Part II: Help Your Team Identify Problems and Achieve Goals
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 run a retrospective meeting, you will identify ways to improve future agile retros, find methods for soliciting and implementing feedback, and discover small adjustments that could have big results in your next retro or sprint..
In this article, we’ll cover agile retro ideas 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:
We’ll start by taking a look at some of the popular retrospective techniques and formats that leaders can use to improve the structure of their meetings and help them reach their goals.
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. Indeed, always iterating is the driving force of all continuous improvement.
Often, what leaders need to help 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 led and risk devolving into arguments or complaint forums for the team. By defining a framework to follow in your next meeting or using an online retrospective tool, 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.
We know—agile 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:
A strengths-based scrum 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 use those to drive change and improvement during the next sprint.
A strength-based retrospective includes two steps:
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:
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.
An example of a strengths-based retrospective is Parabol’s Winning Streak retro template.
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:
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.
It’s also a great option to celebrate success when your team is on a winning streak!
The Mountain Climber retrospective 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 or draw out four columns for reflections, including everything a hiker might need: ropes (enablers), boulders (impediments), weather (mood and things out of the team’s control), and first aid (help needed).
Explain to the team that hiking is a metaphor for the scrum retrospective, just like the Sailboat retrospective.
Ask that your team considers the impediments (blockers) that might impede them 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 four categories (blockers, risks, enablers, and help) 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.
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 create 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.
Zoom’s breakout rooms provide a handy way to do this retrospective idea remotely! Alternatively, create 1x1 calls in Slack or Microsoft Teams.
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, 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. Ask your team to visualise a basketball court and to consider what their role on the team would be.
Have them write out the tasks they performed during the last sprint.
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 and work as a team in the future.
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.
Remember the rhyme about the three little pigs?
One built a house of straw, one built a house of sticks, and one built a house of bricks.
When the daring wolf came rolling into town set on destruction (and feeling more than a bit peckish), it was easy to destroy the houses of straw and sticks. But the house of bricks… well, that was much more difficult.
Did you know there's a Three Little Pigs retrospective template?
Using the story of the three little pigs is a great way of analysing the build state of your product or the progress of your work. Ask your team to reflect on:
As a facilitator you can encourage your team to focus not just on the current sprint, but also the state of the product, or more broadly, team relations. Maybe internal communication could do with a bit more work, for example. You can choose to direct this retrospective in whichever way you want.
The three little pigs retrospective is also helpful for informing the sprint planning process by encouraging the team to identify areas of weakness that can be transformed from sticks to bricks in the next sprint.
Many retrospectives try to get a good balance between examining the work of a previous sprint and the team dynamics. When you’re working intensively in 2 week sprints it’s a good idea to check-in every now and again on how folks are feeling about the work they do.
So why not try the Energy Levels retrospective?
The energy levels retrospective asks team members to reflect on which parts of their work they feel excited about (high energy), which they feel good about (medium energy) and which parts they find difficult or boring (low energy). The purpose of this agile retrospective is to help identify how to improve the quality of work for each staff member and to improve how the team works together.
Try asking your team:
As a facilitator, an energy level retrospective can help you identify where work should be shifted around to keep everyone happy. Maybe person X finds something exciting that person Y finds difficult, and vice versa.
This is a great scrum retrospective for new teams to run in their first 2-3 months together, since it helps you to understand who likes doing what and how to keep the team energized.
Follow up with the team by asking:
This format can also help you gauge the team’s energy level at the end of the sprint and going into the next one. If that low energy column is looking very busy, then you can take some action to help energise the team before the next sprint.
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:
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.
The best retrospectives are when teams have psychological safety and feel comfortable about expressing what went well and what could have gone better. So try warming your team up with a small icebreaker or a game to create a safe and positive atmosphere. Icebreakers get everyone talking at the start of the meeting and help all team members feel included.
Remember: creating a safe and inclusive space helps the team be honest and open
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?”
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?”
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?”
The retrospective techniques that we outlined in this article are each attached to very specific goals:
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