Facilitating Effective Retrospectives: Capturing Lessons and Actually Learning From Them

J Edwards
J Edwards
Nov 23, 2020 · 8 min read

Huzzah! The sprint is over. So, now what?

Image of a team sitting at the table with their laptops to discuss what they experienced during the Sprint.
Image of a team sitting at the table with their laptops to discuss what they experienced during the Sprint.

The end of a sprint is a great time to review the progress of an ongoing project. Teams can use a Sprint Retrospective to reflect on “what they have done” and “what they should do”.

It’s easy to think of Retrospectives as merely an opportunity to capture lessons learned after every sprint, but this is not entirely true. In traditional project management, a lessons learned meeting is conducted at the very end of the project. After the said meeting, team members should cycle those learned lessons into the next project. The reality is, this seldom happens, and often the results of the lessons learned meeting are lost or forgotten.

Retrospectives, on the other hand, provide a great way to reflect on lessons learned in smaller increments. This promotes continuous improvement and reduces project mishaps, ultimately saving time and money. When done well, Sprint Retrospectives facilitate the integration of lessons learned into planning and bolster the efficiency of your team.

Making time for a Sprint Retrospective can be daunting at first, especially when your team has to manage project backlogs, meetings, and juggle a heap of tasks, but the benefits of holding regular Retrospectives are numerous.

In this article, we’ll look at the following (or you can skip ahead to the juicy bits):

What Is a Retrospective?

Image of a team meeting to review lessons learned. Ideas are captured using small notes on a cork board.
Image of a team meeting to review lessons learned. Ideas are captured using small notes on a cork board.

No matter your project methodology of choice, all teams can benefit from conducting a Retrospective. In particular, the Scrum framework sets aside time for Sprint Retrospectives throughout the course of an Agile project.

The Sprint Retrospective is a Scrum ceremony and usually takes place after the Sprint Review and before the next Sprint Planning. The event is time-boxed to three hours (for a one-month sprint), and the information obtained during the Retrospective allows teams to review processes and identify opportunities for improvement.

According to the Scrum Guide, conduct a Sprint Retrospective for the following reasons:

  • Examine aspects of the last sprint, such as relationships between people, processes, and tools.
  • Identify items that went well and scope potential areas for improvement.
  • Create a plan to improve the way the team performs.

Retrospectives direct your team down an avenue of constructive change by putting the immediate past in the rear, while allowing positive endeavors to drive growth. The cause and effect analysis inherent in a well-facilitated Retrospective allows your team to capitalize on meaningful learning opportunities.

Benefits of Holding a Retrospective

Retrospectives are an essential part of doing Agile “right”. Teams that conduct structured Retrospectives are typically more effective than those that do not.

Why are Retrospectives good for your team?

An image  displaying a light bulb with areas for input left blank. Image shows more ideas can be spurred from one main idea.
An image  displaying a light bulb with areas for input left blank. Image shows more ideas can be spurred from one main idea.

Uncover Issues

Unmet objectives, incomplete tasks, and missed deadlines can be the result of a number of small setbacks. Unfulfilled goals left at the end of a Sprint can put stress on your team and hinder performance.

We all know the familiar feeling — you start to work on something but don’t finish it. Thoughts of the unfinished work continue to pop into your mind, even when you’ve moved on to other things — taunting you with the work you have yet to complete. This is known as the Zeigarnik Effect — the propensity for an individual to remember interrupted tasks better than completed work. The Zeigarnik effect highlights the stress, anxiety, and strained relationships that can result when tasks and issues are left incomplete.

Unfulfilled goals in a project raise questions about team performance, bring project challenges to the forefront, and indicate that changes need to be made. The change can be one that is easily integrated into your processes or one that sparks a massive rehaul of operations. Either way, it’s imperative that the root cause is identified.

A deep dive into issues that arise is an essential part of understanding performance impediments and limitations; issues can fester and run wild if left unaddressed. Retrospectives provide an opportunity to sort through uncertainties in complex environments to improve team processes and dynamics.

Create Action Items

The lessons learned from participating in a Retrospective can help with the development of plans, improvement of processes, or result in a list of considerations for Sprint Planning. Regardless of how you choose to integrate the lessons learned from a Sprint into future use, you should have actionable items outlined to ensure future benefit. Sharing knowledge and leveraging refined insight is important; action items provide a record of what has been learned from each Sprint experience.

Your team can promote continuous improvement and achieve accelerated learning by using shared experiences to reduce the learning curve. Failure to incorporate a clearly defined reflection point can put your team at a disadvantage — team members carry on with bad habits, continue to run into the same obstacles, and are unable to improve moving forward. Retrospectives can help your team identify opportunities for improvement, experiment with new approaches, and uncover approaches to clearing obstacles.

Use an action-focused approach for your Sprint Retrospectives to ensure that your discussions generate change rather than just being a forum for your team to air grievances. Checklists can provide an excellent way to prioritize your action items and motivate you to get more done.

Develop an Open Culture

Retrospectives provide a forum for team members to learn from themselves and from each other. When performed properly a Sprint Retrospective promotes a culture of learning, openness, and honesty. To build trust, team members need to be honest and transparent. No one should feel like they will be ostracized or punished for admitting there is a problem. Discussions should focus on analyzing what went wrong instead of who caused it to happen; it is not a finger-pointing exercise but should encourage self-identification and areas for improvement from everyone on the team.

Suggestions for Implementing an Effective Retrospective

Though they are extremely helpful, the Sprint Retrospective is often avoided. Why?

Simply put, it can be a bit dull. Getting team members to actually analyze and discuss what they do well (or not so well) can be an exhausting exercise.

What can you do to make Retrospectives more engaging and effective for your team?

An image of a team actively participating in a retrospective meeting.
An image of a team actively participating in a retrospective meeting.

Conducting an effective Retrospective requires the following :

  • Clearly defining the scope of the Retrospective
  • Brainstorming and discussing each section of the Agile Retrospective template.
  • Discussing and grouping any common themes.
  • Prioritizing and voting on the key areas you need to take action on.
  • Identifying actions for each priority idea. Assigning responsibilities and timeframes to a group or individual.
  • Sharing the outcomes of the session, including the action plan, to relevant stakeholders.

Progressive Reflection Is the Name of the Game

Don’t save all of your team’s valuable feedback for the end of the project. Typically, Retrospectives should last no more than 90 minutes for a two-week Sprint (it’s timeboxed to three hours for a one-month Sprint). Retrospectives should be performed regularly and consistently. Long periods of time should not pass before your team gets together to discuss and review progress. By conducting Retrospectives often, team members can reflect and work on incorporating changes into future Sprints to ensure those project goals are met.

Positivity Is Key

One challenge for many teams is that Retrospectives can sometimes feel awkward. Team members might choose to focus on the negative or try to blame others for mishaps. Many teams dwell only on the problems during Retrospectives and don’t share the things that went well during the Sprint. Recognizing small victories and accomplishments are necessary for team productivity and improvement.

During your team’s Sprint Retrospective, the focus should be on the why and how. Participants in the Retrospective should be respectful of one another and give feedback that is constructive and not aggressive. It is also important for team members to set strong emotions aside and remember that there is no need to be defensive when receiving critique. A good way to provide feedback is to address unfavorable events as issues that can be collaboratively solved and to use language that is not directed but speaks to the team as a whole.

Still, it is important to avoid the criticism sandwich when critiquing. Wrapping negative feedback between accolades buries the actual criticism and spotlights the praises, making it difficult to focus on areas for improvement.

Put It On Paper

Record all input. Providing feedback is not helpful if the team has no intention of doing anything with it. Deciding how to resolve issues and setting a clear date and time to process improvement actions is important. Be sure to document your team’s experiences and to use that information for planning and subsequent Scrum events. Recording information is a good way to keep track of previous action items, as well as to create a historical document of your team’s progress.

Using a template is a great way to encourage participation and to record the emotional impact the overall Sprint has on your team members. Choosing the right template for your team can really help in facilitating a more engaging, effective, and interactive Retrospective. Steven Lemon has a great post on Choosing the Right Activity for Your Sprint Retrospective.

Plan for Success

Identify small, attainable goals for continuous improvement. Small successes help your team focus on iterative improvement and it builds morale.

Try not to focus only on the specific problems that are mentioned, but investigate to get to the root of the issue and discover the overarching matter the problem is a symptom of. Create definitive goals and make your conclusions accessible. Tracking tools such as Jira can be integrated with your action items to help direct and track progress.

So… what can you take away from this article:

  • Retrospectives are important for both individual and team growth.
  • Team members should be able to voice observations and reflect on processes, misgivings, etc, in a non-judgemental environment.
  • Just because it is a meeting does not mean you and your team cannot have fun during a Sprint Retrospective.

Retrospectives provide a great opportunity for helping your team improve; it is not merely a box-ticking exercise or a platform to rant about team members. Instead, the Sprint Retrospective should be a well-planned activity that brings your team closer together (or at the very least, helps your team identify how they can work better together). When done with an open and Agile mindset, a Retrospective can take your team and your team’s goals to the next level.

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