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Effective Agile Retrospectives

Ways to make retrospectives fun and successful

Retrospective — one of the famous ceremonies of agile methodology which is highly infamous for being uncomfortable, ineffective, and basically a waste of time. But in my experience, if done right, this is a great way to share concerns, ideas, and solutions, in effect boosting a team’s productivity.

Important steps while conducting the retrospective

First, let’s talk about the process of retrospectives itself. Different teams and organizations conduct retros in their own ways which makes it effective for them. But there are a few steps in the process which must not be missed in my opinion.

Image credit: Unsplash

Safety check

In my experience, this is the most important aspect of a retrospective. Is everyone in this group comfortable speaking their mind? If not, there is absolutely no point in the retrospective since it will be dominated by a handful of vocal folks.

The Safety Check is a fast and effective way to verify how safe people feel participating in the retrospective.

One of the ways to conduct a safety check is to have every participant give a rating from 1 to 5 on an anonymous sticky, expressing how safe they feel expressing themselves in this group, 1 being the least safe. Then all participants can either stick the sticky on a wall or drop it in a pile. The final numbers represent the safety check. If the overall safety check is low, the first thing to be done abandon the retro and find out why the safety check is low and find a solution to this.

I want to share a personal experience about safety checks. We experienced this in one of our teams and facilitated a session to get to the bottom of the issue. We found out that few folks were uncomfortable speaking in front of the on-site team, because they did not know them well. So, as a solution, we started conducting a pre-retrospective with only our team so that everyone can speak openly about issues and then take those major points to the main retrospectives. This ensured that we have noted everyone’s views even if they are not comfortable speaking in the group. We also started having a few informal interactions with the onsite team to address the comfort factor. Slowly the safety checks numbers improved and we ditched the pre-retros and started having very effective retros.

Here’s a great post I found detailing the do’s and don’ts of safety checks

Facilitation

Another important aspect of a retrospective is facilitation. A few things to keep in mind about facilitation:

  • Unbiased facilitator : If possible, find a facilitator who is a neutral outsider and does not have a personal stake in the exercise. This will help in making sure that everyone gets an equal and fair opportunity to express their ideas and concerns.
  • Tool & technique: Choose an appropriate tool and technique which will suit the team and help them identify and address all concerns.
  • Prime directive: Read out and explain the prime directive, especially if there are new members in the team.
  • Timeline: Draw out the timeline and events for which the retro is being held. It could last month, last release, last quarter etc.
  • Facilitate, don’t drive: The main job of the facilitator is to facilitate the retro, not drive it. They should not try to express their own opinions, prioritise or try to take topics to conclusion by assigning tasks etc.
  • Time check: A retro must be time boxed. The goal is to identify 3–5 top issues, discuss them and identify action items. And all this done in the given time. An action item can even be ‘Set up meeting to discuss X topic in detail’, if a topic discussion is taking too much time.
  • Focus: The facilitator should strictly steer the team back if the discussion is digressing.

Previous action items

It’s important to list out the action items from the previous retrospective meeting and quickly get an update from the owners in the beginning of the meeting. This gives a sense of achievement and accountability to the team and sets stage for the current exercise.

Identify Action Items

At the end of the retro it is important to identify action items which the team can work on. Owners must be identified for each action item. Team members should be encouraged to volunteer themselves for relevant tasks, rather than a leader assigning tasks. This is sure to inculcate a sense of ownership. If possible, there should also be a way to track the tasks.

How to make it effective?

We just learnt what are the important steps while conducting a retro. But even if we follow the process correctly, it is possible that over time we are not gaining much from this ceremony. From my experience of working in various agile project teams, I’ve gathered following tips to make retros really effective.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Open conversations

Once a safety check indicates the group as a whole finds it safe to express themselves and discuss issues, conversations should be open and transparent to be able to get to the root cause and find solutions.

Blameless retrospective

Internet says many teams prefer to conduct ‘blameless retrospectives’. In my opinion all retros must be blameless. The moment we start blaming each other for mistakes, it means we will never have harmony in the team and we will never give opportunity to learn from mistakes. Idea of the retrospective is to come together and strengthen the team to achieve common goals.

Periodic retrospectives

Needless to say, retrospectives can only be effective if they are held periodically. But they should not be too frequent too, because the action items will be less concrete or short-lived and the process will lose the sense of seriousness.

Appreciations

I have found that adding a section to put in small and big appreciations during the retrospective goes a long way in boosting the morale of the team and giving them a sense of belonging and pride. Example, ‘X helped when I was stuck writing a test’, ‘Y is always punctual for stand-ups’, ‘Z makes every meeting fun’ etc. These are the kind of appreciations which they will never get from their leadership or clients, but only from their peers. And they make the team and family.

Make it interesting

Finally, having said that this is one of the many important agile ceremonies, retros do seem to get boring over time and slowly lose their effectiveness due to lack of interest. So, it really helps to make it fun and interesting. Add some ice-breakers, energisers, interesting new retro techniques etc, to make it interesting and hence effective. Funretrospectives has some really great ideas for the same.

Enjoy, have a great retro !

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Shilpa Goley

Shilpa Goley

Developer @ Thoughtworks

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