Most Agile teams have Sprints down — they enjoy getting work done, collaborating with team members, and making measurable progress.
Sprint Retrospectives though? Not so much. Even if a team leader is enthusiastic about retrospectives, that doesn't always translate into a fully-engaged team.
In this comprehensive guide, we'll walk you through the basics of Sprint Retrospectives and touch on several ways you can make these exercises more engaging for your team members.
First things first, what are we talking about? Sprint Retrospectives are meetings that take place after a Sprint. They're a component of an Agile workflow — an iterative approach to project management. More specifically, Sprints (and Sprint Retrospectives) fit into the Scrum framework of Agile development.
In simple terms, a Sprint Retrospective is a time to reflect on a period of concentrated work. You'll discuss what you learned, what went well, what went poorly, and what you can do differently in the future.
By incorporating this type of discussion into an Agile workflow, you're able to bring about key points of improvement during a team discussion. This makes it easier to build upon your successes and cut back on your team's missteps — both of which are important for an effective project timeline.
Of course, to have a Sprint Retrospective, you first have to have Sprints. But what are Sprints, and how do they fit into a Scrum workflow?
Per the official definition of a Scrum Sprint, Sprints are periods that last for one month or less. At the end of this period, your team should have completed one "Increment" of work. In a Scrum framework, an "Increment" is any task that can be completed, measured, and contributes to the final goal (i.e., releasing a product).
So in a team environment, a Sprint would involve everyone working to complete some increment (e.g., adding a sign-up form to your website). As soon as this is completed, the Sprint is over, and it's time to start the next Sprint.
Before you can start the next Sprint, you need to host a Sprint Retrospective.
"That sounds boring..."
"Shouldn't we focus on development instead?"
"Why spend so much time patting each others' backs?"
You may have heard these sorts of sentiments from your team. In our always-on culture, it's completely reasonable to have these sorts of feelings around retrospectives. After all, nothing measurable is being accomplished, no one is working, and the deadline is creeping ever closer and closer.
In some ways, it's the aversion to this exercise that makes it so important for your team. Like meditation or exercise, these retrospectives may be difficult in the beginning, but they're where you lay the most essential groundwork for your team's success.
Regular retrospectives encourage critical thinking, team check-ins, and new ideas. They give everyone a chance to speak their mind, vent their frustrations, celebrate their successes, and consider the direction your project is taking.
With an understanding of the whats and whys of Sprint Retrospectives, it's time to get an idea of how they come together. You probably already have the right image in your head: A team of people in a meeting room (or Zoom call), taking turns to speak and offer up ideas.
This is the basic idea, but it's a little boring.
It’s also not going to get you very far, either.
Instead, your Sprint Retrospectives should be completely goal-oriented, visual — try to incorporate as many visuals as possible — and collaborative, it shouldn't feel like one person is preaching to the rest.
To achieve this, you can lean on tools such as:
Using these tools, you'll want to discuss in detail the following:
Below, we'll walk you through the step-by-step process of discussing these topics with your team.
As the name suggests, your primary focus here is planning out and preparing for the Sprint Retrospective meeting itself. Unless you have an appointed team member in charge of this step, this task should fall upon the team leader (sometimes called the Scrum Master, to true advocates of the Scrum methodology).
While you'll only be spending a few minutes setting your meeting room up, you should spend the entire Sprint preparing for your retrospective. This includes writing down real-time observations, coming up with talking points and questions to ask your team, and noting events that were central to this Sprint's success (or lack thereof).
When it comes time to start preparing the meeting room, the biggest thing to remember is to have all of your tools with you. This includes notes, pictures, templates, rules for games, a whiteboard, sticky notes, and anything else that will be used to run the collaborative session.
Next up, you're going to want to bring your team in and set the stage for the meeting. If this is your first Sprint Retrospective, then this means letting everyone know what this meeting is all about and what you plan to discuss.
For first-timers, you'll want to make it clear that all participants are expected to contribute to the session. You can even bring them up to speed ahead of time — that way they can prepare their own talking points to bring along. Again, the task of briefing the team should fall on the shoulders of the team leader or Scrum Master.
For more experienced teams, you'll want to use this time to expand on what was accomplished during the Sprint, how this fits into the bigger picture, and what the next Sprint is going to be. This will set everyone in the right state of mind, which means reflecting on this Sprint and carrying those reflections into the next.
With the prep work and stage-setting complete, you're ready to get into the meat of your Sprint Retrospective.
The first portion of this revolves around discussing the good. This is everything that went well during your Sprint and, for that reason, it's most people's favorite part of the retrospective.
However, this is where team members can get a bit complacent, too. Participants might view this section as not all that important — providing just a brief comment, or repeating what they said in the last Sprint Retrospective as well. But while not every team member will have an amazing “ah ha moment” to share every retrospective, you don't want this segment to feel like a repetitive drudge either.
To avoid this, you can shift gears slightly — moving from discussing what, and focusing on the why. Why did something work well? Why did someone have a positive experience? And why did this benefit the Sprint? This is essential, because if you understand the "why", you can repeat the "what" time and time again.
Next up is most people's least favorite part of the Sprint Retrospective: discussing the bad.
This is where you and your team will get into everything that didn't go to plan. Though not always the most fun (especially if a Sprint missed its deadline) this is still an unavoidable part of the retrospective process.
And funnily enough, despite teams not looking forward to this part of the discussion, you’ll likely spend most of your retrospective time dwelling on the pain points. Why? Because in Agile, as in life, it's much easier to verbalize the bad than the good. Team members may want to vent, may feel as if they let others down, or might even be frustrated with the project (or one another!).
As a leader, it's your role to ensure that this portion of the retrospective is as constructive as the rest of it. We'll get into more ways to do this when discussing templates and games later, but the general rules of positivity apply:
Remember how we championed discussing the whys behind your successes and shortcomings? All that hard work comes to fruition here, as you can finish off the meeting with a solid plan of action. At this stage, your energy goes into ideating ways to move forward. The goal? To maintain and build upon the good stuff achieved while cutting back on the things that didn’t go to plan.
What’s more, the structure of the meeting will change pace now too. Until this point, your discussions will have been largely presentational — with each person sharing their experience. But now collaboration kicks in. People should be throwing out ideas, sticky notes should be passed around. You might take votes, create diagrams, assign tasks, and draft a timeline.
Keep in mind that this is an ongoing experiment and not rule-setting for the rest of the project. After this upcoming Sprint, you and your team will be back in this room, going back over the good, the bad, and the future of your project.
Be open to change, and remember that successful development is a process of trial and error for every team.
Typically, Sprint Retrospectives are a five-stage process. However, this optional sixth step is a great way to finish the meeting for several reasons. Here, you'll open the floor to open discussion (so long as it's project-oriented).
Rather than talking over a specific topic, each team member has an opportunity to say anything that's been on their mind, ask questions, vent, and dissolve into casual conversation before breaking back into daily work. This is an important chance for you to foster camaraderie among your team, close up the discussion, and help everyone get refreshed before starting the next Sprint.
This works well at the end of a retrospective because, by now, everyone will be free of any nervousness or apprehension they felt going into the meeting. There are no more expectations or goals — and that empowers your team to speak more openly. Think of it as an extra five minutes to get any last ideas out or to simply boost your team's morale.
By following the guide above, you can start implementing a general version of Sprint Retrospectives into your team's Agile workflow. You may have even come up with a few ideas to personalize the process to your team's preferences.
The good news is, this is just a general outline.
There are tons of other ways to organize your retrospective that might work better for your team.
To encourage you to explore these alternatives, here are three Sprint Retrospective templates and techniques for your team to try.
The Glad, Sad, Mad template is one of the simplest ways to restructure your retrospective.
While the traditional format is more goal-oriented, this template focuses on your team's well-being. How is everyone feeling? Whose morale needs a bump? And who could use a little extra recognition?
On your whiteboard (or your wall divided by painter's tape), create three columns: The first is "Glad", the second "Sad", and the third (unsurprisingly) is "Mad". Once you've done this, bring your team in and hand everyone a pad of sticky notes.
(If you're using this template over a video conference, you can check out this Zapier article to find an online whiteboard for your team).
Once everyone is situated, have your team write down any observations they've made (good, bad, and otherwise) on their sticky notes. One observation per note, please.
After that, go from one team member to the next, asking them to read out and briefly explain their observation. They should then place their sticky note under the column that best describes how that observation makes them feel. If team members write down the same observations, try to group these on the board.
From there, open the discussion to see why some members felt similarly, why others didn't, and how this information can be used moving forward.
Next up is a template that's a bit more left-brain: The Four L's.
In this version of the Sprint Retrospective, you'll divide your (possibly digital) whiteboard into four squares. The top-left square will be titled "Liked", the top-right "Learned", the bottom-left "Lacked", and the last one "Longed For".
Invite your team in and give each person a pad of sticky notes. Make sure that each participant understands the different squares. Then, ask them to write down four things or more (at least one per square) that they Liked, Learned, Lacked and Longed For in the Sprint you’ve just completed.
This should take five minutes or less. Next, have each team member place their sticky notes inside the appropriate square.
Once that's done, split your team into four groups, one for each of the Four L's. Each group will then be tasked with analyzing their square and grouping sticky notes together that share a common theme. For example, if someone learned that X was an efficient use of time and someone else learned that Y improved their efficiency, then these would be grouped.
After that, the groups will come back together to discuss their findings.
The goal is to come up with actions that will emphasize the good L's (Liked and Learned) and reduce the bad L's (Lacked and Longed For).
No matter how many different techniques you use, chances are your Sprint Retrospectives will get a tad repetitive. Why? Because unless your team members are swapped out, you're likely to keep running into the same successes and obstacles each and every time.
To shake things up, you can try the Start, Stop, Continue template. In this model, you'll make three columns on your whiteboard, titled Start, Stop, and Continue.
Bring your team in and, as a group, discuss the things that your team should start, stop, and continue doing. If you're having trouble getting the conversation started, fallback on the talking points you would bring it up in a standard retrospective.
The goal of this template is to change your team's habits and to motivate everyone through change.
Sprint Retrospective templates are a helpful way to shake meetings up, after you've been doing them for a while. When your team is new to retrospectives, however, they may have a hard time knowing what to discuss or building up the confidence to share their feelings.
To help, you can incorporate Sprint Retrospective games into your meetings. Unlike templates, these aren't meant to replace your retrospective altogether. Instead, they supplement the process.
The result? These Sprint Retrospective games can help bring ideas and opinions to light that might not have been expressed otherwise.
First up is Constellations. While most of these exercises and steps have been doable in an online workplace, this game is best played in person.
To play this game, all you need is a room with enough space for you and your team to stand in a circle. If your biggest meeting room has a large conference table, then you might want to take things to another space in your office (or head outside!).
Once you're in an area with enough space, take any object (a book, banana, or bowl of ramen) and place it in the center of your group. This is your sun. Have your team stand in a circle around the object.
With everyone in position, bring out a set of statements (aim for around ten) describing the Sprint that's just been completed. These statements might be things like:
Participants should take a step forward, toward your ‘sun’, for each statement they agree with — and take a step back put for anything they don’t. The more circular your group, the more cohesive your team's opinions are. If everyone is branched apart, however, you might need to spend more time discussing certain observations than you realized.
This game is best played near the beginning of your retrospective, right before you start getting into the good of your Sprint.
Unspeakable is a pretty straightforward Sprint Retrospective game, but a very powerful one, too. The idea is to give everyone the chance to share whatever they have in mind — no matter what it is! And all they need is a sheet of paper.
As each person enters the conference room, hand them a note-card or piece of equally-cut paper. Every piece of paper must look identical to one another.
Near the end of the meeting, after you've finished creating a plan of action, ask everyone to anonymously write down one "taboo" thing that they feel about the team. This is anything they would normally say during "The bad" section of the meeting but felt they couldn't. Of course, you’ll want to set one key rule: it shouldn’t be something unkind about a fellow team member.
Once done, have each person pass their paper back to you without you reading them. Mix them up, then pass them back out. Everyone writes a comment or response on each piece of paper, then passes it to the person to their right. This goes on until everyone has read and commented on every criticism.
Afterward, without discussing the cards out loud or trying to guess who wrote what, ceremoniously rip the cards to shreds one by one and throw them away. This is a great way to cleanse the group's harsher opinions without letting the group discussion get too intense. But use it sparingly.
Whether you're working from home or at the office, it can be difficult to keep retrospectives engaging, productive and organized. By following these Sprint Retrospective guides and games, you can start to turn this around, energizing your team whenever it's time to reflect.
And for the final must-have resource to add to your retrospective toolkit, visit EasyRetro. Our digital platform makes organizing, facilitating and tracking Sprint Retrospectives easier (and more fun) than ever before. Register for your account today.