How often should you run a retrospective?

There are approximately 55 million meetings per day in the United States alone, yet, 71% of senior managers say that meetings are unproductive and inefficient

Because of that, choosing how often to have your retrospective meetings can be tricky, not to mention controversial. 

And getting it wrong can be costly. 

You want to get the best return on investment possible from your retrospectives. 

And that means getting the timing just right. 

By the end of this article you’ll be able to set a meeting interval that helps your team work better and smarter! 

In this blog we’re going to cover:

  • The goals of a retrospective
  • Why it’s important to get your sprint length right
  • How often to run retrospectives
  • Three simple steps you can take to find your meeting cadence


 

Why do we run retrospectives at all?

Retrospectives are a time for teams to reflect on what they have learned during the most recent sprint, and are a key component of most agile project management methodologies.

Reflecting on every agile sprint or project milestone gives teams an opportunity to raise problems along the way, rather than at the end. 

Retrospectives help teams to:

  • Resolve any issues mid-project
  • Create a culture of giving and receiving feedback

Retrospectives should take place at key points in your project timelines, like launching a new feature or reaching an important project milestone. 

In most cases, retrospectives will happen at the end of a sprint, because that’s when you have a portion of work bundled up and ready to be reflected upon. 

To decide how often to run a retrospective, you need to calculate the optimal sprint length for your team


 

How long should my sprints be?

In a 2018 survey, 47% of people said that “too many meetings” was the biggest reason for wasted time at work. 

Experts believe that wasted time in meetings could amount to a whole hour per week for the average employee. 

Getting your sprint length right reduces wasted time that could be spent on development or project work. Your retrospectives need to be frequent enough that they are meaningful. But not so infrequent that important insights are buried or forgotten. 

Let’s take a quick look at what could happen if you get your retrospective interval wrong.


 

When retrospectives are too frequentWhen retrospectives are too frequent people lose respect for the process, struggle to find balance and don't have enough time to put learnings into practice

1. People lose respect for the process

Your team should all be focused, attentive, and serious during the retrospective process. The retrospective is a valuable time where everyone pauses their work to actively listen and contribute. 

It’s the only hour you all come together and commit to the goal of continuous improvement, so it’s important to make it meaningful. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, but your team needs to respect the process and you need to ensure they find value in it. 

If the retrospective doesn’t deliver valuable insights for the whole team, people can lose respect for the process. That makes it more difficult to get everyone contributing. 

If you’re having retrospectives too often your team might also feel that they’re reflecting more than working, which can damage morale.

When people lose respect for the retrospective process, it’s difficult to build it up again. So make sure to space your retrospectives wisely.

 

2. There’s no balance between doing work and reflecting on work

Your goal as a project manager or Scrum master is to get the most out of your team. You want to ensure your team are using their time in the most valuable way possible. Too many meetings can mean wasted time, especially since people are naturally skeptical about the value of meetings. 

Time spent in overly regular meetings is time taken away from meaningful development or project work. 

You need time to do meaningful work during the sprint if you’re going to generate meaningful insights

Great organizations use meetings as a strategic tool and think about how they can get the most out of them. If your meeting is not helping your team to perform to the best of their ability, then make the meeting less frequent or change its format. 

 

3. There’s not enough time to put learnings into practice

Retrospectives help your team generate insights for continuous improvement. At the end of every retrospective, you will come away with action items for different team members to implement. 

These action items are a vital part of the retrospective process, because they allow your team to course-correct mid-project if something isn’t going well. 

But if you are having meetings too frequently, your team members won’t have time to effectively implement changes. Before you know it, you’re all back at your next retrospective discussing the same challenges, because there wasn’t enough time to put learnings into practice. 

That leads teams to feel that they don’t act on what they learn in retrospectives, which erodes respect for the retro. It’s a vicious cycle.

Meetings need to be spaced out enough that action items can be genuinely implemented and their impacts assessed.

Otherwise your team will drown in action items that can’t be implemented in the allotted time while technical debt and project backlogs pile up. There’s nothing worse than having action items linger from sprint to sprint. 


 

When retrospectives are too infrequentWhen retrospectives are too infrequent important issues are buried or forgotten, interpersonal frustrations build up and team culture begins to disintegrate

1. Important issues are buried or forgotten

Retrospectives are a chance for your team to voice any concerns or observations they have about inefficiencies. Having regular retrospectives ensures your team are raising important findings during the course of a project. 

When retrospectives are too infrequent there’s no mechanism to regularly identify improvements. Instead, your team will struggle on, weighed down by undiagnosed inefficiencies that could be easily resolved. 

If it’s clear that issues are persisting longer than they should be, you might need to make your retrospectives more frequent. 

Another thing to note is that if you're trying to reflect on a whole quarter, and only have one meeting to do it, you forget important things. This means feedback becomes broad and non-specific because you're trying to find patterns across a long space of time. 

So instead of saying “one press release got stuck in review and that caused a delay we could have avoided” you end up saying “we reviewed press releases pretty quickly in general,” which is less useful.

2. Interpersonal frustrations build up 

Your retrospective is not only a time to evaluate work, but also to connect with each other. If something isn’t working properly, your team members have an opportunity to explain why and work together to make a change -- turning tension into collaboration. It’s also a chance to express to other team-mates if there’s a better way to work together. 

If your retrospectives are too infrequent, frustrations can build up within your team that negatively impact productivity and team morale. 

Retrospectives work because they are built on the assumption that everyone can be honest with each other. Being regular with your retrospectives prevents team frustrations building up and becoming toxic.  


3. Your team culture begins to disintegrate

Social check-ins are a key component of our retrospectives at Parabol. For us, retrospectives aren’t just a time to discover lessons-learned, but also to connect with each other on a personal level

This step is particularly important for fully distributed or remote teams that need to work even harder to build social cohesion. Social check-ins also prime your team to share the kinds of issues and frustrations that serve as the foundation for really fruitful discussions and important improvements. 

Taking the time to build personal context about your team members helps you develop stronger working relationships and culture. The format of a retrospective is geared towards building strong relationships. 

Retrospectives are all about opening up and sharing what isn’t working for you. But they are also about receiving validation from the team that what you say matters and that everyone will pitch in to solve the problem.

It’s a fact that social bonds make teams resilient and motivated

If you’re not meeting regularly enough those bonds can begin to disintegrate, which might cause conflict in your team.


 

So how often should you run a retrospective?

Retrospectives should match the rhythm of the work they're evaluating, according to Aaron Dignan

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to how often you should run a retrospective, but there’s a lot of guidance out there about how long a sprint should be, and we can use those as a starting place. 

Developing your sprint length will help you decide how often to hold retrospectives. 

According to Scrum methodology, a sprint should last for a period of up to 4 weeks, and the corresponding retrospective should be no more than 4 hours

But in reality you might find that 4 weeks is a bit too long. 

Most agile coaches suggest that it’s better to start off with shorter sprints for new teams. Shorter sprints ensure learnings don’t get lost, frustrations don’t build up, and you have enough contact to build a strong team culture from the get go. 

As more teams go fully remote you have more options to be flexible. Jumping on a video call for more than two hours can be really exhausting, so with shorter sprints you’ll probably enjoy your retros more as well. 

At the time of writing, over 1,000 retrospectives are held every week on Parabol – our free agile retrospectives tool. So we wondered if the data of our users had an interesting story to tell us about how often teams run retrospectives. 

We found that the majority of users run a retro at least every 2 weeks.

How often do users engage in retrospectives

When looking at how frequently users come back to run another retro, users commonly come back every 7 or 14 days. 

After running a retrospective, teams commonly run another after 7 or 14 days.

Most users spend 30 to 90 minutes in a retrospective, but teams that gather feedback asynchronously typically take 2 to 5 days to run their retrospectives. 

How long do sprint retrospectives take?

Finding the right sprint length is all about finding a balance between giving people the space for ‘deep work’ and the opportunity to identify problems before they become ingrained.

According to Aaron Dignan, founder of The Ready and author of the book Brave New Work:

“Retrospectives should match the rhythm of the work they're evaluating. So, if we're talking about a company or institution, it might be quarterly, or even yearly. But for a project team on the ground, it might be monthly or even weekly. The questions to ask yourself are, "How fast are we learning? How fast do we want to learn?"

As a rule of thumb, he says that teams should:

Start with what intuitively feels like too short a sprint, and then expand the length based on what you experience. It's easier to let the rope out than it is to take it in.”

Here at Parabol, we’ve developed a useful three step process to make the process as simple as possible: Begin, Reflect, Adapt


 

Begin, Reflect and Adapt to find your meeting cadence

As you’re thinking about starting to do retros, here’s a simple three-step process to help.

Parabol Begin Reflect Adapt

1. Begin

If your team hasn’t done retros before: 

    • Start running retros after every sprint
    • If your sprints are long, consider mid-sprint and end-of-sprint retros 
    • If you don’t use sprints at all, you should start by running regular retrospectives every 7-10 days. 

The most important thing is to start by starting. 

Regular retrospectives help you build relationships, a team culture, and a method of working together better. 

Particularly when you form a new team, running more regular retrospectives will give your team the chance to express issues and fast-track triaging and resolving problems.

If you’re joining a team that’s been together for a while, there can be cobwebs that need to be aired out or tensions around whatever shift brought you to the team.

Lastly, however long your team has been together, if you’re considering starting to do retros, there’s likely an underlying reason why you’re considering it. The best way to address that reason is to start with a retro. 

Whether the team is old or new, the advice is really the same – just get started and iron out the details along the way.

 

2. Reflect

Once you’ve run a few retrospectives with your new team, you’ll want to get a bit meta and start running retrospectives on your retrospectives: Ask your team to give feedback on the retrospective process. 

Alongside other feedback, your team will know or at least have a perspective on whether retrospectives are taking place too often or not often enough. 

Ask yourself and your team, are retrospectives taking place too often or not often enough? Is there enough time between retros to get meaningful work done?

In Parabol, you can even create a custom format if you want this type of specific feedback

This feedback should inform the next step, which is to adapt. 

 

3. Adapt

Try adapting retrospectives to every 2-3 weeks, or some more relaxed time frame once your team have built strong relationships and a team culture. This could mean switching up exactly when you hold retros - perhaps you want to try running them after every other sprint or only at the ends of projects. 

If you don’t shift to a more relaxed cadence, you may find your team falling into the pitfalls of too-frequent retros: your team loses respect and there’s not enough time for deep work or not enough time to implement changes. 

You may also find that your team wants to bite off bigger improvements and so needs more time between retros for that as well.  

Remember, it’s all about striking a balance. Ideally your retrospective should deliver a good number of insights and action items while allowing your team to make real progress with their work

If you use retrospectives for projects, think about whether there’s an existing cadence to consider. Do you have to do monthly reporting for your client? Maybe your all-hands meeting is every two weeks? These kinds of events are also great triggers for running regular retrospectives.

At Parabol, we use two week sprint cycles, which leaves our schedules looking something like this:  Parabol's sprint cycle, including retrospectives

Only 7% of our team time is spent in meetings, with the rest reserved for solo or paired work. That gives us a good balance between ‘deep work’ and retrospectives. This is something you will want to adapt to the context of your team and experiment with so you can find your cadence. 

 

Conclusion

There is no cookie cutter approach to how often you should schedule retrospectives. The most important thing is to start somewhere and give time for your meeting cadence to emerge organically. 

If you’re starting a new team, you should:

1. Begin: If there’s no existing rhythms to plug into, start with regular retrospectives every 7-10 days

2. Reflect: Ask your team to reflect on whether the retrospective interval is optimal

3. Adapt: Extend or contract your retrospective interval according to your needs (2-3 weeks for most teams)

At Parabol, we schedule retrospectives at the end of every 2 weeks. That works great for us. But you might find an interval that’s even better for you. 

Remember, retrospectives can take place at any interval you want them to. If your key project milestones are at the end of every month, then hold your retrospectives every month. It all depends on the context of your work and your team. 

When you start running retrospectives, there are a few tips you can take away:

  • Getting your sprint length right helps you optimise team performance
  • Having too many retrospectives can damage morale and respect for the process
  • Retrospectives should take place at regular intervals to encourage continuous improvement
  • Retrospectives should never be skipped
  • Finding what works best for your team is more important than copying what others do

You should now be ready to start setting your sprint length, organising your retrospectives, and pulling in insights that boost your team’s performance! 

Have any other tips to add? 

Let us know by sending an email to love@parabol.co!

Happy retrospecting!

Gareth Davies

Gareth Davies spends his time helping people and organisations around the world communicate better. He's a passionate advocate of remote work and responsible leadership.

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