5 Ways to Make Sprint Retrospectives Better
Honest sprint retros are a powerful way to avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly
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Engineering teams need to plan and organize workloads into manageable pieces and sprints are a common, helpful way of doing so. By planning sprints well and including time for not just building, but also getting it done to quality standards, teams can take on a sustainable workload and get more predictable about their schedules. However, if these sprints are not set up efficiently, you can end up feeling worn down by common issues, which sometimes could just be the symptoms of a deeper root cause.
A powerful way to avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly is by doing an honest sprint retrospective – a routine part of the agile process – after each sprint. For an hour or two, all members of the sprint team meet to discuss how to make meaningful improvements to the workflow, process, and team efficiency. An efficient sprint retro can look a little like the below:
Discuss what worked: Have everyone write down what went well on a post-it note and put it on the whiteboard. Discuss each post-it quickly. Using the digital equivalents of post-in notes and whiteboards are also helpful so that everyone has time to think about it individually and then discuss as a team.
What didn’t: Have each person write down what could be improved. Group themes and discuss each one.
Actions: Brainstorm actions that can be taken to improve issues, discuss each one, and assign action items to team members as necessary.
Below are some thoughts on how to get the most of them:
Sprint Retros Should Be a Safe Space
By definition, sprint retros need to be a place where everyone feels safe in order to elicit open discussion. Team members should never feel like they are being personally blamed or that taking responsibility for something that didn’t go well will lead to punishment. If using data for your retros, make sure everyone understands how it'll be used and make sure to collect subjective feedback.
Gather Feedback Throughout the Sprint
Real-time feedback (or personal note-taking) can be impactful. Many times, at retros, people have a recency bias and what happened two weeks ago is almost forgotten. It's important to bring that context back in as a reminder so people can consider the whole duration of the sprint.
Review Items That Were Added Mid-Sprint
Additional work – no matter how “easy” – can throw off the rhythm of a sprint. However, sometimes the items added are absolutely the right priority to take on. Tracking the additional work that comes in gives valuable insight into processes and helps to troubleshoot in advance when something pops up the next time. Did the team balance the sprint to move the lower priority items out?
Understand Your Setbacks as Symptoms, Not Problems
Context is very important. When we see flaws, it is often helpful to look at them as symptoms of larger issues, instead of singular problems. Go down the chain of asking ‘why has this happened?’ A good example of this is a high number of bugs coming in. It could be that the feature is really buggy, or that it has a lot of downstream effects we didn’t know about – or simply – we waited too long to test it and should have eyes on it throughout the development process. Always think about context.
Review Your Project and People Health
Project health is usually front and center of most retrospectives but sprints aren’t just about the product. For long-term success, focus also needs to be on the people making the product. To complete the sprint, was there a risk of burnout? Were there interruptions that caused an unsustainable amount of context-switching? This perspective on the human cost of productivity is an important aspect in running effective sprint retros. There are times where it is possible that you met all your sprint goals, but the entire team is on the edge of burnout. Successful delivery does not always result in team satisfaction.
Once you finish the sprint retro, make sure that everything is clearly noted and action items are understood so that everyone feels like they have the information they need to make the next sprint even better. And make sure you follow up on those action items.
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