Agile Retrospectives for Beginners

With the growing trend of agile frameworks adoption among companies, one topic that draws more attention from beginners is how to properly conduct an Agile Retrospective. These sessions are a really effective way for teams to develop a continuous improvement approach that enables them to build better products and services.

Running retrospectives can also reinforce the bonds between the members of a team. They propitiate positive conversations whose objective is not to blame anyone for issues or delayed tasks but to understand the root causes of those flaws to prevent them from happening again.

There is a lot to be said about this ceremony's benefits. For now, we want to give ideas for teams adopting retrospectives or those that haven't started yet, but plan to do so in the near future.

Topics to check

1. Planning your retrospective

2. The basic structure

a. Set the stage
b. Gather data
c. Generate insights
d. Decide what to do
e. Close the retrospective

3. Retrospectives templates ideas

a. Starfish Retro
b. Sailboat Retro
c. Conversation of Errors
d. Strategy DHM

Planning your retrospective

Retrospectives consist of sessions where the team gets together and looks back on past events or situations to achieve continuous improvement. They're usually celebrated at the end of each sprint, and the whole team, including the Scrum Master, should join the session.

Remember that all your retros must be ruled by the Prime Directive: A statement to put people mind's into a collaborative state. Norman Kerth, a prestigious software development consultant, first coined it in his 2001 book Project Retrospectives: A Handbook For Team Reviews. Kerth describes the concept with the following words:

'Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what was known at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.'

Consider it's optimal to keep your sessions boxed for under an hour. However, you shouldn't care too much if you miss the mark by some minutes. The point of these ceremonies isn't to follow a script but to get your team to share their thoughts. At the end of the session, those individuals' input will synthesize in a general output from the group.

Now, without further ado, let's jump into the session's structure details.

The basic structure

There are five stages everyone should follow in order to have a successful retrospective. These are:

a. Set the stage

You want the team to effectively engage in the discussion. Everyone should be comfortable sharing ideas, so take a few minutes to break the ice with questions that aren’t strictly related to work. One useful practice that the marketing lead threw inside our own team is to ask everybody to share one personal good new and a professional achievement from the past sprint, which sets a favorable climate for talking.

You need a board to document the teams' input and organize them into semantic topics. In-person or remotely, your best option is to use a specialized software tool that everyone can easily access. We encourage you to try Agile Retros, available for Jira and Confluence (and soon, Monday too!). It lets you run highly customizable sessions in four steps. Check it here.

b. Gather data

In this stage, the team will input their ideas. Now, there's a lot of activities and formats for a team to try for this. We recommend checking out the good 'ol Retrospective Wiki & the Retro-mat site for more ideas. However, the most usual and outright simple & helpful technique for beginners is the "4 L's" technique, which prompts everyone in the team to answer:

  • What did you Like about the sprint?
  • What did you Learn during the sprint?
  • What did the sprint Lack?
  • What did you Long for during the sprint?

c. Generate insights

At this moment, the team groups the similar ideas into topics, which then will be voted. This process is intended to prioritize the most critical issues according to the general consensus. That will let you focus and take full advantage of the session. The Agile Retros add-on is great for this, enabling you to perform both voting and grouping actions with ease… Just saying.

d. Decide what to do

This is the top critical step of the session and sometimes the most overlooked. So far, you've only voted for the issues that came up, but your team hasn't suggested any concrete actions to address them.

For a retrospective to be productive, you need to get some action items as outputs. The end goal of running them is to learn what to do next to keep improving. That essentially means assigning someone who will make sure those items get followed up. The resulting action items can be included in the backlog of the next sprint to make sure they're attended.

e. Close the retrospective

Finally, you need to close the session. There are two ways to do so: You can formally close it by going over the outputs and the assignees. Or you can do a lighter closing and even add some humor, asking around and involving everyone. You decide which works better for your team. In the end, the purpose is to make sure everyone agrees with what needs to be done.

Retrospectives templates ideas

If you want to take your sessions to the next level and draw even more value in different ways, you could experiment with some of the following models:

a. Starfish Retro

This one focuses on checking the perceived value of current processes and practices, based on five questions:

  • Keep doing - What should the team keep doing?
  • More of - What should be prioritized over other tasks?
  • Start doing - What should the team adopt?
  • Stop doing - Which practices need to be stopped?
  • Less of - Which items bring low value and should be minimized?

This model was created by Pat Kua.

b. Sailboat Retro

Navigate your way to continuous improvement with this technique based on envisioning the last sprint as a sailboat, which can get very playful. The brainstorming here must address three questions:

  • What risks did the sprint face?
  • What delayed the sprint?
  • What propelled the sprint forward?

After all, the team has inputted their answers, proceed to group the ideas into three groups:

  • Rocks - The risks encountered and how to prevent them in the future, if possible.
  • Anchors - Situations that delayed the boat, draining speed and agility.
  • Wind - Which factors helped the team progress and deliver value.

Have a conversation around those topics and agree on the action items that will let you better prepare for the tide to safely land in your goals.

c. Conversation of Errors

This retro will bring the team's attention to the stuff that went wrong. But positively, of course (never forget the Prime Directive). Make clear that the conversation must be centered on the issues themselves and not the persons. With that in mind, ask your team to input what they think were:

  • Errors of commission, which occurred because of doing something that should not have been done.
  • Errors of omission, which were caused because of not doing something that should have been done.

If you think your team can have a hard time highlighting the not-so-cool aspects of working together, the Agile Retrospectives add-on lets you run anonymous sessions. Now that's fostering a safe space!

d. Strategy DHM

This one is more of a futurespective, meaning that it's completely focused on the future. Its goal is to spark the planning of your strategy, so your team must brainstorm around three topics:

  • How can your product or service Delight customers?
  • How can it have Hard to copy advantages?
  • Can it help to Increase the margins of your organization?

This can quickly help you plan your next sprints, and could also be the germ of a broader, high-level plan, so you might want to try it.

The best thing about all these models is that you can try them with the Agile Retros add-on and customize them as you please. It lets you set up your session template beforehand, which you can share with your team, so everyone adds their input asynchronously, preventing any waste of time during the actual meeting.

That is all for this post. Lots of information, we know. But you can always bookmark this page and come back for inspiration every now and then. Remember that you can also follow us on social media to keep updated with more practical ideas on how to drive an agile transformation inside your organization. We're always glad to help!


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