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Top Ten Sprint Retrospective Tips

Posted By - Geoff Watts on 15 July 2022,Category - Retrospective

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From Project Post-Mortems To Sprint Retrospectives

Like Peter Zylka-Greger wrote, retrospectives have huge potential but are often misunderstood.

Many years ago, when I experienced my first sprint retrospective it was mind-blowing for me. It was so different to the old project post-mortems and autopsies I had seen before. My team and I were taught a structure that was revolutionary to us. We were invited to find examples of 4 types of insight from the last month’s worth of work. See below

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Suddenly things shifted from “who is the weakest link?” or “who is going to take the blame/ credit?” to something more constructive.

Word spread…other teams started noticing that we weren’t dreading our meetings. We seemed to be improving. Others started using this ground-breaking structure and, of course, it worked for us so why would we stop using it?

Fast forward about 12 months and a terrible decision was made, albeit a decision that had good intentions. It was decided that all teams should have sprint retrospectives and that this was the structure they should use. Laminated, company-branded templates were created and shipped out to project managers (who were expected to be Scrum Masters) all over the organisation and they were expected to be used. Indeed it became part of the objectives of the individuals, teams and projects.

It had the same effect as trying to force people to have fun!

Regardless of the mandatory nature of it (people will resist almost anything if they feel they are being forced to do it) simply the repetitive nature of it was bad enough.

The Repetitive Sprint Retrospective

There was so little thought to a sprint retrospective now that people didn’t even bother writing the words on the flip chart/whiteboard…they just drew some symbols…

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We found that engagement dropped, attendance dropped, improvement stalled, and finally teams stopped getting value from these meetings.

Something was wrong and it upset me because I had seen how valuable these sessions could be. It took some experiments to find out what is probably obvious to you. Namely that if you ask the same questions you typically get the same answers. That, and people get bored easily.

So we tried a few different structures, we asked different questions, we had retrospectives that focussed on specific topics, we changed the venue, we played some games, we spent some sessions doing things instead of talking about them (hackathons, prototyping, backlog refinement) and suddenly things were getting better again.

A Retrospective on Retrospectives

If you have found yourself getting into a bit of a funk with Sprint Retrospective Meetings then check I’ve got some top tips.

Retrospectives are my favourite part of the agile approach because they embody the ‘inspect and adapt’ process. Start where you are, work out what to solidify and how to get better. I have yet to find a team that is so bad that they have nothing good to keep and build on. Equally I have yet to find a team that has no opportunity to improve. Therefore I have yet to find a team that cannot benefit from retrospectives.

If you think your sprint retrospectives have lost their shine, why not run a retrospective on your retrospectives? Look back at the good ones, and the less inspiring ones, what might you not have tried yet? Perhaps you need a little inspiration to break the monotony, that’s all.

Over the years, I’ve facilitated and observed many sprint retrospectives and would struggle to guess just how many. The good ones have been filled with energy, honesty, conflict, creativity and humour. The bad ones have been repetitive, shallow, uninspiring and predictable.

Retrospectives are one of the easiest parts of Scrum to pick up and run with. And if they are executed well, they can have an immediate effect on team productivity and morale.

To this end, I thought I would share our top ten tips for running a great sprint retrospective.

My Top Ten Tips For Sprint Retrospective Meetings

  1. A Good Venue. It’s hard to expect people to think differently about their situation if they always use the same old meeting room, and stare at the same four walls. Some of the best sprint retrospectives I have been involved in have been performed inside a pub or restaurant, or outdoors in the garden or a park. You might find people ‘open up’ more emotionally in an informal environment, or extend their creative thought by enjoying some actual ‘blue-sky’ thinking.
  2. Get People Moving. Body movement increases blood flow which, in turn, allows more energy and oxygen to move through our bodies and brains. Something like an outdoor ball game can help relieve some of the tension of the day, add some team building and help get our brains working if I face some challenging issues.
  3. Food And Drink. Remember, you are expecting people to stay focused for over one to three hours in most cases, and attentiveness will soon drop off if attendees feel hungry or thirsty. Freshly made hot coffee is a great incentive to get a team to turn up on time too. As far as food goes, I would steer clear of too many cakes, biscuit and ‘beige’ choices and opt for some fresh fruit instead to prevent the sprint retrospective from turning into a lethargic and sleepy affair.
  4. State The Purpose. Lots of poor retrospectives I have attended have wandered aimlessly for hours and culminate with no tangible outcomes or benefits. As a ScrumMaster, try and grab the attention of your audience within the first five to ten minutes of the meeting. This is your chance to entice them into participating for the entire session. Setting a compelling goal or challenge at the start of the sprint retrospective can be a simple way to ‘hook’ people in from the outset.
  5. Experiment With Metaphor. All of the ideas I need already exist, I just need to be able to access them. Some people truly believe they are not creative at all. By introducing a metaphor, you can allow people to think about a problem or situation differently, and that might stimulate a more natural and spontaneous response. Some examples I have used would include asking questions like, “If this sprint was an animal, what would it be?” or “if this sprint was a chocolate bar, what would it be?” The key to these questions, is then exploring why attendees responded with their own answers.
  6. Let People Play. We feel safer if we feel like we are playing. Try introducing some games into the sprint retrospective. I’ve had success with word association games, role-play and even some board games. Equally, playing with toys such as LEGO blocks ® or modeling clay will access different parts of the human brain, and might help stimulate some different thoughts.
  7. Encourage Healthy Conflict. Assure the team that it isn’t always about agreement and that actually disagreement is not only ok but a great way to find the best solutions. Premature consensus actually reduces the quality of the output so perhaps introduce an element of ritual dissent as described here.
  8. Keep Things Varied. One of the biggest complaints I hear about sprint retrospectives is that they become boring as the ScrumMaster runs out of novel ways to run them or techniques to employ. Asking the same questions every retrospective can quickly become tedious so do anything you can to keep them fresh. Some simple ideas to help here include having a specific theme for each retrospective, changing the location, having a guest speaker, using a different metaphor or bringing in a different facilitator.
  9. Reflect On Facts. Encourage everyone in the team to move past just plain facts and tap into how the situation is affecting them and others. Not only does this make it more real but it also increases the value to doing something about it and making step 10 (taking action) more likely. I’m more likely to make a change if I know how it’s affecting me and other people.
  10. Take Some Action. Don’t just let the sprint retrospective turn into a town hall meeting where everyone gets to air their grievances and complain about what’s not working. Ensure the team reflect on things, thinking about what part they are playing in the situation and, more importantly, take some action towards making that aspect of the team’s situation better. They don’t have to solve it completely so long as they are moving towards a solution. I have another post on SWAT-ing your actions that can help with this.

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If you would like to watch this blog post in video format then here it is:

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