How to Run a Sprint Retrospective: 2020 Guide [+ Free Template]

Paulius Tuzikas
Paulius Tuzikas • Apr 30th, 2020

Teams are at the core of any organization: producing great work, creating value for customers, and building something bigger than themselves. Great teams always find time to reflect on how they collaborate and understand the importance of continuous improvement.

What is a Sprint Retrospective?

The Sprint Retrospective meeting is one of the most popular ways to have a structured conversation about improving teamwork. This ceremony originates from the Scrum framework and according to the Scrum guide, the purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to create an opportunity for the Scrum Team to inspect itself and to develop a plan for improvements for the next Sprint (time-boxed iteration). The session is typically facilitated by a Scrum Master or a team member who acts as a facilitator.

Over time, Sprint Retrospectives spread beyond development teams using Scrum framework or Kanban workflow for delivering software products. Many teams in different fields around the world now use this meeting as an opportunity to grow and improve teamwork.

The benefits of a Sprint Retrospective

Continuous improvement has helped to land a man on the moon, invent a lightbulb and enabled people to create a gazillion of great things we're using today. All these great stories and inventions didn't appear overnight. They were processes full of observations, experiments, learnings, failures, and joy.

Great teams have one thing in common and that's a regular inspection and adaptation. The Sprint Retrospective meeting is a place where teams navigate in their continuous improvement journey by reflecting, sensing and responding. 

Effective Sprint Retrospectives lead to improved development process, quality of product backlog, value delivery, team collaboration or any other area that your team members care about. It also creates a sense of moving forward as a team and sparks motivation, who doesn't like to get better?

When done well, the Sprint Retrospective can help to tap into a team's potential and unlock high-performance. On the other hand, some teams struggle to have meaningful and engaging conversations where team members can express themselves and come up with actionable ideas.

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Preparation and choosing the right format

Effective Retrospectives rarely happen by accident. Most of the time, a successful session is the result of good preparation and enables the whole team to participate and contribute.

"By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." - Benjamin Franklin

Apart from making sure that you have the right people in the room, you need to choose a format for your Retrospective. Here are some considerations to make the right choice:

-How many people are in your team?
-What's your team's mood?
-How open is your team to trying new things and experimenting?

Here are my top 3 Retrospective formats you can use:

The sailboat

This format is a great substitute for your typical start doing, keep doing, and stop doing type of Retrospective.

Lean coffee

Drinking coffee is not mandatory in this format, but it does provide some extra energy and engagement boost during the session. Lean coffee is about applying timeboxes for discussing different topics.

A session starts with every team member sharing the 2-3 most important topics they would like to discuss and writing them on sticky notes. For small teams, feel free to increase the number of topics. The second step is to prioritize and identify the most important areas. Dot-voting practice can be a good way to prioritize. Ask everyone to put 3-4 dots on the topics they believe have the highest priority or the biggest impact. After voting is done, rank the post-its by the number of votes received.

Start with the most voted topic and discuss it for five minutes. When time is up, ask the team if they want to use another five-minute time box to continue the discussion or if it's time to move on to the next topic. Repeat the process until it's time to wrap up the meeting. Visualizing how many time boxes have been used and how many are left helps to have focused conversations. 

Chef's Menu 

In order to unlock the team's creative potential, pretend that they own a restaurant. On the menu, you can find all the things team does: behaviors, achievements, emotions, and anything else. As a team, you have full control of your menu and the ability to change what's on it. What parts of the menu make you happy? What would you like to improve, remove, or add? These four areas help you to understand what's going on and how you can improve. Take some time to reflect on what your menu looks like and come up with some actions for meaningful improvements.

The 5-step Sprint Retrospective Process

Step 1: Setting the stage

Here you are with your awesome team members at the end of the sprint or iteration. You got a well-thought-out Retrospective format ready. Being present in any meeting can be challenging. Notifications, e-mails, and various distractions get in our way, so the first step to build some presence with a quick check-in. Ask all team members to have a round of answering one question. It could be something about dream country, favorite tv series or what was for dinner last night. Get creative, get to know each other, but make it short.

Explain that a Retrospective is a safe space for the team to talk. It's nothing like any other Scrum meeting such as for example the Sprint Review where various outcomes are presented to stakeholders or leadership team.

Step 2: Gather different perspectives

Introduce your chosen format and share with the group how the session will roll. Keep in mind that creating an inclusive environment is key. Everyone's opinion is important, invite people to be open-minded and genuinely listen to each other. The Agile Retrospective is like music where the bass and treble must be well synced, so acknowledge different personality types. Allow more space for the introverts to express themselves and make sure that extroverts are not too loud. 

If you're a collocated team use a whiteboard and make it a space where different thoughts and ideas are represented using sticky notes. For distributed teams, there are digital whiteboard tools such as Mural or Miro.

Step 3: Decide what to do

Distinguish an essential few from the trivial many and dive deep into things that matter. What exactly is going on here? Listen to diverse points of view and try to understand reality by getting to the root causes that led to sharp insights. Your team might not be able to solve all the problems, but there are definitely some actions or experiments to move things forward and improve. 

Every action item should be clear, concrete, and meaningful. It has to answer three questions: what, why, and who. Look for volunteers and find people who could lead the action. Leading doesn’t necessarily mean doing. It means making sure that the action is executed with or without collaboration with other team members. Also, the actions should be small enough to execute during the next Sprint or before your next Retrospective. 

Step 4: Closing and follow-up

When there are around five minutes left in your Retrospective it's time to wrap up. At this stage, you have the main topics covered and probably at least a few action items.

In order to turn on the continuous improvement, you need to agree on how you'll make the Retrospective actions visible. Most of the teams review them during the daily standup or on some other agreed upon cadence. This helps the team to keep things transparent and collaborate on action items. Some teams put actions in their backlog and treat that like any other work items. 

Lastly, Retrospectives can be improved by gathering feedback from team members. Ask everyone in the room what could be improved next time and what's one thing they enjoyed about the session. You can also use a fist of five to rate the sessions and gather quick thoughts on what made the score for different people.

If you want to learn more about various facilitation techniques, read Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen.

There is no finish line

Every time you organize a Retrospective there is an opportunity to become a better team, build a stronger relationship, and take a step forward in the team's journey. Sometimes there will be difficult topics, emotions, or heated debates. Embrace this with an open mind and empathy for team members. You're all on the same boat trying to sort things out and build something great.

Be kind. Listen. Take action.

Paulius Tuzikas
Agile Coach at Nomad8

Paulius is an Agile Coach at Nomad8 and a co-founder of RandomRetros.com . He's passionate about helping teams and organizations to explore better ways of working and continuously improve. On the weekends, you’ll find him catching waves on the coasts of New Zealand.