Which Questions do you Ask in Retrospectives?

Agile Retrospective QuestionNew: The Retrospective Exercises Toolbox helps you to design your own Valuable Agile Retrospectives! 

One technique often used in agile retrospectives is to ask questions to the Scrum team, and collect and cluster the answers. Based upon that, improvements can be defined that the team can do in the next sprint, which help the team to improve continuously. Asking questions is a technique that is easy to learn, but the effectiveness depends on the questions that you ask to the team. So let’s explore the questions that you can ask in a  retrospectives?

Asking Questions is a retrospective technique which is included in the Pocket Book on Agile Retrospectives that Luis Goncalves and I have written. Order your copy on Amazon! Feel free to contact me and let me know what you think of our book!

Four Key Questions

When I start with a team that is new to retrospectives, I often use The four key questions. These questions come from the book Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews, by Norm Kerth. The questions are:

  • What did we do well, that if we don’t discuss we might forget?
  • What did we learn?
  • What should we do differently next time?
  • What still puzzles us?

The book from Norm Kerth was originally intended for project retrospective, but my experience is that much of it is also useful in agile retrospectives. I combine it with the Agile Retrospectives book from Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. There are some new books recently released on retrospectives, but I didn’t have a chance to read them yet.

I’ve been using the 4 retrospective questions for many years, for me they have shown to be very effective. I like the question “What did we do well”, it’s a Solution Focused approach to find strengths which can be deployed to improve further. The addition “if we don’t discuss we might forget” makes this question even stronger: If something good happened by accident, that’s great, but what can you do to assure that you will keep on doing it? Also the question “what puzzles us” has given very useful insights for teams, by revealing things which had remained unspoken before I asked the question.

Valuable Retrospective Questions

Working with agile and non-agile teams, I’ve been doing project evaluations, audits, assessments using the CMMI and the People-CMM, retrospectives, and many other kinds of feedback sessions. Below the questions that I often use, that have helped teams to find things that they could improve upon:

  • What helps you to be successful as a team?
  • How did you do it?
  • Where and when did it go wrong in this sprint?
  • What do you expect, from who?
  • Which tools or techniques proved to be useful? Which not?
  • What is you biggest impediment?
  • If you could change 1 thing, what would it be?
  • What caused the problems that you had in this sprint?

The trick is to pick the ones that help the team to get insight into the main / urgent issues and improvement potential, and adjust questions where needed during the retrospective.

Asking why?

One of the most valuable questions that I have experienced in retrospectives is asking why? Some examples are:

  • Why did you do it like this?
  • Why did this (or didn’t this) work for you?
  • Why do you consider something to be important?
  • Why do you feel this way?
  • Why did you decide to work together on this?

Why is also a great follow up questions for any of questions from the first list, it helps you and your team to create a better understanding of the problem that you are investigating.

Some people find it difficult to ask why, because they think or have experienced that people feel offended if they ask why. I have less difficulty with the why question, which may be because I have a genuine interest to understand situations and how people work together, without judging them. Ones people know me, a “why” question doesn’t scare them.

Other Techniques for Retrospectives

There are a lot of techniques for retrospectives. Getting Business Value out of Agile Retrospectives describes many of them that I have used in retrospectives. Some examples are Root Cause Analysis, Timelines, Solution Focused and the Perfection Game.

I vary retrospective techniques,  it has happened more then once that I decided to change the approach while I was in the retrospective meeting, because another approach seemed more appropriate for the situation at hand. Or just to try something new, to keep the team interested in doing retrospectives.

Which Questions do you Ask?

Retrospectives are a great way for teams to improve their way of working, to become more agile and lean. Getting actions out of a retrospective that are doable, and getting them done helps teams to learn and improve continuously. I’m always interested to hear about experiences with retrospectives, there is still a lot that we can learn!

So I’d like to hear from you: Do you do Retrospectives? Which Questions do you ask?

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About BenLinders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.
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6 Responses to Which Questions do you Ask in Retrospectives?

  1. BenLinders says:

    I posted this blog also in two groups on LinkedIn, in both groups there’s a great discussion ongoing right now. Feel free to join in, or react directly on this blog with a comment.

    LinkedIn discussion in the Agile Coaching group

    LinkedIn discussion in the Retrospectives group

  2. Pingback: Some Thoughtful Retrospective Questions | Chris Gagné

  3. Pingback: The Business Value of Agile Retrospectives | Bridge Global IT Staffing

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