How to run an Agile retrospective

A laptop shows an example of an agile retrospective.

If you’re a fan of the Agile philosophy in software development and project management, you know your team can benefit from a retrospective meeting. But you might not know what a retrospective should look like or how to run one.

This article offers a clear definition of an Agile retrospective, details its phases and benefits, and provides a list of possible formats. After reading it, you’ll have all the information you need to lead retrospectives successfully.

This post will discuss:

What is an Agile retrospective?

An Agile retrospective is a meeting of the Scrum master, product owner, and developers following an iteration of work, typically a sprint. The goal is to reflect on what went well and what could have gone better, and to make changes for the next iteration.

A retrospective can take place after any increment of work, but it usually happens quickly after a short time period to implement feedback immediately. Retrospectives following a sprint are called sprint retrospectives.

A retrospective is about looking back, but it’s really focused on moving forward. The idea is to look back frequently at previous small steps to ensure the next step is in the right direction. When done right, a retrospective can add energy and efficiency to the entire process.

Retrospectives are at the heart of the culture that has emerged since the Agile Manifesto appeared in 2001. Agile emphasizes adaptability and continuous improvement — which doesn’t happen unless it’s built into the process. An Agile retrospective offers dedicated time and space to take stock, collect feedback, adapt, and improve. This simple but strategic meeting can help teams make the most of every iteration, ensuring that the next sprint gets them closer to a successful product and happy clients.

Agile retrospectives bring teams together to reflect on what went well, what could have gone better, and how to approach future work based on this information.

A retrospective meeting can happen in person or online. Remote teams can communicate effectively through a collaborative document like a Google Doc. For in-person meetings, sticky notes and a board or wall can help the team share their ideas.

The length of a retrospective meeting depends on how many people are involved, the length of the interval, and the amount of work that’s up for discussion. For a week-long sprint, a good estimate is 45 minutes. If you have a month of work to evaluate, you might need three hours.

Now that you know what a retrospective is, let’s take a closer look at how you can structure the meeting.

Agile retrospective phases

Practitioners of Agile management usually agree that there are five phases to retrospectives — though other formats can be followed. We’ll explore the different phases first and then offer examples of other formats.

The phases of agile retrospective are to set the stage, gather data, generate insights, decide what to do, and close the retrospective.

1. Set the stage

Before jumping straight into the meeting topic, it’s important to prepare your team for a productive meeting. You’re working with real people who need to feel comfortable discussing problems and speaking up about possible solutions. That’s why the first phase involves setting some ground rules and letting people express how they’re feeling. By creating psychological safety, you’ll open the door to more productive collaboration. Successful leaders also establish a clear focus for the most efficient use of everyone’s time.

To set the stage, clarify the time period and scope of work that is up for discussion. Make sure everyone has a sense of the bigger picture. You can then establish some rules, such as assuming positive intent, focusing on improvement, and allowing time for everyone to speak. You might want to do a quick temperature check — ask everyone to describe in one or two words how they’re feeling about the work.

2. Gather data

Next, you need to gather objective feedback. Collect agreed-upon facts about what happened during the preceding sprint or iteration of work. This phase is a mind meld — it’s about sharing knowledge and assembling that information into a larger whole. Once everything is on the table, your team will be able to step back and start analyzing.

Although data can be both qualitative and quantitative, you’re not yet trying to make sense of the data. You just want to get the entire team to agree the data is correct and that they will be working with the same information. Documentation is important here, so use tools that can help you record and display information.

3. Generate insights

During this phase, the team reflects on what went well, what didn’t go well, and what people are seeing based on the data in front of them. It’s an opportunity to look for patterns and provide more subjective feedback using the agreed-upon evidence.

Ask participants to offer explanations and suggestions for improvement. Use a structured activity to spark insights and brainstorm ideas.

4. Decide what to do

With the strong foundation that’s been established by shared data, the team can make an informed decision about how to move forward. This is where you ask your team members to make decisions about where to invest their time in the next cycle of work, which tasks to prioritize, and what success will look like for these items.

This phase of the retrospective is the most important because it’s the reason you’re holding a meeting in the first place. Clarify larger goals and smaller action items, then identify who is responsible to follow through.

5. Close the retrospective

Just like you did when you set the stage, invest in the psychological well-being and motivation of your team at the end. Summarize the decisions that were made, thank everyone in a meaningful way for their participation, and outline the next steps.

Examples of retrospective formats

There are a variety of other formats, methods, and activities that can get teams thinking about what worked and what didn’t during the previous sprint. Each method has different strengths. Here are some examples:

Two co-workers in an office put affinity mapping into practice.

Barriers to success

Getting a group of diverse personalities to collaborate effectively can be a challenge, but if you know what to watch out for, you can overcome a few common psychological barriers. Here’s a quick troubleshooting guide for common issues:

Low engagement

Your team doesn’t seem that interested. They’re not offering many suggestions, and they’re mostly quiet. They could be tired after the last sprint or remain skeptical about the purpose of the meeting. To re-engage your team, consider different learning styles. Visual and kinesthetic activities can get people out of their usual patterns and encourage creativity.

Lack of trust

The conversation is surface-level, and no one mentions anything negative. It’s normal for people to avoid negativity because of how it might reflect on them or because they don’t want to cause frustration. To counter this, the facilitator should foster a space where everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts. Reward participation even — or especially — when it raises an issue. Encourage the team to air and address problems early on to prevent them from becoming bigger. Instead of acting disappointed, express optimism about the opportunity for growth. Ask for individual, confidential feedback to discover any larger issues.

Poor follow-through

Low engagement and lack of trust can also happen when participation doesn’t seem to make a difference. After a while, people stop speaking up. To avoid this problem, be sure to validate and take action on the issues raised and the ideas offered. Make sure changes happen in the next sprint, or create actionable goals and keep everyone updated on progress.

Tips to help you succeed

You can take a few more steps to help your team shift successfully from detailed, everyday work into a reflective, collaborative mood:

  1. Ask team members to come to the meeting prepared with a few ideas. Clarify how much to prepare and in what format. For example, ask participants to write down their thoughts in a shared document. Let them know if you want one or two sentences, a paragraph, some examples, or more. You’ll be more likely to get input from all your team members, including those who don’t like to speak in meetings, when you make alternative sharing options available.
  2. Stay on task and respect everyone’s time. While retrospectives are a great opportunity to dig deeper into issues, there’s always a risk that one person or one issue will dominate the conversation while everyone else checks out. Keep the meeting on topic and on schedule with a clear, time-boxed agenda.
  3. Mix it up by trying new formats. The traditional approach is to ask, “What worked, what didn’t, and what will we do next time?” But those are big questions that can be hard to answer in a detailed, helpful way. Encourage more specific and focused conversation by trying a new activity or format.

Achieve your Agile goals

Retrospectives are an important part of the Agile framework. They provide a safe space to address problems, build energy and trust, and lead to innovation and fresh insight.

If you’re working on an Agile team, retrospectives should already be part of your process. But if they aren’t, set aside some time at the end of your next sprint and use the principles outlined here to hold one. Gather the necessary supplies if you’re meeting in person, or be sure your team has access to the online tools they’ll need to attend a virtual retrospective. Invite the whole team and be prepared to explain the process if it’s their first time.

Adobe can help create a more collaborative work environment

It’s easy to share insights, address problems, and adapt quickly when your team has a system for communicating effectively. Adobe Workfront is project management software that can help your team work collaboratively and strategically to complete projects of any size.

Take a Workfront product tour or watch the overview video to see how it works.