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8 Ways to Improve Your Retrospective Meetings

The Scrum management framework is well understood in the software development industry these days and this article focuses on one kind of meeting in that framework: Retrospective Meetings. In my 20 years of running and participating in Scrum retrospectives, I’ve had the privilege of joining with teams that conduct retrospectives excellently. Unfortunately, I’ve also witnessed many occasions where the venerable retrospective went awry. In these meetings, teams are asked to honestly assess their performance in the last iteration, so that they can:

  • find the things they did well – and repeat them,
  • find the things they did poorly – and avoid them,
  • brainstorm new ways to improve,
  • commit to some improvements for the next sprint, and
  • assess the effectiveness of prior commitments from retrospectives.

In the following, I recommend some ways you can improve your Retrospective meetings.

Hold Your Retrospectives!

Retrospectives can be tough. Many people have difficulty looking inward, honestly assessing performance, accepting responsibility, helping others improve, and thinking up new ways to be better. It is thus tempting to just skip the meeting. Trust me, you won’t get any push back if you decide to cancel a retrospective! They are tough work. But then anything of value is. If you don’t hold your retrospective meeting, you are eliminating the possibility of improvement and quality for your process, team, and product. I don’t use the word eliminating lightly. Teams that can honestly and regularly assess how they interact, create, progress, etc. will steadily improve. If they don’t, they won’t. Hold your retrospective meetings until you have one where nobody on the team can think of an improvement to commit to; and then, dig harder, because you missed something!

Stay Focused!

The format of a Retrospective meeting is well-defined, and the meeting is time boxed, typically at 45 minutes for a 2 week sprint. A scrum team should focus on how the last Sprint (not the whole project) went with regards to:

  • performance of individuals, especially yourself,
  • the definition of done,
  • interactions within the scrum team,
  • the effectiveness of the processes and tools used,
  • any assumptions that led the team awry,
  • ways in which time (the only fixed & limited resource) was wasted.

The above discussions require vulnerability from the team members which is essential to forming trust. These are the conversations where valuable insights are made. While you’re having those tough discussions, it is easy to get distracted because of the uncomfortableness of the topics. Here’s a bunch of the distractions that might cause you to veer off course:

  • having a goals discussion. Goal setting is excellent but leave that for the sprint planning meeting.
  • finishing a review meeting. Reviews often inspire new ideas and that’s great but leave those conversations for the next sprint and focus on retrospective.
  • too much focus on retrospective games. There are a variety of games that can be played to help people be more comfortable sharing; that’s great but don’t let playing the game become the focus.
  • using the time for unproductive conversation. Gossip, comparisons between teams, comparisons between team members, and conversations not directly related to the goals of the retrospective meeting are all just wasted time and, in some cases, damaging to the team. If you have issues with a team member, take it directly to them outside of the retrospective team meeting.

Follow the Rules!

Here are some rules about retrospectives that should be followed:

  • Retrospectives are the last thing to happen in a Sprint. If you hold them before any other sprint activity, then you cannot be retrospective on that activity.
  • Retrospectives should be time boxed (maximum duration) to 45 minutes per week of the sprint under consideration. Don’t make artificial excuses to end the meeting early. If there are still topics to discuss, discuss them.
  • Cell phones on DND, notifications silenced. Retrospectives require everyone’s attention.
  • The meeting has no value unless the team members commit to improvements, so team members should strive to not leave the meeting without making a commitment to an improvement they will enact in the very next sprint.

Be Impeccable with Your Word

This is one of the Four Agreements by Don Miguel. Your word is the message you deliver to yourself, and others. Words have power (the pen is mightier than the sword). Words come out of our mouths, and they have an effect. Words come into our minds, and they have an effect. Being impeccable with our words means being deliberately aware of our words’ effects and choosing our words carefully.

In a retrospective meeting, the subject matter is already sensitive enough because we are finding ways to improve as a team. We don’t need to complicate things with negativity, crassness, gossip, or other words that do not produce the constructive, positive, improving milieu that we intend and that we would rather have as the effect of our words.

Don't Take Anything Personally

This is also one of the Four Agreements by Don Miguel. When someone criticizes you, they are doing it from their perspective. That is, they have made up an image of you based on just a few actions they’ve seen you do and an entire lifetime of their own thoughts and perspectives. They don’t really know you. Only you really know you. Be armed with that knowledge and use it to not take things personally. It is also important to know just how little you really know about anyone in your life when you’re tempted to criticize someone. Ask questions more than give advice. If you think they could benefit from your perspective, ask them “May I coach you a bit?” before giving it.

Scrum Masters Facilitate - Only!

Sometimes a room falls silent, with overloaded brains thinking furiously, pauses get pregnant, and nobody wants to speak next. That’s exactly when the Scrum Master needs to interject, help diffuse that contention in the room, and get everyone back on topic and conversing again. That is facilitation. So are several other duties such as coordinating the time, place, and tone of the meeting. The subject matter may be difficult, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun!

What Scrum Masters should not do is opine, except about the retrospective process. Scrum Masters that have commentary on the project, product, design, architecture, implementation, etc. have stepped outside their bounds. Team members should let them know when they do that.

Achieve Psychological Safety

Psychological safety is at the foundation of great teams. For team members to authentically share their concerns and the things they noticed, they must feel safe to do so. There needs to be no repercussion for taking risks or being vulnerable. To assist with this, try a little exercise in your first retrospective meeting. Go around the room and have each team member relate a story or event from their childhood (0-18 years) where they locked in on an idea, principle, or habit that affected their personality from that point forward. Leaders of the team, typically Scrum Masters, should go first. These stories are just personal enough that each team member must get a little vulnerable and a little uncomfortable with the other team members. This is the goal because vulnerability promotes trust and psychological safety.

Make Commitments

When a team member makes a sincere commitment to change, the whole team benefits. This one aspect of retrospectives, making a commitment, has been the main thing that produced increasing productivity and stellar teams through my career. The point of retrospectives is not to discuss possible ways the team might improve. The point is to improve; and that doesn’t happen without team members making a firm commitment to change, both individually and as members of a team. This is more than just team building; it is life building because the way you do one thing is the way you do everything. Without commitments, retrospective meetings are a waste of time and that is often the reason that people let them drift away (see my first point!). Scrum Masters, listen up! It is critical that you get every team member to acknowledge that they are committing to whatever the team decided was the improvement for the next sprint.