more of an open discussion but it still needs to be tightly focused on actionable tasks. As people give their ideas, ask them to be specific so their ideas can be turned into actions. Once there are a few solutions up on the board, group them together and discuss them as a team:
What should take the highest priority?
Who is going to take ownership or see that change happen?
When will it be due?
Make sure you have a solid plan of action before everyone leaves the meeting and remember, this won’t always be easy. Emotions will inevitably run high when discussing failures (even if they aren’t publicly pinned to a specific teammate). But as a famous veteran scrum master, explains:
“A successful retrospective means someone’s feelings probably got hurt but then they took that lesson and became a better team member from it. An unsuccessful one means no one had anything to say.”
5. After the sprint retrospective: Document what was discussed and update your product backlog
Team meetings are one of the most expensive uses of time you have. And there’s no point in taking everyone away from their work if you’re not going to see tangible benefits. After the sprint retrospective is done, take a photo of the board and then transfer those tasks and issues into your project management tool. Using a powerful task management system you can add each next step as a new issue alongside the rest of your tasks, user stories, and product backlog.
You can then give them a priority and due date, attach them to your next sprint or milestone, assign them to the agreed-upon team member and even link them to the full Meeting Notes you have written up already.
Not only does this ensure that your big ideas get seen through, but it also gives you a record of each sprint retrospective that you can go back through before the end of your next sprint.
Benefits of Sprint Retrospective
When the ceremony is practiced consistently, there are huge benefits for the team. Below are a few :
Identify and resolve any ongoing issues in the team: The issues can be personal or due to the dependencies with other teams that could’ve gone under the radar with daily commitments. The retrospective meeting provides a platform for the team members to discuss those issues and identify actions to resolve them.
Predict pitfalls for the team and take proactive measures against them: The retrospective meeting enables the team members to forecast any potential risks/ pitfalls for the team and plan actions to avoid them.
Promotes Transparency in the team: The retrospective meeting allows the team members to share their moods and experience with the rest of the team and creates a safe space to allow them to open up about any of their ongoing challenges.
Promotes Team collaboration and Team bonding: It is also a platform to thank the support one received during the last sprint and in return an opportunity to celebrate the person who helped. The appreciation among the team members helps build team bonding and team collaboration.
Provides an opportunity to improvise the team's ways of working: The process that the team follows can be continuously improved. The retrospective meetings allow the team members to give feedback.
The sprint retrospective meetings are effective for any agile way of working while delivering a project. It allows us to identify the experience of the team and identify opportunities to continuously and consistently improvise the environment for the team members. With appropriate coaching, the meetings will continue to deliver amazing results and lead to building consistently performing teams, who are transparent with each other, care about each other and identify pitfalls at the earliest.