If you are getting started with running sprint retrospectives, this is a good place to start! This is also a good refresher to get unstuck if you need to mix up your retrospectives approach. This guide will help you assess what kind of retro format is called for in your situation, execution steps, facilitator tips, and good practices. But first…
A retro or sprint retrospective is a team conversation that happens at the end of each sprint to reflect on how the previous sprint went and to find ways to improve for the next sprint. If you don’t run sprints, this also works at the end of a project or a defined work period. The whole point of a retro is to reflect, improve, and eventually become the most collaborative, fun, effective, butt-kicking team that squashes any task that stands in their way.
When I first learned about retros, I thought “what a simple concept that I could use in other areas of my life!” Why not have periodic check-ins for relationships, finances, health goals, etc? It seems obvious, but it’s easy to forget unless you are intentional about it. At Ample, our teams usually hold retros at the end of a project or every other week for ongoing work. The space for open communication and reflection helps us become the great teams that we are today.
To get started, you need to assess the situation you are working with. A good retro really starts before retro. As a good team leader, you need to take every opportunity to foster a great team. It means actively listening to others, empathizing with their situation, identifying team strengths and weaknesses, providing guidance, etc. The team needs to have a culture of respect, open communication, and psychological safety for effective retros to take place.
If you are facilitating team retros and you already know the team - great, you’re on your way to assess what kinds of retros you should run! If not, then get to know the team. If team members tend to be more quiet, introverted, and thoughtful, then facilitating a retro with time to reflect might be useful. If the team members tend to be more extroverted and quick collaborators who build off of each other's ideas, then a brainstorming-style retro might keep them more engaged. If some team members are going through difficult times in their personal life and their mental health needs to be prioritized, then know that will also affect their engagement level.
Retros should be facilitated by someone who is part of the team. If you are part of the team, then you should be aware of the day to day details. If the work is unfamiliar to you, or complex with many nuances, then you may have a tough time understanding the subject matter. Context helps! If you have no plans to be a part of the team, you should consider inviting someone on the team to run the retro. People are less likely to respect team improvement efforts if the lead is lacking context on their daily struggles.
Some teams appreciate consistency and would rather stick to the same format once they find something that strikes their vibe. Other teams might prefer the entertainment value of having a different format every sprint. Some teams are in between. Here’s some retro format suggestions.
The most basic format for a retro simply asks 3 questions:
And just because it’s basic doesn’t mean it’s ineffective. Personally, it’s my favorite method because it gets straight to the point.
To execute – create a board with 3 columns, each column with 1 question in the header. Everyone gets assigned a different colored “sticky note” so that you know who wrote the response.
In a 60 minute retro, give the team the first 10 minutes to answer “What worked well this sprint?” and “What didn’t work well?” Spend the next 35 minutes discussing team member’s responses. As you hear common themes, start moving/grouping the responses together. You can even ask the team to move their responses to other areas where they see similar concepts. This helps to create an affinity map where the bigger clusters might indicate higher priority areas that need to be solved for sooner. Spend the last 15 minutes discussing actionable items toward resolving any issues that have arised. Jot down ideas and experiments to try in the third column for “What can we do to improve?” Assign an owner to each action item to ensure that someone is responsible for seeing it through.
For remote teams, a board can be created using a platform like Miro. For in person teams, I find that super sticky post-it notes on a wall works best. (Don’t skimp on the cheap version of post-it notes because they will eventually end up on the floor, use these).
Here’s what ours tend to look like:
Ask your team what they Liked, Learned, Loathed, and Longed For this sprint. Some things are shared across the quadrants, but that’s okay.
To execute – create a four quadrant diagram with the Liked/Learned/Loathed/Longed For title in each quadrant. Similar to the exercise described above, assign a different colored “sticky note” so that you know who wrote the response. In a 60 minute retro, spend the first 10 minutes as heads down time for team members to fill out the board. Spend the next 40 minutes (10 minutes on each quadrant) discussing all of the quadrants. Affinity mapping as described above will help. Spend the final 10 minutes capturing action items to execute for the next sprint.
For remote teams, this Miro 4Ls template is helpful:
Is it smooth sailing or rough waters for your team? Your team can follow this format to find out. Individuals can jot down ideas for the following areas…
For in-person teams, get your illustration skills ready and recall a vivid island vacation because you will be drawing this format on a large whiteboard or easel pad on a wall. Don’t worry, your team won’t judge your drawing skills… too harshly. For remote teams, you can use an online template, like this Miro Sailboat template.
To execute - after you have a sailboat representation, follow the same drill as you would execute the other retro’s previously described – have some “sticky notes” ready for the team to jot down their ideas. In a 60 minute retro, spend the first 10 minutes as heads down time for team members to fill out the visual representation. Spend the next 40 minutes discussing each area. Keep affinity mapping as you hear common themes. Spend the final 10 minutes capturing action items to execute for the next sprint.
The purpose of a retro is to improve over time. This also applies to the retro format itself. Here’s some tips!
Consider pre-work. If your team tends to run out of time because there are too many topics, then consider assigning the team pre-work. The team can fill out the retro questions ahead of time that would allow time to create an affinity map prior to the retro. This way the conversation can start with the seemingly higher priority items.
Ask for feedback. Is the retro format working out for your team? Casually ask some of your team members. Requesting one on one feedback might yield more honest opinions. At times I’ve been told I speak too fast and that it’s distracting, other times I’ve found out others are ashamed of their accent in group conversation settings, and other times I’ve been told there’s no point in talking when someone else usually dominates the conversation. All of this is helpful feedback that can uncover other team problems that need to be addressed.
Take requests. It doesn’t always have to be your idea on how to improve retros, ask your team. Great ideas come from multiple people’s input. Involving your team in the direction of retros also increases engagement.
Pass the torch. It might make sense to ask someone else on the team to facilitate. Perhaps someone who is interested in running a retro to sharpen their facilitation & listening skills. Having a new facilitator also adds a sense of novelty and variety that can increase engagement.
Add variety. It’s good to keep things lively even if the team isn’t directly asking for it. You can rotate around other practical retro formats such as:
Or feature a random / pop culture theme:
If you have a budget available, combine a team building event with a retro. You can combine themes for continuity (such as a go-kart outing + the start/stop/continue retro).
Always check the time. Check the agenda. Communicate the agenda. Gently ask others to wrap up conversations when it’s time to move on. Respecting others also means respecting their time. If retros tend to drag on beyond their scheduled time, the team will start to dread retros (or any other meeting for that matter).
Plant a garden. Some conversation topics might go on a tangent that you simply won’t have time for during your 60 minute retro timebox. Add those topics to a “garden” section as a “seed” to discuss and grow later. Make sure you follow up on those topics at a later point when you have more time to discuss.
Equal voices are heard. Some team members speak loudly over others and some like to keep their thoughts to themselves. It is your job to ensure every smart and creative person on your team is heard equally even if this means gently quieting some and directly asking for the opinions of others.
It’s important to follow up on retro action items or experiments. Not only because you are trying to make things better for the team, but also to show the team that they were heard and their opinions matter enough to make positive changes.
Accountable party. By the end of the retro, every action item or experiment should be assigned an owner. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to do the task but they are responsible for delegating and making sure it gets done.
Try again. If you try an experiment to solve your issue and it doesn’t work, don’t just go back to doing the wrong thing. Try another experiment! Many of us go back to the old thing out of habit without trying another experiment to solve the issue.
There are thousands of ways to improve your team culture through retrospectives, and these are only a few ideas. Remember the end goal is to create a positive team culture that improves over time. If you want to learn more about any of these approaches, please contact us!
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