5 Steps to Holding Effective Sprint Retrospectives

by Sean Blake, Head of Marketing

15 Apr 2021

The retrospective is a critical part of the agile process, providing an outlet for teams to discuss how they can improve. A sprint retrospective comes at the end of each sprint and offers the team an opportunity to assess their processes.

What went well? What didn’t go so well? What does the team need to do to improve next time? Agile is all about learning and iterating. Every time you complete a sprint, there are lessons to be learned. Agile continually takes what a team learns — the good, the bad, and the bland — and turns those experiences into actionable improvements.

This post will dig into sprint retrospectives, including the benefits, how they fit within the Scrum process, how to run an effective sprint retrospective meeting, and common mistakes to avoid.

The purpose of the sprint retrospective

sprint retrospective: GIF of Homer Simpson talking

The sprint retrospective is a dedicated time for team discussion. The time is allotted at the end of each sprint so that all team members can examine what went well and what needs to change. It’s all part of the greater agile methodology of continually improving your processes as you learn more. There’s no one set way of doing things, and there’s always room to become more efficient and effective.

A sprint retrospective:

  • Encourages a continuous improvement mindset
  • Creates a safe space for sharing positive and constructive feedback
  • Gives everyone on the team an opportunity to express thoughts, ideas, and experiences
  • Provides feedback in real-time after each sprint
  • Brings the team together around common goals
  • Exposes any issues from the previous sprint that are holding the team back
  • Informs leadership of success and potential roadblocks
  • Helps product owners make decisions for the next sprint planning
  • Sets the team on a positive path for moving into the next sprint

How the sprint retrospective fits within the Scrum process

The type of retrospective you hold depends on the type of sprint or agile methodology your team practices. One of the most common methodologies in software development is the Scrum framework.

A Scrum team has three types of roles:

  • Product Owner
  • Scrum Master
  • Development team

At the beginning of each Scrum, the product owner decides which items from the overall product backlog are moved to the sprint backlog to be completed over the upcoming 2-4 week sprint. The exact sprint timeframe is set in advance.

The Scrum is made up of four distinct ceremonies or events:

After planning is complete and the team knows which backlog items they are going to tackle for the current sprint, the work begins. The team checks in throughout the sprint via a daily Scrum or stand-up meeting. This quick but essential check-in allows the Scrum team to discuss their progress and address any potential roadblocks on a daily basis.

The sprint review meeting takes place at the end of the sprint; it’s an opportunity for Scrum team members to showcase the work accomplished during the sprint. This could be an internal presentation or a more formal demo to stakeholders.

Last comes the incredibly important Scrum retrospective. During this time, the team can discuss what went well and what could be improved so the upcoming sprint can run more efficiently. Anything that’s learned along the way or discovered in the retrospective is brought into the next sprint planning session. This Scrum process repeats until there are no more product backlog items or the product is complete.

How to run an effective sprint retrospective meeting

sprint retrospective: Lion King GIF of Rafiki hitting Simba

The retrospective is a critical part of the agile process that should be treated with care and respect. Go in with a plan. Winging it might get you by, but everyone will get more out of the process if the person or people leading the retrospective is prepared.

Use our strategies below to run effective retrospectives that everyone looks forward to.

1. Ensure everyone’s voice is heard

The loudest voices in a sprint retrospective often get the most attention and speaking time, but they don’t necessarily have better insights than anyone else. Each person involved in the sprint process should be given an opportunity to speak.

If you find a few people are dominating the conversation or that some people never contribute, switch up your strategy to include everyone. Go around the room one by one with a question that each person needs to answer, such as “What do you think went well in this sprint?” or “What was your biggest challenge?”

2. Start, stop, continue

The start, stop, continue retrospective format can be expressed in many forms, but the general practice is the same. At the end of a sprint, you decide what you want to start doing, what you want to stop doing, and what you want to continue doing as you move into your next sprint. It’s a simple format that covers both what went well and what didn’t go so well.

Other versions of this exercise include the Rose Bud Thorn exercise, where participants share something positive, a budding opportunity, and a negative to improve upon. There’s also the Anchors and Sails exercise, where participants share what put wind in their sails (went well) and what anchored them down.

3. Establish specific action items

The retrospective is a waste of time if you don’t leave with specific action items. What is your team going to do about the issues brought up in the meeting? Ensure you keep track of the issues and the positive feedback people provide so that you can turn them into actionable tasks or goals before the meeting is complete.

You can’t implement absolutely every change that is brought up, but the discussion should give you a place to start. Work with the team to figure out what changes will provide the most impact. You can use an impact effort matrix or similar agile tools to make informed choices.

4. Retrospective the retrospective

Every now and again, take the time to review your retrospective. Ask for feedback from all team members on how the process could improve. What would make the experience easier on the team? What would they like to see implemented? What hasn’t been working during your recurring retros?

Wow, that’s getting a little meta, but it’s an important step. You need to continually assess your retrospective as well to make sure you’re getting the most out of the experience.

One thing to watch for: When people are bored, they engage less, which means it’s important to switch things up. You don’t want your retrospective process to run stagnant or lose its effectiveness.

5. Review action items at the next sprint retrospective

Make sure the hard work of your retrospective pays off. At the beginning of the next retrospective, take a small bit of time to review your previous action items. What goals and action items did you leave the last retrospective with? Did you accomplish what you set out to do, or do you still need to work at it?

Common retrospective mistakes to avoid

GIF of Moira Rose from Schitt's Creek

Avoid these common mistakes when running sprint retrospective meetings:

❌ Allowing a few people to dominate the conversation

❌ Not empowering softer voices

❌ Jumping to conclusions without a thorough discussion

❌ Asking the same questions over and over without mixing things up

❌ Forgetting about or not implementing the action items of the previous retrospective

❌ Skipping a retrospective due to lack of time or resources

❌ Forgetting about stakeholder and customer needs

❌ Failing to improve upon your retrospective process

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Sprint retrospectives help the entire team learn from each experience and improve. Doing them effectively means evaluating the retrospective itself, empowering voices, and listening to them. Additionally, don’t forget to hold them regularly or to include stakeholder and customer needs.

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