What Is a Retrospective?
In Agile teams, doing a retrospective means reflecting on the past, appreciating the work you and others have done, and identifying further opportunities for improvement. There is no end to improvement and each retrospective meeting can give some new insights on the next steps to take on your journey to excellence. It is a very solid medium for understanding behavior, whether it be the behavior of your team or your own behavior. It is basically a time for reflection on what happened and what can be improved upon. Here teams have an opportunity to spend dedicated time to find opportunities to improve and it is very important to spend some time after every Sprint on self-developmental opportunities.
Why Is it Required?
A retrospective should work as a self-imposed improvement process where everyone is indirectly forced to think about improvements, and the duration could be an hour or more. Leaving everything aside for a while and thinking about ways to improve is the best way to motivate the team. If ideas are coming from within the team, then improvement will be a lot more effective than someone providing feedback to the team. I believe the biggest step toward making an improvement comes in the moment that a team organically generates an idea for their own improvement. This type of self-organizing idea generation makes the acceptance if possible changes easier, and has a very positive impact on the team’s behavior.
If the team keeps running their iterations without reflecting on areas in which they could improve, they will always feel the way they are working is perfect, which is not true, because improvement is a continuous process and there is always an opportunity to excel and get better.
Challenges Around Effectiveness
There are various factors which can impact a retrospective's effectiveness and it is important to recognize those factors and work toward remediating them. For example, having unstructured or unplanned retrospectives, having no clear action items identified, or having too many owners of the action items These are very small points that can create a lot of challenges and dilute the goal of the retrospective. In these situations, team members are not motivated to work towards their own improvement and at the same time delivery efficiency cannot be improved. One of the fundamental objectives of the retrospective is to identify improvement opportunities and work towards them.
There are a few fundamental points that, if taken care, can positively impact the outcome of the retrospectives.
Let’s talk about how we can improve retrospectives.
Planning is a core of the success of any meeting. If planned well, meetings can have an impactful outcome. To that end, Scrum Masters should pre-plan meeting venues and book everyone’s calendar well in advance. I recommend having this on the calendar at the start of the Sprint, so everyone knows when is the meeting and can be well prepared.
Agenda should be always clear to everyone and it can be communicated well in advance, so it can give a clear idea of what to expect and what will be the sequence. Defined agenda will bring discipline in the meeting and will help in making sure that all important items are covered in the meeting. Minimal agenda should include previous action items and discuss their status, identify what team learn from the past sprint and would like to continue, brainstorm pain and improvement areas and do not forget to appreciate team where they went above and beyond of their responsibility and helped business to achieve their goal out of the iteration.
A retrospective is for the entire team and at the end, there will be many action items and some of them directly assigned to the entire team. Here, accountability has been established, but we should have one or, at max, two owners of the action items. For example, if the team has decided to start doing pair programming, then everyone is accountable for making it happen, but one person should take ownership of the process in order to understand how it can be effectively executed. This person should also bring roadblocks to the team's attention early on, so solutions can be brainstormed.
Most teams struggle in their retrospectives and feel really challenged to come up with points that can be discussed in the meeting. However, various new things can be tried to collect ongoing feedback. For example, create a space on your Scrum board and ask team members to write down their thoughts on sticky notes whenever they feel something needs to be addressed. Ongoing, collected feedback will help the team to collect points without missing any important topics.
A retrospective is a sensitive subject and sometimes it can result in heated arguments and it completely depends upon how the team is operating. In order to avoid this situation, write down what really did not go well and focus on the real problem and not the person. If a person is a challenge, then it has to be taken care of in a different route and certainly not in the retrospective. Unhealthy discussions and arguments will diminish the purpose of the retrospective.
Another challenge is that sometimes topics go into a seemingly never-ending discussion. To avoid this type of situation, time box each topic. For example, discuss each action item for a maximum of 10 minutes, and if more discussion is needed, take it outside the retrospective and only invite the individual team members involved in that aspect of the project.
Having standard rules will keep the team organized and help them execute healthy retrospectives in an effective way.
In summary, a retrospective is an important ceremony in Agile and the team should dedicate some time after each iteration to reflect on their own behavior and plan out how to excel in their journey. Not reflecting on what happened and ignoring important opportunities for self-improvement is a big mistake. The simple goal is to have incremental improvement on team’s ability to deliver business objectives. At the same time, retrospectives can also help individuals to improve critical skills for their professional development.