Agile retrospectives — a complete guide
More companies are using Agile approaches to work both within and outside of development processes. The methodology’s iterative design provides value across industries looking for a project management process that can deliver more efficiently and effectively, especially across teams and departments.
Retrospectives are one part of the Agile process often overlooked during fresh implementation. However, they are a vital part of maintaining communication and efficiency. In fact, retrospectives account for 24% higher responsiveness and 42% greater quality compared to Agile teams that skip this step.
To aid you on your journey, this article will examine what an Agile retrospective is in great detail, followed by how these meetings can help your existing processes and how to lead a retrospective with success. To do this, we will discuss:
- What an Agile retrospective is
- The importance of Agile retrospectives
- How to conduct an Agile retrospective
- Getting started with Agile today
What is an Agile retrospective?
An Agile retrospective is a meeting conducted at the end of an iteration of work where team members discuss accomplishments and areas for improvement as they plan for the next phase of project work. During this meeting, team members are encouraged to speak candidly about their experiences and reflect on processes, procedures, and tasks in a productive way so the broader team can benefit and improve in the long term.
Retrospectives are part of the Scrum framework, making up the fourth and final meeting outlined in the process. Scrum fosters collaboration and communication within and across teams through a series of meetings designed to promote straightforward discussion of both successes and obstacles to help the team optimize its performance moving forward.
In particular, Agile retrospective meeting content should focus on the past or tasks that were completed during the iteration or sprint having just ended. The goal is to explore areas for improvement to apply them in the next phase of the project work or to emphasize effective approaches that could benefit other team members. When applied to Scrum, these meetings also bring together all contributors across various teams, allowing knowledge sharing to take place in a broader forum.
Teams using Kanban can also find value in conducting retrospectives. While not an official part of the workflow, adding a retrospective can help contributors find ways to be more effective as projects progress.
What differentiates an Agile retrospective from other meetings, such as reviews or postmortems, is their placement in the iterative development or project process as a whole. Retrospectives happen at the end of a sprint, or iteration, that is part of a larger project. The goal is to refine workflows and approaches while the broader initiative is still underway, allowing teams to adapt and become more efficient during work as opposed to after the entire workload is completed.
Agile retrospective vs. sprint retrospective
It is important to note there is a subtle but marked difference between an Agile retrospective and a sprint retrospective. While the two terms seem to stand for the same thing, they actually refer to different stages and processes.
An Agile retrospective can occur after any iteration of work. While this could include a sprint, the scope is broader. A sprint retrospective, or a sprint review, specifically refers to a retrospective meeting occurring at the end of a sprint development cycle.
Sprint retrospectives have a different focus than their Agile counterparts. They should be centered on collecting feedback about the product or tasks at hand. This can include task-based blockers, design questions, and time to demonstrate the current status or functionality of the deliverables in question. Agile retrospectives should look at the bigger picture when it comes to processes and procedures empowering the work done by the team as a whole.
The importance of Agile retrospectives
While some may cringe at the idea of adding another meeting to their agenda, Agile retrospectives bring many benefits to the table. For one, they are forums for an exchange of ideas typically not allotted for in other project management methodologies.
Retrospectives urge individuals to speak up and share their feedback with a broader audience to help refine processes affecting their workflow and their ability to achieve the goals set for them by management.
While task breakdowns and priorities may come from higher up, contributors are given the floor in an Agile retrospective, allowing leadership to collect input and put changes into practice to help create even more efficiencies for the people fulfilling the work requests. This improved communication can lead to efficiencies in other areas not otherwise identified by stakeholders who are not involved in the day-to-day fulfillment of tasks.
Because Agile is iterative — meaning projects are approached in a series of tasks during a set period of time — teams are able to be more flexible as they identify roadblocks along the way. Holding an Agile retrospective at the end of a work interval can surface issues in time for leadership to effect changes before a project is completed.
Additional benefits of using Agile retrospectives as part of your workflow include the following:
- Alert management of blockers for individual tasks.
- Create an inviting space for people to share ideas.
- Provide feedback allowing for better leadership.
- Rally team members around common goals.
- Prioritize people over processes.
- Adapt to optimize the next step in the workflow.
- Eliminate hierarchy from discussions to increase contributions.
Ultimately, implementing an Agile retrospective can provide a better finished product because of the flexibility Agile brings to the development process or workflow in question. Leaders learn about roadblocks or concerns before they become a major stopping point, allowing them to provide direction and constructive feedback while keeping the project on schedule.
Even positive input can have a direct effect on how the initiative progresses, with product and project managers assessing efficiencies and implementing new strategies based on what works and what doesn’t.
How to conduct an Agile retrospective
Consider the nature of your project work and how often your team moves through different phases of the development or production cycle. Look for stopping points to meet and hold a retrospective based on when teams typically finish an iteration of their work. This could happen at regular intervals, perhaps every 2–4 weeks, or it could be flexible depending on the end point of a particular campaign or a rollout.
With the timing ironed out, you’ll want to be sure to invite everyone involved with the project to attend so they can provide feedback and benefit from hearing other team member perspectives. This includes leadership (Scrum Masters, product owners), all individual contributors, and other stakeholders to whom the team’s input could be valuable.
How to approach the retrospective is fairly clear when looking at it from a Scrum framework design. Keep in mind the meeting’s goal is to identify what worked well and what did not to find areas for optimization across the teams and processes.
To do this, you’ll want to start by opening the floor to attendees and encouraging them to share any concerns or successes they ran into during their work. Everyone should be reminded to listen and share with an open mind, creating a safe space for feedback and collaboration.
It can help to put the focus on what went well with the iteration first, setting a positive tone for the discussion. From there, ask for feedback on what could be done better or what roadblocks were experienced while working on the tasks at hand. Leaders should keep the conversation focused on a set time period, typically the iteration (or sprint) that just ended.
Some retrospectives are broken down into phases to help project managers and leaders keep everyone in the meeting on task. Here are the typical five phases used and how you can apply them to your own meetings.
- Set the stage. Make it clear to everyone in attendance what you expect (and don’t expect) to occur during the meeting. Encourage everyone to share their perspectives in a respectful way, even when pointing out pitfalls. If you are going to implement a specific type or theme to your retrospective (see the next section), you can introduce it here.
- Gather data. Outline or repeat the main tasks or goals from the iteration and ask everyone to comment on their contributions and thoughts. This will set the stage by providing categories to collect insights in.
- Generate insights. Allow attendees to talk about their experiences and collect their feedback along the way. This can be done through note-taking or more transparent means such as whiteboarding. Group repetitive ideas together to identify themes or areas that may need extra attention.
- Decide what to do. Define actionable steps addressing what can be done to fix or refine processes for improved outcomes in the next iteration. The group should make decisions together where possible, with leadership turning to stakeholders for broader directional issues. Remember, the goal of a retrospective is to come away with actionable items to improve on existing processes for the next round of work.
- Close the retrospective. Recap the outcomes of the meeting for everyone and the next steps for people to take, as applicable. Be sure to thank everyone for their contributions and encourage them to remain engaged with the process.
Retrospectives are more than fact-finding missions — they’re collaborative environments where leaders can also turn to their individual contributors for creative solutions. Toward the end of the meeting, you can ask everyone to add their own ideas for how to overcome the presented issues and actions that could or should be taken to resolve challenges. Group common items together and look for trends or themes that can be tackled simultaneously.
These brainstorming sessions can lead to powerful changes for the next iteration as leaders can process feedback and create process changes in real time for teams to move forward with.
Types of retrospectives
While all Agile retrospectives provide a general forum for encouraging and collecting feedback, many different retrospective formats can be applied to team management and workflows.
It can be helpful for leaders to pull from different approaches or adjust their format based on team personalities and needs. There can also be benefits from keeping things fresh and changing the meeting format slightly while achieving the same goals to keep attendees engaged and focused over time.
Some possible Agile retrospective formats include the following:
- 4Ls. This format uses the terms liked, learned, lacked, and longed to break up the discussion and encourage conversation about the iteration in question. This can help put equal emphasis on successes and failures and promote action on both positive and negative outcomes.
- Sailboat. This metaphorical approach likens the project to a boat at sea. Rocks are risks, wind is what went well, anchors stop or slow progress, and land is the objective. This visualization technique is particularly helpful in defining blockers, from complete barriers to items slowing progress.
- Dot voting. This format asks members to place dots next to topics in question as a form of voting. Items with more votes show what should be focused on during the meeting. This process can be great for teams with a large number of topics and where prioritization could help.
- Start, stop, continue. Create straightforward categories for tasks to be placed in based on these statuses. This can help define goals and identify missing resources for items not completed during the iteration.
- Question cards. For teams not sure where to start the conversation, question cards can be icebreakers. Leaders create the questions in advance and ask them to spur conversation between attendees, taking note of positive and negative feedback along the way.
What all of these types have in common is they endeavor to foster creative and engaging environments for attendees to be active participants in the discussion at hand. Many project managers, Scrum masters, and other leaders note one of the biggest obstacles to implementing Agile retrospectives is participation.
Some attendees may feel their input is not valued or there could be repercussions if they talk candidly about processes that did not work. It is up to the meeting facilitator to create a safe and inviting space for everyone to contribute, encouraging engagement, openness, and follow-through.
Get started with Agile today
Retrospectives are an important part of any Scrum or Agile project management process because they allow teams to reflect on their successes and roadblocks in a constructive manner.
Leaders can take this feedback and apply changes in real time to help optimize the outcomes for the next iteration and improve overall performance moving forward. These meetings bring teams together in a positive and productive environment, creating a forum for feedback that can carry up to the stakeholders for further consideration.
Through Agile, teams are able to deliver better products that align with both their customers’ needs and the market.
Agile approaches allow for faster, more efficient project management since team members work on smaller pieces of the puzzle with clearly defined criteria in a set period of time. The result is the iterative production of content, products, or services that can hit the market with greater speed, efficiency, and quality.
Agile retrospectives are just one element of a successful project management framework. As leaders implement these meetings, they also often look for tools to support the overall Agile processes they are managing. That’s where Adobe Workfront can help.
Workfront is work management software that supports Agile teams. Integrate people and processes across your organization for better collaboration throughout the entire lifecycle of a project. No matter whether you’re using Scrum or Kanban, Agile is easier with Adobe.