RETROspective — The Most Important Agile Ceremony

Sam Perera
May 26, 2020 · 10 min read
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If you ask me what my favourite Agile ceremony is, the answer will be the Sprint Retrospective (or the Retro, as we affectionately call it), without a doubt. It’s not because I get to wear a crazy hair wig, put fancy eyewear on or conduct cool and fun team activities that involve asking my team members wacky questions. These contributing factors may make Retro the most fun Agile ceremony, but more importantly, it’s my favourite because of the platform it provides to pause what we are doing, reflect on our past and learn to improve things in the future.

An Effective Retro

An effective Retro allows team members to embrace each other with a fun-filled activity, take an objective look at the way they worked in the immediate past and come up with a small but effective set of actions to keep improving.

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An effective Retro conducted regularly will continuously improve the quality of work.

Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of an effective Retro.

The Retro allows everyone in the team to pause and take a reality check of the objectives and key results (OKRs) set upon them and how each team member is aligned with it. It allows the team to identify any drifts away from the original goal and make adjustments before they become more complicated and expensive to rectify.

If you have been tasked with transforming the manner a team works into modern and Agile ways of working, re-energising a team, taking on a new project or program after completing another in the past, or a team has undergone significant changes in terms of skill, members, or direction, conducting a Retro creates a logical and natural starting point. The sensation the ‘pause’ creates gives everyone the feeling that we all ought to reflect and agree on the best ways to move forward rather than linger in the past.

It’s the only Agile ceremony that puts the focus back on people and how they interact with each other. The other ceremonies focus on the product or the service that the team is tasked to deliver. It is people who create the product or the service and getting it right with people is the foundation of getting the product or the service right.

The Retro does not take the positions of the team members into consideration. Therefore, it doesn’t include a chain of command for discussions. Everyone is treated equally and placed on the same level playing field, offering a platform to highlight what is and isn’t good. The purpose of the Retro is to encourage everyone to:

  • acknowledge and build upon the things that worked and helped the team,
  • appreciate the wins (big or small) and the collaboration between team members who looked after each other,
  • focus on improving or pivoting from practices that prevented the team from achieving their goals,
  • formulate a united front to focus on the challenges presented by external parties or factors.

On the other hand, a poorly formulated and conducted Retro can be more damaging to the team than not having one at all. It can tarnish the trust between team members, create fear, create a command-and-control structure and lead to a situation where points of improvement raised during the ceremony fall on deaf ears, without any serious desire to rectify and improve.

So, what makes a Retro effective?

Creating a safe space for everyone in the team to walk into and express their views is at the heart of making the Retro a positive and result-oriented activity. The team is not there to focus on any individual or individuals but on the events that occurred and the challenges they faced.

The Prime Directive for Retrospectives according to Norm Kerth, clearly articulates the basis for establishing a safe space for the Retro.

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

This ties in with the overall fabric of creating a safe culture across the entire ways your team works. It does so by not only removing the fear of retribution for getting something wrong but also by continuing to encourage the team to be creative and innovative in order to improve in the future.

All of the team members must take part in the Retro for it to be complete and effective. This will create a holistic viewpoint of the events that occurred so that they are not viewed from the potentially narrow perspectives of individuals. The more comprehensive the information presented about each Retro point, the more applicable and effective the responses will be.

If your team comprises of members who are geographically distributed, it is important for all team members to be invited, regardless of their location, and for it to be held on a day and at a time that is convenient for everyone. It is also important for remote participants to be given an equal opportunity to speak up and for them to be actively engaged throughout the Retro.

When Retros are conducted regularly (usually on the last day of every sprint), the opportunity to raise points of discussion while the memories are fresh is provided:

  • events that occurred,
  • challenges your team faced,
  • great things that team members achieved and,
  • products and services your team delivered.

This way, the chances of something important falling through the cracks of memory is reduced, as well as losing details critical for proper scrutiny. This also allows the team to agree on actions that can be put in place to address these points incrementally.

A typical sprint can last from two weeks to a month, which is not a short time to retain a vivid memory of all the events, challenges and great moments that happened. Therefore, encourage your team to keep making notes of moments that felt good or bad in detail throughout the sprint so the Retro has an impact.

Coming to the Retro well prepared not only improves the quality of the points raised and enriches the discussions but also saves your team time when listing the points. This leads to more relaxed and articulated discussions of each point, providing the opportunity to arrive at a more structured response to each point raised.

The titles we hold define the duties and responsibilities we carry out day-to-day. However, they also represent organisational hierarchy, authority and seniority. Forget your titles and entitlements during the Retro. This enables all team members to feel equally safe and confident as well as to be open and honest, increasing the value of what’s being raised and discussed.

Agree on a social contract to practice humility and empathy, look at each other from the other person’s viewpoint and ask open-ended questions to allow the other person to be more expressive about what they’ve highlighted at the first place. Don’t attempt to advise or solve problems for the team, even if you’re in a more authoritative position, but encourage the team to collectively arrive at a response. Arriving at actions and responses as a team increases the chances of these being followed through until the desired outcomes are achieved.

Even as the coach, delivery lead or scrum master, you’re not there to solve the problem. You are there to facilitate the session, encourage active participation and steer the session in the right direction to achieve the best results. Your mission is to use your specialised training and knowledge to guide the team towards the objective.

It is crucial to agree on actions, changes or improvements that could be easily implemented by your team and these should be implemented during the next couple of sprints if possible. Avoid discussing systematic changes that would most likely require a project with a wider scope. Nominate a representative within your team to bubble up the types of points at a more relevant meeting within your department/tribe.

The actions your team arrive at have a better chance of succeeding if they are seamless enough to be incorporated into usual day-to-day activities and small enough to keep the additional attention and effort required by your team members to implement them at a minimum.

The objective shouldn’t be to drain the entire lake to catch fish. It should be to identify how to hold the fishing rod better, to use a more suitable type fishing rod and bate and to find the best time to go fishing in order to catch fish easily and more frequently with minimum effort and time.

Small and incremental tweaks are the most effective way to showcase the improvements your team continuously undergoes to your stakeholders and make your team feel that the Retro has a positive impact on the way they work.

This is one of the most important factors in upholding the trust your team has in the Retro. It becomes untenable to keep asking your team to come back and make an effort to raise their points if the actions they previously agreed on are not followed through. Ensure that the actions are visible to the team and that the owner of each action provides ongoing updates on the progress until it has been completed.

A Retro without the desire to implement actions is just a winging session.

Last but not least, make sure the Retro is fun. Remember my opening paragraph on Retrospectives? It’s about coming together as a team to discuss how you work together. Ensure that you include a fun-filled team activity at the start of or during the Retro to keep everyone energised and engaged. It is also important to create a warm and welcoming environment where everyone feels relaxed, safe and able to be their true selves.

Retro is about people, and people love having fun!

Team activities can be organised in a way that they either convey a deeper, more serious message with a lighter touch or as an opportunity for team members to get to know each other better so that they learn to interact with each other more effectively during work.


A well-structured and conducted Retro is what lays as well as strengthens the foundation for a healthy team.

It allows team members to form stronger bonds by enabling conversations outside the typical day-to-day framework. It shifts the focus away from the product or service they create to the method they employ to create it by facilitating conversations on ‘ways of work’ instead of ‘work’. It provides all team members with an opportunity to let go of their official titles, simply be human and talk about good things, bad things and, more importantly, what they could do about the bad things. The Retro makes everyone in the team get up from their chairs and move around to have a bit of fun!

Go ahead… get your next Retro organised and plan to have loads of fun!

Thank you for reading this article.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how well-structured Retros are run to continuously improve the way your teams work, please hit us up at

Further Referring Material

* A list of different types of formats that could be used to create excitement and variety in each Retro — * Follow the link below if you’re interested in conducting Retros involving remote teams, either by design or as a result of lock-down measurements in place due to COVID-19 pandemic. — * Below are some questions each team member could ask on their own to instigate Retro points. Product Owner Developer |Analyst Master / Delivery Lead |

  • What can we do to support my team to focus on the business problem I want them to solve?
  • How can we ensure that my team is not distracted and does not end up spending time and effort on anything that is not going to be valuable to our customers?
  • How can I work with the business stakeholders so I could be upfront and proactive about the need to deliver a particular feature, upcoming work and priorities?
  • How can I make my team’s work in progress transparent and visible to business stakeholders?
  • How can I make my pull requests small and build systems free of issues?
  • How can I work with my Journey Expert, Tester and Product Owner to make them understand the challenges I face with technology and how it impacts the solution?
  • How can I work with Testers more closely so they are prepared to test my story effectively and efficiently?
  • How can I work with my fellow developers so they are aware of what I’m doing and the potential blockers I might face?
  • How can I balance the expectation between delivery of new features and Tech-Debt?
  • How can I get clear details on test requirements, delivery scope and underlying services that need to be involved while testing a story?
  • How can I make myself heard more during effort estimates and commitment dates?
  • How can I juggle stories that move forward that have been completed by around the same time?
  • What support do I need from my team to make up the lost time due to test environments being down?
  • How can I make sure that test data has been provided by respective parties on time and in its entirety?
  • How can I work with other team members to understand the business requirement and map that to the best possible solution offering?
  • How can collaborate with other teams to explore how they have solved similar problems in the past?
  • How do I find the time to document everything effectively and share them with my team?
  • What’s the support I need from my team to juggle a hundred different things I need to complete during a Sprint?
  • How can I get my team to slice the work so they are small and independent but valuable on their own when completed?
  • How can we protect the team from distractions?
  • How can the team manage unplanned work?
  • How can the team get better at collaboration and knowledge sharing?
  • How can we empower each team member to be their best and feel safe to be open and honest about the challenges they face?
  • How can we rally around the Product Owner to enable the business value in the shortest time span and with the required quality?

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