5 Effective Sprint Retrospective Techniques

Part II: Help Your Team Identify Problems and Achieve Goals

 

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So — you’ve run a few sprint retrospective meetings and had mixed results. You might have reviewed a previous sprint and were able to identify some areas for improvement, but weren’t really able to get everything that you were hoping for out of bringing the team together. Don’t worry, it’s a common problem. Running an effective sprint retrospective is hard. They take careful planning and execution to yield the results that you’re hoping for.

The good news is that your sprint retrospective will get better with experience. Every time that you convene for a meeting you will be able to identify areas where the meeting could have been improved, where feedback could have been better solicited and implemented, and how small adjustments to the techniques used in the meeting could have big results on the next one.

In this article, we’ll cover techniques and tips that will help you to level up your next sprint retrospective meeting. Using some of the techniques outlined in this article you’ll be able to:

  • Solicit better, more actionable feedback from your team during sprint retrospective meetings.

  • Define a structure that helps your next retrospective to stay on track and productive.

  • Gain a deeper understanding of how your team truly felt about the previous sprint and design solutions that answer their biggest concerns, resulting in a smoother collaboration during the next sprint.

  • Achieve very specific goals in each retrospective meeting.

We’ll start by taking a look at some of the popular techniques and formats that retrospective leaders can use to improve the structure of their meetings and help them reach their goals.

Why You Need New Techniques

If you’re reading this article there is a good chance that your previous sprint retrospective meeting didn’t go as planned. It could have still been a productive and helpful meeting, but there is nothing wrong with recognizing that there is room for improvement.

Often, what retrospective meeting leaders need to get over this hump are just a few new techniques and formats. These formats can provide you with a fresh way to tackle the common beats of sprint retrospective meetings and keep your team engaged, while solving particular problems that come with running retrospectives.

Too often sprint retrospective meetings are loosely lead and risk devolving  into arguments or complaint forums for the team. By defining a framework to follow in your next meeting, you not only ensure that your meeting stays on track and is productive but also that you are hitting all of the points that you need to in order to solicit the best possible feedback.

These frameworks will help you to target new goals and check off old goals that have remained unobtained for far too long. Before your next sprint retrospective meeting, consider using some of the following techniques:

 

Fresh Sprint Retrospective Formats for Improvement

We know—retrospectives are supposed to be a somewhat freeform, team-driven exercise. The idea is for the discussions to go wherever they are taken, based on the feedback that the team is providing. To some, using a pre-defined format for your retrospective meetings might seem counterproductive.

However, it’s important to understand that defining a format for your meeting doesn’t hinder your ability to deviate from it when necessary or go more toward a freeform discussion when it makes sense. Defining a format for your next retrospective meeting will help you to stay on track, touch on all of the points and subjects that you intend to hit, and ensure that you aren’t just outlining problems, but designing solutions to them as well.

Let’s take a look at some popular sprint retrospective formats that you can use to direct your next meeting and facilitate the best possible outcome:

 

Strengths-Based

A strengths-based retrospective provides a different approach to a familiar concept. The goal of this technique is to identify where the strengths of your team lie and using those to drive change and improvement during the next sprint.

A strength-based retrospective includes two steps:

  • Discovering strengths.

  • Defining the actions that use those strengths.

First, ask your team to think of a success that they had during the last sprint. What were they able to accomplish above and beyond the team’s expectations that produced benefits from the team, company, or customers. Then ask themselves a series of questions:

  • How did we do it? What did we do to make it successful?

  • What helped us do it? Which skills made the difference?

  • How did being part of a team help to realize it? What did team members do to help you?

These questions will help your team to provide visibility to the good things they did during the last sprint and explore the strengths that made those outcomes possible.

Then, you ask your team to define actions. Consider a problem that they had during the previous sprint that they are likely to face again. Then ask these questions:

  • How can you use your individual or team strengths to solve this problem?

  • What would you do more frequently that would help prevent the problem from happening again?

  • Which actions can you take, which you are already capable of?

This technique will help your team to identify problems that they faced during the previous sprint and connect those problems to the internal strengths within the team to solve them moving forward.

 

Mountain Hiking

The “Mountain Hiking” technique portrays your sprint and project as a situation similar to a long mountain hike. There are hurdles and risks that may slow the group down as they move toward the top of the mountain, or, the main goal of the sprint.

Draw a picture of a mountain hiking scene for your team. Include everything a hiker might encounter on a dangerous hike — helmets, ropes, inclement weather, and steep slopes. It should look something like this:

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Source: Madhavi Ledalla

 

Explain to the team that hiking is a visual metaphor for the retrospective. Ask that your team considers the impediments (blockers) that might impede your team from reaching their goals (the peak). Then, ask them to consider the risks that might be outside of the team’s control like poor weather in the mountain climbing example. Alternatively, what are the tools and forces that help the team to scale the mountain?

Ask that the team brainstorm ideas for all three categories (blockers, risks, enablers) and then connect the ideas that they come up with to data points from the sprint. With those laid out, connect the ideas they generated to goals that will help to facilitate a better outcome.

 

Each One Meets All

Here’s a great technique for running effective retrospectives within teams where the participants might not know each other that well. This technique is also applicable to long projects that have experienced significant turnover. The goal is to facilitate an environment where the team members feel at ease giving each other personal feedback and have an opportunity to interact with other members of the team they may not know personally.  

In the room, build an inner circle and an outer circle with chairs. Each chair in the inner circle faces outward toward a chair in the outer circle, while the outer circle chairs face inward. That way, when the participants sit down they are facing a partner from the other circle.

Ask that your team members give feedback to the partner that they are facing. Give them time to make small talk and get a feel for each other if they have never met before. Set a reasonable amount of time for each interaction. When the first round of feedback is finished, the outer circle participants will get up and move one chair to the right, pairing them with a new partner from the inner circle.

Repeat this process until you have gone around the circle and people have been paired up with their original partner. Once complete, the inner circle and outer circle groups split, forming their own inner and outer circles at opposite sides of the room, giving both groups a chance to meet each other and provide each other with feedback. Continue until everyone has met everyone else in the room.

This technique provides a fun and interesting way for everyone on the team to get to know each other and provide each other with feedback from the sprint. Each One Meets All could be compared to “speed dating” in the sprint retrospective sense.

 

Basketball

The basketball technique revolves around the idea that an agile team is not all that dissimilar from a team of basketball players. In the metaphor, sprints and projects are like games — you need effective collaboration from people playing their positions to come out on top.

Like positions on a basketball team, each person on an agile development team must play different roles—developers, designers, subject-matter experts, etc.—to come together to complete the larger goal and win. In order to do that, the each player on the team has to learn and refine what’s expected of each other to  work successfully as a team.

The meeting revolves around an exercise. Draw this picture for your team:

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Source: Medhavi Ledalla

Ask each team member to consider their role on the team. Have them write out the tasks they performed during the last sprint. Do they point at recurring responsibilities? What position do those responsibilities add up to? ? In basketball, the point guard is the passer and ball-handler, moving the ball forward so the other team can score. The center is the rebounder and responsible for near-basket defense. What do the different roles on your agile team look like? Encourage your team members to go beyond their titles of “developer” or “designer” and think of positions that are more meaningful to your team like “new technology evaluator” or “rapid prototyper”. It’s even ok if team members discover they are playing more than one position!

Ask that your team write down one shared team goal. Then ask them to discuss the points where they will have to come together, as depicted in the “Future State” in the image above. Instruct your team to consider all of the potential bottlenecks and brainstorm steps they can take to move toward becoming a more collaborative and unified team.

 

Sprint Retrospective Ideas to Facilitate Your New Techniques

Now that we have covered some effective and interesting techniques for retrospective meetings, it only seems right to provide some no-nonsense sprint retrospective ideas that will help you execute those techniques and formats. As you begin to plan your next post-sprint get-together, keep these tips in mind:

 

Routine is Good and Practice makes Perfect

Clichés, yes, but important ones. One of the big issues that many companies run into is that the employees on their teams don’t have a full understanding of what a retrospective should entail. That’s why we’ve stressed so heavily how important it is that you set the right tone. The more familiar that your employees are with what a retrospective is and what you are hoping to achieve from one, the more routinely retrospectives will yield those results.

Getting your teams into the habit of holding effective retrospectives isn’t just for their own benefit, either. Meeting leaders will improve with more practice as well. More experience means a better understanding of what delivers results, and what to avoid as it applies to your specific company and employee personalities.

Remember: the only truly wrong way to do a retrospective is not to do one.

 

Nail Down Metrics to Track

You have to take a data-based approach to evaluate the success of your sprints and retrospective meetings. Early on in the project, you should identify 2-3 key metrics that you will use to gauge your own success. Be open to changing these metrics in the future as the project begins to flesh itself out. Then, every retrospective should include a look at the reporting and evaluation of these metrics. You have to know where you want to optimize for brainstorming effective post-retrospective tasks.

Ask, “what should we measure and report on next retrospective?”

 

Create A Sense of Responsibility

Too often teams will spend the retrospective complaining about how things went wrong without taking responsibility for their own faults. Set the tone on this. Take responsibility for things that you yourself may have done wrong during the last sprint. When people share complaints, encourage them to dive deeper into how they themselves could have rectified the situation.

Ask, “what could you have done differently?”

 

 

Balance Negative and Positive

Don’t let your retrospective turn into a complaint-fest. On the other hand, don’t be overly positive in your evaluations either. Find the right balance between positive and negative. Let your team know what they did right, but also identify areas for improvement on a team-wide and individual level. The strengths-based technique we discussed above is an excellent format for remedying this issue. It helps to highlight the positives of the last sprint and tie those positives to the problems that were faced, without letting things devolve into unproductive gripes.

Ask, “what went well?” or, “what did we do to stop this situation from being even worse?”

 

Leave with a Concrete List of Tasks

Documentation makes things stick. You should never leave your retrospective without a fresh list of tasks and goals to input into your project management solution. Make sure that you end your meeting with a well-defined list that the entire team helped to create. Individual team members should also leave the meeting with their own action items in hand. Leaving without concrete steps will cause important tasks to fall through the cracks and diminish the effectiveness of the meeting as a whole.

Ask, “what’s the first step we could take?”

 

Use These Retrospective Techniques to Achieve Goals

The retrospective techniques that we outlined in this article are each attached to very specific goals. The “Basketball” technique helps teams to see how their individual skills can come together to solve team-wide problems. The “Fly High” technique focuses on helping teams to identify which problems can be solved within the team and which will need escalation to senior management. The “Strengths-Based” technique helps set a positive tone for the meeting and attaches issues the team faced to strengths the team has that can solve the issue.

These techniques provide a basic framework for solving common issues with sprint retrospective meetings. They keep your team focused on the most important aspects of your particular retrospective and help to bring your team together to solve problems and achieve goals.

 

Go back and read Part I: Effective Retrospectives, a Comprehensive Guide