What’s an Agile Retrospective and Why Would You Do It?

agile-retrospectiveThe agile manifesto proposes that a “team reflects on how to become more effective”. Agile retrospectives can be used to inspect and adapt the way of working. But sometimes teams struggle to figure out what an agile retrospective is? And they wonder why they should do them? Without further ado, here’s an introduction to agile retrospectives, to help you to get started with them.

Design your own Valuable Agile Retrospectives with the Retrospective Exercises Toolbox!

The Agile Retrospective

An agile retrospective, or sprint retrospective as Scrum calls it, is a practice used by teams to reflect on their way of working, and to continuously become better in what they do.

The 12th agile principle states:

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

The whole team attends the retrospective meeting, where they “inspect” how the iteration (sprint) has been done, and decide what and how they want to “adapt” their processes to improve.  The actions coming out of a retrospective are communicated and done in the next iteration. That makes retrospectives an effective way to do short cycled improvement.

The retrospective facilitator (often the Scrum master) should have a toolbox of retrospective techniques, and be able to pick the most effective one. Some of the techniques to do retrospectives are asking questionsstate your feelings with 1 word5 times why (Root Causes) or asking why, Agile Self-assessment Gamesolution focused/strengths and retrospective of retrospectives.

There’s my book about Valuable Agile Retrospectives if you want to learn more exercises.

To assure that actions from a retrospective are done, they can be brought into the team planning, and made visible by putting them on the planning board. User stories can be used to plan and track bigger improvements, describing who, what and why. Every retrospective meeting starts by looking at the actions from the previous meeting, to see if they are finished (and to take action if not).

Do you want to know more about retrospectives? In 2014 Luis Gonçalves and I published the bestseller Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives. This book helps you to get benefits from doing retrospectives by giving you a toolbox of retrospective techniques.

Retrospective Prime Directive

It’s crucial to have an open culture in agile retrospectives where team members speak up. In his book Project Retrospectives, Norm Kerth defined the Prime Directive; its purpose is to assure that a retrospective is a positive and effective event:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

With the Prime Directive, retrospectives become an effective team gathering where people learn from each other and find solutions to improve their way of working.

Why would you do retrospectives?

Insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results. So if you want to solve the problems that you are having, and deliver more value to your customers, you have to change the way you do your work. That is why agile promotes the usage of retrospectives: To help teams to solve problems and improve themselves!

What makes retrospectives different, and what’s the benefit of doing them? One retrospective benefit is that they give power to the team. Since the team members feel empowered, there will be little resistance to do the changes that need to be done.

Another benefit is that the actions that are agreed in a retrospective are done by the team members, there is no hand-over! The team analyses what happened, defines the actions, and team members do them. This is much more effective, and also faster and cheaper :-) .

These benefits make retrospectives a better way to do improvements. And they explain why retrospectives are one of the success factors for using scrum and getting benefits. You can use different retrospective techniques to get business value out of retrospectives. And retrospectives are also a great tool to establish and maintain stable teams, and help them to become agile and lean.

How to start with retrospectives

There are different ways to introduce retrospectives. You can train Scrum masters and learn them how to facilitate effective agile retrospectives. And then start doing them with your agile teams, and reflect (of course the way you do retrospectives can also be improved 🙂 ).

I started by doing agile retrospectives in “stealth mode”, not using the term retrospective but just calling its an evaluation. Whatever way you chose, be sure to keep on doing retrospectives. Even if things seem to go well, there are always ways to improve!

Retrospective Facilitator Tools

The following books and tools are available:

Note: This highly popular article has been updated on December 21, 2016, and February 9, 2018.

Ben Linders

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.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Joao Fernandes

    One thing you didn’t cover and that I find valuable is that retrospectives are a way for the team to look with a different perspective on the work they delivered to customers.

    This allows you to distance yourself from the stress of the milestone and really understand if the project was really useful or not. This allows you to avoid making the same mistakes on future projects.

    At my team we opted for not doing iteration retrospectives, but project retrospectives. Since our projects usually don’t take longer than 3 months, it works best for us.

    I’ve blogged about one retrospective we did after a major launch. Maybe you’ll find it interesting to learn about the mistakes we were doing, and how a retrospective set us back on track.

    1. BenLinders

      Thanks Joao.

      There are many benefits that retrospectives can bring, I wrote a series of blogs on this:

      Actions by the team
      Empowering teams
      Changes that stick

      I fully agree with you that teams take a different perspective in the retrospective, reflecting on how they did it and learn from that. It is time well spend!

      You mentioned blogging about a retrospective after a major launch. Can you supply the link as this sounds really interesting!

      1. Joao Fernandes

        Sorry about that. I forgot to include a link to my post.
        Here it is: OutSystems Platform 9: A Retrospective

        It talks about two kinds of retrospectives: A retrospective done by the whole engineering organisation, and another done by the team I work in.

        Thanks for your interest!

        1. BenLinders

          Thanks for sharing your experiences with retrospectives Joao. Great to see how much value you got out of it.

          You mentioned that imposing a fixed schedule didn’t work. I agree with you, as a facilitator it usually works best to allow flexibility. Of course when things take longer than expected you can check if people still find it valuable to continue. If they do, then take the time that is needed to explore and learn, it will be a good investment!

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