Agile Retrospective Meeting Guidelines

By Kurt Birkenhagen · August 3, 2018

For those just starting the Agile methodology, the retrospective meeting is one of the first steps they want to nail right away. It may determine the success of the entire Agile onboarding process. (Agile is an iterative and incremental approach to software development, underpinned by the Scrum framework. Read more here.)

Looking back at the successes and failures of a project is how your scrum team grows in its productivity and efficiency. Effective retrospective meetings continually feed the entire process with new data and analysis that ensure perpetual growth in productivity and efficiency. Ineffective retrospective meetings are rudderless affairs that highlight good ideas with no action plans or, worse, devolve into blame game sessions that run too long. Bad meetings are bad for everyone.

Here are some guidelines for running effective Agile retrospective meetings that will transform your business.

Ask the Right Questions

Every participant should know the guiding principles of your retrospective meeting. These guardrails keep everyone on track. In his book Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews, Norm Kerth proposes these four questions:

  1. What did we do well, that if we don’t discuss we might forget?
  2. What did we learn?
  3. What should we do differently next time?
  4. What still puzzles us?

Make sure everyone understands that retrospective meetings are a key point in a cyclical planning process—“what you learn” from the meeting will feed into “what you will do differently” next time. This cycle continues ad infinitum. No planning process is ever a “final draft”. It’s simply the best current version available. Understanding this removes the pressure for perfection while setting expectations for continued improvement.

While guiding principles provide guardrails, it’s also vital to remain flexible. Agile veteran Dan LeFebvre suggests using Kerth’s four questions as a starting point and customizing them to fit your needs.

“I’ve found better results slimming down [Kerth’s] questions and having everyone on the team answer them. That helps support interaction, instead of always having only one or two people answer the questions every sprint. So, when I run a retrospective, I have everyone answer these two basic questions:

1) What’s your big win for the last sprint?

LeFebvre believes this question sets a positive tone for the meeting by allowing team members to celebrate their victories in front of the group. “It’s human nature to dwell on negativity,” he explains. “So, it’s important to let your team celebrate the positives.”

The benefit of positivity isn’t just a boost to individual affirmation, it helps build group cohesion and effectiveness. “An authentic affirmation from colleagues about an accomplishment you’re proud of is a great way to grow closer as a team,” LeFebvre says. “Everyone wins, together.”

2) What could you have done better in the last sprint?

The question has a two-fold purpose: to recognize lessons learned and to disseminate the solutions to the group. “The key to success with this question isn’t to use it as an excuse to shame someone,” LeFebvre explains. “This is about iterative improvements. There’s always something you can do to get better. Instead of keeping it to yourself, share it with your team so everyone can improve. Document what you’ve learned so everyone can benefit immediately.”

There’s an unending variety of question styles, themes, and formats for customizing your retrospective meetings to suit your team’s needs at the time. Some of these include:

  • Using Visualization techniques like the “Speedboat Retrospective” to identify “anchors” and “winds” to your progress.
  • Addressing group frustrations with a “Mad, Glad, Sad” meeting.
  • Digging deeper into process challenges with “Start, Stop, and Continue”.

Meeting variations like these can help you keep things fun and flexible. Regardless of the format, however, make sure you’re asking the right questions and that the meeting’s purpose is clear to everyone.

Facilitate, Don’t Dictate

Effective facilitators aren’t authoritarian figures demanding unwavering compliance; instead, they’re the torchbearer for your meeting’s guiding principles, the group’s guide who points out stumbling blocks along the way. They’re a cheerleader and a coach for your team, keeping a detached perspective. They prevent the team from getting sucked into side issues while staying completely plugged into the conversation.

Although retrospectives are often facilitated by scrum masters, any team member can effectively facilitate a retrospective meeting. Says LeFebvre: “How strictly you stick to having the same people in the role for every meeting isn’t as important as everyone rowing in the same direction and getting stuff done.”

Guard the meeting’s purpose

Remind everyone, before every retrospective meeting, that the purpose is to identify what went right, what went wrong, and what to do next. The meeting’s purpose can’t be stressed enough— you can even remind the team during the meeting if necessary. The reminder doesn’t have to be a reading of the team’s mission statement. It can simply be a subtle reminder during a discussion: “Jane’s suggestion is a good example of how we can deliver faster next time.”

Are you a chicken or a pig?

Facilitators should read the classic story of the “Chicken and the Pig” to determine whether they’re actually committed to the project or merely involved. Understanding which one you are will help you communicate better with the rest of the team. For maximum objectivity—a helpful facilitator characteristic—it can be good to be an involved member rather than a committed one. But that doesn’t mean someone committed to a project can’t also be an effective facilitator. Just know what stake you have in the project and use that knowledge to help you run an effective meeting.

Listening is a priority

A good way to signal your unbiased position is to listen more than you talk. Help team members feel safe in sharing their thoughts by minimizing interruptions and keeping communication constructive and positive. When team members bring up issues, record them so they’re addressed in the current or subsequent meetings. Stay team-focused as possible. It signals you’re for the team, not taking sides.

Additional resources for being a good facilitator:

Everyone Participates

The more meetings you have, the sooner each team member will adopt the retrospective habits for their own processes. That’s why LeFebvre recommends committing to doing retrospectives for at least four sprints. “It’ll seem awkward at first as everyone gets accustomed to coming to the meetings with the answers to the same questions,” he says. “But as the new habit solidifies, people will start looking for the answers throughout the sprint.”

Forming these good habits is why everyone on the team should participate by answering all of the meeting questions. Because members understand they will need to provide an answer for the retrospective meeting, they’ll compose it beforehand. Eventually, they’ll internalize the habit and ask themselves “What went wrong?” and “What can I do differently?” while they work.

“If they’re looking for something they can do better so they’ll have an answer to the question for the next retrospective, the hope is they’ll identify that sooner and take care of it,” LeFebvre says.

The goal of a retrospective meeting, then, is to slowly form habits for autonomous problem-solving and of adapting one’s workflow—to eliminate, over time, the reason for having it. But until then, err on the side of having more meetings at the beginning.

Example Retrospective Meeting Agenda

There are probably as many versions of a retrospective meeting agenda as there are teams, so yours will likely evolve over time. It helps to keep things simple at first. Adding meeting components is easier than subtracting them.

LeFebvre recommends the following retrospective meeting agenda, which works for either sprint integration or as a standalone meeting. The example times are set for a team of five to hold a 30-minute meeting, so adjust as needed. You should expect the first few meetings to run over as your team gets accustomed to the process.

  • Everyone answers these questions (10 minutes):
    • What’s your big win from the last sprint? (1 minute per person, per answer)
    • What could you have done better in the last sprint? (1 minute per person, per answer)
  • Team discussion about answers (15 minutes):
  • Wrap-up (5 minutes)

This template can serve as an agenda for your organization.

Although discussion times can vary depending on the team, LeFebvre suggests leaving discussions of individual answers until the end. “There tends to be less fluff discussion that way, and it helps teach people to take notes instead of interrupting the flow of the meeting right away,” he says. “That’s how 30-minute meetings turn into two-hour meetings.”

Like the Agile process itself, retrospective meetings are intended to evolve with the needs of your team. In that sense, they’re as much an effect as a cause of your team’s growth. “Stick with it and focus on small improvements long-term instead of hoping to fix everything in a single meeting,” LeFebvre says. So, keep a big-picture outlook and be patient when developing yours.


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