Don’t look back in anger: 10 top tips for a kick-ass retrospective

Zone delivery director Zara Powell loves a good retro: here she explains how to make the most of your team’s time together…

As a self-confessed agile nerd, a question I like to ask my peers is: “What is your favourite ceremony?For me, the one that always wins is the retrospective.

A retrospective is a great opportunity for teams to come together, in a safe space, to inspect and adapt. They can celebrate their successes and reflect on what could be improved, with no finger pointing or blame.

“But we have so many meetings” or “We just talk about the same things” are comments I’ve heard muttered by team members before. My challenge back would be to ask: “If the same things are continuously arising in the retro, then what are you as the team doing to avoid these things happening in the future?” That could be leaning into your scrum master or delivery manager, escalating as appropriately or taking proactive action within the team to hold yourselves to account.

If a retrospective is facilitated well, it’s not just another meeting. Here are my 10 top tips and techniques for a kick-ass retro.

  1. Prepare, but don’t be scared to improvise

Set yourself up for success! Ahead of time, it is useful to understand how many people are coming, how much time you have in the session and how long you think each planned exercise will take, while also allowing yourself enough time for discussion.

However, sometimes things just don’t go as planned and that’s OK. It could be that a controversial topic is raised and lots of discussion is required, or the team morale is low and needs boosting. Embrace it: working in an agile way is all about inspecting and adapting and this is no different. Be comfortable with change, the ability to improvise will really help you in these situations.

2. Timeboxes are your friend

You could have the best retrospective planned, but if you don’t timebox the exercises and discussion, it is really easy for time to run away with you and before you know it, the session is over with no clear or tangible actions and next steps. Be realistic with your timeboxes and don’t try to fit too much in — you’ll end up feeling frazzled and so will the team.

Top tip: in a remote retro, Miro is an excellent collaborative tool AND it has a timer functionality that works really well.

3. Know your audience

Understanding your audience is really important. How you might approach a retrospective with a new team will be different to how you tackle a retrospective with a more mature team. Similarly, what might work at a team level will differ for a more senior audience. This applies to the icebreakers you may choose to use as well as the format of the retrospectives.

4. Set the scene

This perhaps sounds obvious, but sometimes it is easy to wrongly assume that everyone understands what a retrospective is and the value of them. By taking 30 seconds to ensure everyone is aligned, it helps create a safe environment for the whole team to ensure no finger pointing and blame, but rather a welcoming atmosphere for positive and candid discussions.

5. Ice breakers don’t have to be cheesy

Often, when an ice breaker is suggested, it causes people to shudder at what forced fun they are going to be subjected to. This doesn’t have to be the case. There are so many ice breakers available that are a really enjoyable way to get to know the team better, or have a laugh as a more established team. For me, the real benefit of an icebreaker is that it allows you to switch off from what you were doing just before the retro and lets you focus and be present.

6. Variety is the spice of life

A common challenge with retrospectives is that teams get bored or can stop seeing the value. An easy way to help overcome this is by ensuring, as the facilitator, that you are using different templates and tools for the retrospectives and not sticking to the same format each time. There are SO many variations on how to run a retro, whether it be something visual like the desert island retro, something simple like the agile starfish or more comprehensive like the Spotify squad health check.

Find a couple that you feel comfortable with facilitating and arm yourself with them in your toolkit. With time and experience you will start to expand this and perhaps even feel confident enough to start making up your own!

7. Make it actionable

Following on from the previous point, another common pitfall is that teams can sometimes feel like they are often raising the same points time and again. The most common reason for this is that while the retrospective may allow for some valid points to be raised and even discussed, without capturing a proactive action or next step off the back of it, it is unlikely that anything will change.

In addition to capturing the action, as a team you should assign an owner(s) to drive the action forward. They may not be the one to actually complete it but can take the onus of holding the team accountable to resolve or prevent an issue from arising again.

8. Don’t hold the pen

A piece of advice that has always stuck with me as a facilitator is to never hold the pen. This might seem strange but, ultimately, when facilitating a workshop or retrospective, if you are the one holding the pen, the team will look to you to do the writing.

By putting the pen down (or in the virtual world, enabling everyone to get involved), it empowers the team members and individuals to actively get their thoughts across and be heard. This means that whether you have the loudest voice in the room, or are perhaps more shy in a workshop setting, it doesn’t matter — everyone’s points are valid.

9. Remember to celebrate your successes

It’s really easy to focus on all of the things that haven’t worked, have caused frustrations or slowed the team down. The challenges always seem to stand out more than the wins, but celebrating the things that have gone well boosts morale in the team. More than that, it is important to understand why they were successful and what is working well so that the team can continue moving forward.

10. The power of the dot vote

Often in retrospectives a number of discussion points are raised by the team but as retrospectives last for a finite amount of time, it is sometimes a more valuable use of time to prioritise the points to allow for more meaningful discussion and capture actions, rather than whizz through them all quickly.

By using dots for each of the team members to vote on their top 3 items (or however many you choose) that most resonated with them, this means that the discussions are about the most standout points — often the ones which need addressing or adapting for improvement.

Ultimately, having a regular opportunity for the team to come together to communicate and collaborate can only be a good thing. It fosters an environment that encourages candid feedback in a safe environment, it encourages celebration of successes and it optimises productivity, process and performance within the team to enable them to deliver and be the best they can be.

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