A Guide to the Sprint Retrospective

The sprint retrospective is an essential element when implementing agile project management methods. Learn how to set up and run an effective sprint retrospective.

Updated May 13, 2020

Many companies are adopting various agile project management methodologies, such as the popular scrum framework. The concept of continuous improvement is a core tenet of agile methodologies, and this idea manifests in the sprint retrospective.

The sprint retrospective serves as a cornerstone of scrum.

A survey by the Project Management Institute found 71% of organizations use an agile project management approach to projects.

I’ve participated in many sprint retrospectives, and experienced first-hand the effectiveness of these retrospectives in enhancing a team’s performance. Let’s walk through how to incorporate the concept at your organization.

Overview: What is a sprint retrospective?

The retrospective takes place at the end of a sprint. In scrum, a sprint represents a time-boxed interval of work, typically lasting one or two weeks, in which a project team completes some of a project’s deliverables.

Scrum uses meetings called scrum events, or scrum ceremonies. These events facilitate the success of a sprint, and the sprint retrospective is one of these events.

Once a sprint is completed, the sprint retrospective gives the project team a chance to reflect on the recent sprint and collect learnings. The team looks at what worked well to continue applying those elements to future sprints.

They also examine what didn't go well to identify needed changes and solutions to apply in the next sprint.

How to run a sprint retrospective

The idea sounds straightforward, but I’ve seen how a sprint retrospective can stall if it’s not implemented effectively. Follow these steps to execute a successful sprint retrospective as part of your project manager responsibilities.

Step 1: Preparation

Prep work enables your sprint retrospective to be a rewarding experience for the team. Observe what’s working well and what’s not as the sprint unfolds.

Record observations in real time, and note details that will help the team remember these occurrences during the retrospective.

At the retrospective meeting, this information can be used to summarize what happened during the sprint and serve to jog memories if the team is struggling to identify the positives and problems of the sprint.

Communication is a core step of the project management process. So one key preparation step is to set up a way to capture team ideas brought up during the retrospective.

A whiteboard is a popular project management tool to have team members write ideas on sticky notes that are posted on the whiteboard. Of course, that’s impossible if your team is dispersed across different locations.

You can accommodate remote members by using a virtual tool, such as an online document that all team members can access via a central repository, for example, Google Drive.

Tips for preparation

Scrum’s retrospective is one of the essential agile ceremonies. These tips can help you prepare for it.

  • Set up the right tools: Instead of using an online document or a physical whiteboard, consider a virtual whiteboard instead. Use project management software such as Trello, which provides a board that can be broken down into columns representing what worked well and what needs improvement. Trello’s digital cards can be used like sticky notes to capture ideas raised during the retrospective. Cards requiring follow-up can be assigned and tracked.
  • Identify existing action items: If your team performed a previous retrospective, review the outcome and status of any action items in your project tracker. This list should be incorporated into the upcoming sprint retrospective as an artifact to be reviewed.
Screenshot of Trello board

The Trello board can serve as your team’s virtual whiteboard with its digital cards replacing sticky notes.

Step 2: Kick-off

When you begin the retrospective, start by setting some ground rules. Let the group know the meeting is about improvement, not blame. Also, express that all feedback has value to encourage dialog.

Do a quick Quickly review what happened during the sprint. Discuss the work the team committed to delivering at the start of the sprint and compare it to the end result, reviewing reports such as a burndown chart.

Tips for the kick-off

Use these suggestions to begin an agile retrospective.

  • Rotate facilitators: Ask a different team member to facilitate the discussion at each retrospective. Sharing this responsibility creates a greater sense of openness, generates increased team participation, and keeps each sprint retrospective meeting fresh.
  • Perform an icebreaker: Before diving into a review of the sprint, consider performing a warm-up exercise or an icebreaker. A team can feel hesitant to share feedback in a group setting. It helps to begin the retrospective with a simple exercise like asking each person to describe in one word how they felt about the sprint. The goal is to create an environment where every team member feels comfortable sharing their thoughts.

Step 3: What worked well

Begin the team feedback process with what worked well during the sprint. This creates a positive environment, and motivates the team to pursue continuous improvement.

Ask team members their thoughts on the parts of the sprint that proved effective. Maybe it’s a new process tested, or a task that was completed faster than anticipated. Dig into why these items were successful to learn how to apply these successes to other aspects of the sprint.

Tips for what worked well

Here are recommendations to make the most of this portion of the meeting.

  • Jump start ideas: If no one wants to be the first team member to speak up, use the notes compiled during the prep stage to spark ideas and get the discussion going.
  • Use prompts: If the discussion is dominated by a few people, use prompting questions to get feedback from others. Ask quiet team members to chime in about the factors that contributed to team success, or the most rewarding part of the sprint for them. It’s important to get everyone’s input about the project.

Step 4: What requires improvement

Facilitating this phase of the discussion can prove tricky because people look negatively at problem areas. But in the context of in agile’s goal of continuous improvement, this is the part of the retrospective where you unearth the gold.

Talking about improvement aspects can elicit complaints. Don’t let that happen. Instead, redirect such comments toward constructive feedback that can be analyzed for solutions in the same way the same way the previous step examined what worked well and why.

Even if everything went smoothly during the sprint, look at how you can do better. That could mean seeing if you can complete a greater scope of work in the next sprint, or even how to improve the retrospective itself.

Tips for what requires improvement

Consider these sprint retrospective ideas to maximize results of this discussion.

  • Spark constructive debate: Generate constructive feedback by asking the team questions like naming the biggest challenge they encountered, or the one thing they would change about the sprint.
  • Identify measurable outcomes: Examine the ideas people throw out to ensure the improvement suggestions are measurable so you can assign a project management metric to it and evaluate if improvement is happening. One approach is to use earned value management, a project management technique for measuring actual work progress against the project plan.

    Another common example is the team getting requests from other departments for tasks not part of the project scope. The team can measure the frequency and number of such requests to determine an appropriate solution for better workload management. Be alert for and avoid scope creep.

Step 5: Action items

Once a list of improvement areas are identified, go through the list as a team to assess possible solutions and prioritize the items. Treat each like a science experiment, where the solutions are to be tested and the results evaluated to assess if further refinement is needed.

Determine which among the high-priority action items to tackle first. Assign owners and due dates to those items. Put the remainder on a list to revisit at the next retrospective. Thank the team for their time, and conclude the retrospective.

Tips for action items

Wrap up the sprint retrospective and maximize its value by applying these tips.

  • Add action items to the next sprint: Be sure the assignment of action items from the retrospective are incorporated into the project planning for the next sprint. This gives team members the time to complete the action items alongside a sprint’s regular workload.
  • Address previous action items: If you have a list of previous action items, review them in the context of the new list. Praise the team for completed items. For the incomplete ones, determine which to continue based on the priority relative to the new action items.

Final advice on the sprint retrospective

You can use many formats to tackle the retrospective. One approach is to replace the portions related to what worked and didn’t work with the four Ls: what was liked, lacking, learned, and longed for.

It’s good to change up the retrospective format occasionally to avoid the team getting in a rut. You’ll know it’s time to try a new approach when action items are not leading to improvement.

I found the sprint retrospective a useful tool to build a high-performance team. It can do the same for you.

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