What happens during a retrospective?
The entire team—the developers, Scrum master, and the product owner—come together to look back on and analyze the sprint they just completed. This is a great time for the team to reflect on their practices, exchanging what they thought worked and what needs improvement about each others' work.
Many teams are an amalgamation of different personalities—yours may have a combination of introverts, extroverts, an overenthusiastic worker who takes on too much and even someone who's super talented but difficult to deal with. Retrospectives are a great opportunity to get everyone all on one platform, connecting as a team. Retrospectives help people overcome their fear of communication and learn the nuances of offering constructive criticism in a way that doesn't hurt anybody. Admitting mistakes and growing together helps a team bond like nothing else.
In some teams, product owners and Scrum masters often bow out of retrospectives because they think its an exercise for the development team, or because they think the team might have trouble being candid in their presence. Some teams don't treat retrospectives as a mandatory exercise and hold one after every few sprints. Both of these practices can be unhealthy. The Scrum team includes both the Scrum master and the Product Owner, so it's crucial that they understand the exchanges within a development team and the technical aspects of their work. It also helps the team to learn about the work of a PO and a Scrum master.
In a retrospective, it's important to remember everyone's work is on the table and all feedback should be welcome.
Breathe some life into your retrospective
Retrospectives are often the first thing a team cancels when they're short on time. When nobody takes the floor in retrospective after retrospective, the Scrum master tries to salvage the situation by filling awkward silences until everyone decides the meeting is over amidst scattered mutterings. Even worse, without a constructive environment, some team members may start using the sessions to rant and complain, so it can be seen as a natural response to decide these meetings are a waste of time.
However, given how important retrospectives are for continuing to improve and adapt as a team, abandoning them altogether is probably a mistake. Luckily, there are a ton of productive activities and resources online to liven up your retrospectives and give them some structure. Here are some you can try out:
The Three Little Pigs
Drawing from the famous children's story, the Three Little Pigs activity has the team divide a board into three columns and name them as:
- House of straw: Which practice of ours barely hangs together and could topple any second?
- House of sticks: Which practice of ours is more solid but could be improved?
- House of bricks: Which practice of ours is rock solid?
Give your team a bunch of sticky notes. They can jot down their thoughts and put them in any column they see fit. Once they're done, discuss each sticky note as a team.
The three Ls: Like, Learn, Lack
In this activity, the three questions we aim to answer are:
- What did you like about the last sprint?
- What did you learn from the last sprint?
- What was lacking in the last sprint?
Hand out color-coded sticky notes to your teammates and ask them to stick their answers on the board under the respective columns. The team groups similar answers and discusses them. There are subtle variations in this method. You could mix it up with
Mad, Sad, Glad
This involves putting up three posters labeled "mad," "sad," and "glad." Team members write down one event or practice on each color-coded card and add them to the board that matches their feelings about it. You can then discuss by asking:
- What's standing out? What's unexpected?
- What was difficult about this task? What was fun?
- What patterns do you see? What do they mean for you as a team?
- Suggestions on how to move forward?
These activities are used to gather structured feedback and discuss areas of improvement.
In addition to these, some teams also use fun, energizing games to loosen people up and segue into the actual retrospective. Here are a couple of them you can try out:
Round of Appreciation
Form a large circle with your teammates. Each person looks at the neighbor on their right and says something appreciative about that person. A random person starts and the train of compliments ensues. You could also take turns sitting in the middle of the circle and have everyone on the team compliment you on something you did in the last sprint. Good vibes guaranteed!
Who said it?
Before the meeting, spend some time to look through the channels of communication that your team uses: email threads, chat logs or ticket discussions. Pull quotes from the last iteration that sound funny or ambiguous without the right context and jot down the name of the author. During the retrospective, ask the team to guess who said it—the source may not self-identify!
There are more activities like these with varying degrees of complexity and time investment. Such games and activities are a great way to blow off some steam or break the ice within your team, but the effectiveness of your retrospectives should not depend entirely on how fun your meetings are. These meetings should be a safe space in your team culture to give feedback without any repercussions.
Best practices for making your retrospectives effective
Don't be so hard on yourself
You can only improve so much in a sprint. Constant change can be exhausting and mentally challenging for a lot of people, so we recommend picking two or three things (number can differ based on the nature of improvements and your team) that you want to improve in that sprint. You're setting up yourself up for failure if you think you can improve ten or more things in your next sprint. It's important to spread your motivation evenly across the duration of your project, and one of the biggest impediments to sustainable productivity can be extremely high doses of motivation or a Scrum master's "tough love."
You have to get uncomfortable in order to grow
A feedback session does not give you a free pass to roast your colleagues. Overly critical feedback can often be shrouded under "good intentions," but people can't hear intentions, only words. Disagreements between teammates can often turn ugly, but conflict-avoidance means the team ends up settling for a less-than-good solution rather than confronting the issue. Respect and trust for your teammates are must-haves in a Scrum team, and conflict resolution is one of the best techniques a team can learn in order to grow into the best version of themselves.
"Fail fast" is a common phrase in the agile world, but its meaning is at odds with the culture prevalent in a corporate environment. People subconsciously pit themselves against others and when you're always competing, you're less likely to try things you might fail at. Create a culture which rewards trying, not just succeeding. Failures can be great teachers and sharing them with your team makes everyone wiser. Healthy discussion is a great way to break the stigma of failure.
It's not you, it's your work
Not everyone welcomes feedback with open arms. It can be a touchy subject for a lot of people. However, when people learn to separate themselves from their work, they accept criticism more readily and become more objective about their work. This is obviously easier said than done, but every team has to keep at it. Accepting criticism and using it to improve is an indispensable quality of successful teams.
The key to adapting together
Scrum follows an inspect-and-adapt approach, so retrospectives are a critical tool in your process. They give your team an opportunity to routinely critique and improve your processes. Retrsopectives are all about growing with the people on your team: you learn to iron out disagreements, resolve conflicts, and work with people you don't agree with. This helps individuals become better team players, and great teams do extraordinary things.