Spice up your Retro - A challenge to all practitioners

Retrospectives are the most essential of all Agile ceremonies

Few in the Agile world would disagree that Retrospectives make up an essential part of Agile. It is anchored in the Agile Principles as “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.”

We argue that it is the most essential of all Agile practices. Not only does it embody the agile purpose of continuous improvement, it also creates a learning culture. It is the engine that drives teams to perform better over time.

The only thing worse than no Retrospective is one without actions

The purpose of Retrospectives is to reflect and continuously improve: But how can you improve if you do not capture the things you want to improve and assess yourself against regularly?

A Retro without actions is a tick-in-the-agile-box activity, that makes teams ‘look agile’ (blindly following process) but prevents them from ‘being agile’ (learning and improving). 

A common complaint about Retros

We often hear teams criticising Retros for being dull, repetitive meetings without actual buy-in, that they may be helpful in the beginning but don’t add much value once the team has been working together for a while. 

One part of the complaint can be addressed by capturing actions and following up on them. The other part of the complaint points to a different problem: Repetitiveness. Retrospectives should happen at regular intervals, which means they should be repetitive in occurrence. But they should not be repetitive in nature.

What to do about it

Repetitive Retros lead to disengagement, boredom and thoughtless capturing of actions and annoyances (instead of achievements and challenges). It is therefore really important to vary the format of Retrospectives:

  • Changing the questions when introducing the ‘retro buckets’ will trigger different responses (Instead of ‘What went well’, ask ‘What did you achieve this week’ or ‘What should we continue to do next week’)
  • Changing the person facilitating a retro format and introducing it will encourage ownership
  • Changing visuals of a format drives engagement
  • Changing the story or theme of a retro can inject a bit of fun

Here is the Challenge

Run a different Retro format every time for the next 4 sprints. There are tons of different formats out there, ranging from simple to very intricate, from standard to specific-purpose formats. Below are a few links to different formats and explanations of how to use them.

Retro principles

Whichever Retro format you use, try and incorporate these principles*:

  • Set the scene. Introduce the format you chose and explain how it works. Think about what you want to get out of the team, how they should approach the board.
  • Gather data. Encourage them to think deeply about the achievements and challenges they encountered. Encourage them to assess themselves and the team against previous Retro items. Give them the time to reflect individually.
  • Generate insights. Identify the patterns and topics. Label them and prioritise if necessary. Which items are new, which are recurring? Why?
  • Decide what to do. Can you clarify a question within the next 5min? If yes, do. If no, decide on the action and transfer it to your physical board or into your continuous improvement space. For recurring items, either change the approach or accept the things that lie outside the circle of influence of the team and instead focus on how best to work within the constraint.
  • Closing. Review what you went through, which insights you gathered and which actions you agreed to. Make sure you keep the continuous improvement items visible throughout the following sprint and during the retro.

Remember, a Retrospective is not a blame-and-shame exercise, neither is it an individual performance review or a space to complain. It won't fix a dysfunctioning team. But it is the best way to drive continuous improvement and help make good teams great.

*A great resource to dive deeper into the world of Retrospectives is the book Agile Retrospectives, which outlines these principles in detail.

Tools and resources

Please share any observations you have on here, on twitter or via email. 

Retro Examples