Three Popular Ways to Run a Productive Retrospective

Continuous improvement is one of the biggest benefits of working in an Agile work environment, and in the Scrum framework, the driver of improvement is the Retrospective.

Retrospectives are ceremonies held at the end of each Sprint where team members collectively analyze how things went in order to improve the process for the next Sprint. They’re usually facilitated by a Scrum Master and include only the team (not managers or other stakeholders, since their presence can deter teams from bringing up mistakes.)

Teams identify key observations, like:

  • what’s working
  • what’s not
  • what can be improved
  • what can be added to the process
  • what can be removed from the process

People have come up with a variety of formats and exercises for approaching these topics, but all face a similar challenge: keeping the Retrospective engaging and productive over time. Unfortunately, no single approach is a silver bullet.

People tend to adapt to new habits fairly quickly. After a few Sprints with the same kind of Retrospective following each time, you’ll probably notice that team participation and the overall energy level people bring to the Retrospective start to drop.

That’s why it’s important to mix things up! As one of my favorite bizarre sayings goes: there’s more than one way to skin a cat. And there’s certainly more than one way to run a Retrospective. The best way to keep Retrospectives productive is to continuously challenge the team to think of solutions in new and interesting ways.

Here are three popular ways to run a Retrospective.

Start, Stop, Continue

One of the most straightforward ways to run a Retrospective is the “Start, Stop, Continue” exercise. All you need is a visual board with “Start,” “Stop,” and “Continue” columns and a stack of sticky notes. Within each column, people write their observations about the Sprint as they relate to the following categories:

  • Start: actions we should start taking
  • Stop: actions we should prevent or remove
  • Continue: actions we are currently doing that we should continue to do until they are a fixed habit

Start by giving your teams a set amount of time (5-10 min) to write and categorize their cards. When everyone is done, address each item one by one to allow people time to share input. At the end of the discussion, set up a vote to decide which items are most important. Give each team member a set number of items they can vote for (usually three). Calculate which items got the most votes selecting the top few (no more than three), and keep those items as your area of focus for the next Sprint.

Review these areas of focus at the beginning of your next Retrospective to measure their success. Incorporate any feedback into your next “Start, Stop, Continue” board.

The Agile Retrospectives

For some, the “Start, Stop, Continue” exercise is too brief and quickly feels repetitive. Esther Derby and Diana Larsen created a more in-depth approach in their book Agile Retrospectives. They suggest Retrospectives be broken up into the following five stages:

  1. Set the Stage
  2. Gather Data
  3. Generate Insights
  4. Decide What to Do
  5. Close the Retrospective

Setting the stage is about getting people warmed up for discussion. Start with a game, like asking each team member to summarize the Sprint using only three words. Use the first few minutes of your meeting to establish an open and informal tone where people can feel comfortable bringing up ideas.

You can approach the data gathering stage much like the beginning of the “Start, Stop, Continue” exercise. Ask each team member to compile their observations about the Sprint onto cards.

To generate insights, lay out all the cards from your team and start organizing them by similarities. Sometimes you might notice that many people are sharing the same point, which probably means it’s worth addressing. Other times people you may realize that all the cards seem to relate to a specific stage in development. Now is the time to pay attention to recurring themes, patterns, and issues that might cause one another.

Next, it’s time to decide how you’re going to put those insights into action. The team should brainstorm solutions and put a plan in place for actualizing the best ideas. It’s best to limit the number of changes Sprint-to-Sprint, so you can isolate their effects when you review them at the next Retrospective.

Finally, it’s time to close the Retrospective on a high note. Too often, meetings end when people simply run out of things to say. Close your Retrospective with a summary of what was discussed, as well as praise for what was done well. The ending of these meetings should be a celebration.

Good, Bad, Better, Best

For some, both of the above approaches rely too much on the Scrum Master. Because Scrum teams are self-organizing, many want to put more emphasis on team members working together rather than “reporting to” the will of a Scrum Master or Project Manager.

The “Good, Bad, Better, Best” model starts off much like the “Start, Stop, Continue” exercise and the data gathering stage from Agile Retrospectives. Give your team 5-10 minutes to write down their observations about the Sprint on separate cards.

Once people finish writing, take turns going around the room one by one, with each person discussing one card per turn. Unlike the other two formats, all cards should be presented before discussions start. This is the discovery phase. Questions from the team are fine, but debate shouldn’t take place until all ideas have been presented. Continue the discovery phase until all cards have been read and placed on the board, then discuss as a whole. Each item should be categorized as follows:

  • Good: Things that went well, i.e. areas where the team met or exceeded expectations
  • Bad: Things that didn’t work well, i.e. areas where the team didn’t meet expectations or where unexpected problems occurred
  • Better: Opportunities for improvement, i.e. suggestions on how to do something better
  • Best: Things that deserve recognition, i.e. outstanding performances and people who went above-and-beyond

The most important differentiator of this process is that the Scrum Master (or whoever is serving as the facilitator) is not to editorialize, comment on, or summarize the discussions taking place. The Scrum Master is an observer, gathering information as it relates to the project overall. The team should drive the conversation. Team members are also responsible for deciding on action items and next steps to prevent the Scrum Master from taking on a delegatory role.

Final Thoughts

There are many other Retrospective formats and activities you can use to enhance these meetings. If your team starts to fall into a rut using one format, switch to another or alter aspects of your current format. Small changes—like putting all cards on the board at once vs. going around the room one at a time—can be enough to re-spark engagement. Keep things interesting, and don’t be afraid to try new formats just because they don’t have the same features as your old one.

What are you favorite Retrospective activities? How does your team keep things fun and engaging?

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