Sprint Retrospectives in Practice

First published in The Agile Zone, 4 August 2013

Remembrance and reflection, how allied;What thin partitions sense from thought divide.

- Alexander Pope

Retrospectives, and why you need them

A couple of months ago we looked at how to conduct a Sprint Review. We saw that a Review considers what work was done, and distinguished it from a Sprint Retrospective which reflects upon how work is being done. The distinction between the two can appear to be rather academic, and slurring a Review and a Retrospective together is a mistake that is often made by immature teams. After all, both take a reflective view of a Sprint that has just finished, and both can be said to fulfill a remit of historical inquiry.

Yet while the separation of concerns might seem to be a narrow one, it is nonetheless quite precise, and there is great value to be had in maintaining the appropriate focus. A Review looks candidly at what has been achieved, and soberly at what remains to be achieved, with regard to product completion. A Retrospective on the other hand is an opportunity for the Scrum Team to inspect and adapt their actual implementation of the Scrum process. The rationale behind this inspection is methodological but it is in no sense abstract. It is grounded firmly in the desire to achieve worthwhile and practical reform. Perhaps there are certain working practices which the team can make more efficient, or which can otherwise be improved upon. If so, a Retrospective presents the ideal opportunity for those improvements to be discussed and brought into action. Failing to inspect and adapt in this manner will condemn a team to perpetual infancy and the repetition of past mistakes.

Sprint Retrospectives help keep a Scrum team on the road to continual improvement. When these sessions are done well, team members will not be afraid to challenge the status quo, and will do so in a constructive and informed manner. The result will be an improved delivery of value – in fact, the sort of productivity gain that might well be identified in the Sprint Review we considered earlier. In this article we’ll switch our attention fully to Retrospectives, and examine the matter of how they should be conducted.

Setting up a Retrospective

As any event manager will tell you, the key to a successful gig lies in the preparation. Okay…I’ll concede that a holding a Retrospective isn’t as mammoth an undertaking as hosting the Thinking Digital conference, nor can it be said to demand the organizational skills of Bruce Springsteen’s road manager. Nevertheless it’s still important to get a few ducks in a row. Let’s start by lining them up and giving them some admittedly rather unimaginative names: Why, Who, Where, When, and What. We’ve just covered the issue of why a Retrospective needs to be held…that duck’s down. Let’s pop the rest.

  • Who should attend a Sprint Retrospective? The invitation list for a Sprint Retrospective should be simple and uncontroversial. According to the Scrum Guide all Scrum Team members are expected to attend. That’s the Developers, the Scrum Master (who may facilitate the session), and the Product Owner. No others are expected. In fact, it would be quite irregular to extend the invitation to other people, even if they consider themselves to be important players or stakeholders. That’s because it is the Scrum Team who are responsible for the way they have implemented the Scrum Framework. Only they are in a position to inspect and adapt their very own ways of working. For this reason, all members have a duty to be present, to contribute, and to help make each Retrospective a success. Some teams exclude the Product Owner from this activity, arguing that if he or she was present, the team would not be able to have an open and frank discussion. This is a common issue and we’ll return to it later. For now though, just take it as read that a good Retrospective must include all Scrum Team members, and will give each a voice in molding the processes and working environment that they collectively own.

  • Where should a Retrospective be held? Let’s answer this one with another question. If all of the Scrum Team members are co-located, and if they have the necessary equipment to hand (such as their Scrum board, plus a whiteboard for notes), why not hold the retrospective in situ? In other words, why not just hold the session at the team’s desks? Well, although this might sound like a capital idea, there can be problems. Perhaps it would create too much of a disturbance and annoy other teams within earshot? Then again, perhaps the physical layout of the working area is simply not conducive to holding a meeting. Perhaps the team is not entirely co-located in the first place. Any one of these things can tip the balance in favour of booking an actual meeting room, and getting everyone to decamp there for a Sprint Retrospective. If so, remember to book such a room in advance…if possible as a recurring appointment for the anticipated duration of the project. Make sure it has sufficient capacity and the resources needed.

  • When should a Retrospective happen? The glib answer is to say that a Retrospective should happen “at the end of each Sprint”. A more useful answer would say whether or not it should precede or follow the Sprint Review. In my experience it is generally better to do the Review first, because that helps to establish a context within which the Retrospective can happen. The next thing to consider is how long to allow for the session. As with all Scrum events, a Sprint Retrospective is time-boxed. This means that it isn’t allowed to exceed a set length. The rules of Scrum are exact: for a one month Sprint the limit for a Retrospective is 3 hours, which is reduced to one-and-a-half hours for a two week Sprint. You should adjust this value by the same ratio if needed. Note that if a Retrospective finishes before the time-box expires, that’s fine and dandy. You aren’t obliged to use all of the available time. The rule is simply that the time-box must never be exceeded. Scrum is not a philosophy in which matters are allowed to drag on.

  • What topics should the Retrospective cover? This is the biggest duck in the row, and it’ll take a few pings to knock it down. What we have to do is to establish a suitable agenda for a Sprint Retrospective. We have to formulate it in such a way that the inspection of the team’s Scrum implementation does indeed happen. We also have to make sure that any recommendations for its adaptation are elicited, agreed, and turned into achievable action items. The Scrum Guide provides us with something of a starting point. It isn’t much, but I reckon that if you look at it through a beer glass with your head sideways and one eye closed, you can just about discern a notional agenda for holding a Sprint Retrospective.

A notional agenda

The Scrum Guide is sparing in the advice it gives on how to conduct a Retrospective. We are told that a Scrum Team must:

  • Inspect how the last Sprint went with regards to people, relationships, process, and tools;

  • Identify and order the major items that went well and potential improvements; and,

  • Create a plan for implementing improvements to the way the Scrum Team does its work…[including]…ways to increase product quality by adapting the Definition of “Done” as appropriate.

Yes, I know that’s not much to go on, but each of these items is clearly significant. They seem to address the very rubric of agile practice; we can recognize in them a succinct appeal to the three legs of Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation. In them, we can see not only a notional agenda, but also how critical a Sprint Retrospective is to the Scrum process. A Retrospective is arguably the most important time-boxed event that any agile process can have. If we want to turn these points into a more formal agenda for the session, we’ll have to make sure that each of them is addressed carefully.

Towards a canonical format

Scrum has been around for well over a decade now, and a fairly standard agenda for conducting a Sprint Retrospective has emerged. Here’s what it looks like.

  1. Set the scene. Ways to do this can include any or all of the following:

    • Sketching out a timeline of significant events that occurred in the Sprint, so its historical context can be established

    • Holding the Sprint Review shortly beforehand, so the project context is fresh in attendees’ minds

    • Declaring the Prime Directive in order to define a professional context of mutual respect and openness

  2. Assess prior action items. Unless this is the first sprint, there will have been an earlier retrospective in which some improvements will have been proposed. Look back over each of them. Have they been followed through? In short, has the process actually been adapted following that earlier inspection? If any action items remain undone, make a note of them. They’ll have to be considered when determining actions for the future.

  3. Set up a Retrospective Board. This can be a whiteboard, or even a large sheet of paper stuck to a wall. Divide it into four quadrants and label each in the following manner. The precise terminology does tend to vary a bit. There can be subtle and not-so-subtle differences in meaning (consider the difference between “good points” and “things to continue doing”). Be aware of these differences, as they will shape the responses and ultimately the results.

    • “What went well” (or “good points”, or “things to continue doing”)

    • “What didn’t go well” (or “bad points”, or “things to stop doing”)

    • “Ideas for improvement” (or things to “start doing”)

    • “Shout-outs” (i.e. recognition of noteworthy individual contributions)

  4. Storm the Board. There are several ways in which this can be done. Here are some of the more common ones:

    • Sticky notes. This method is fairly democratic in that each attendee gets a clear say by putting sticky notes on a board. Assertive individuals are therefore less able to dominate others. However, it can be disjointed as attention shifts from one person’s topics to another person’s. As such, it can be hard to develop a line of thought for group discussion. Here’s the process:

      • Blocks of notes are distributed to the attendees.

      • They are given a small time-box (5 or 10 minutes) to jot down their ideas…good points, bad points, improvements, and shouts.

      • Each attendee should write one point per sticky note. There is no limit to the number of points they can make.

      • After the time is up, attendees take it in turn to put their notes on the board and in the relevant quadrants

      • As an attendee puts their sticky note on the board, they briefly state what the point is to the rest of the team

      • Once the last attendee has finished, duplicate points will be identified by the group and removed.

    • Facilitator-as-arbitrator. In this approach a facilitator will act as a scribe for the group, and write their ideas on the board. Group discussion of ideas is encouraged, and the facilitator can arbitrate in the event of disagreement. The downside is that it can favor the more assertive type of individual who ends up doing most of the talking. Here’s how it’s done:

      • The facilitator stands in front of the board with a marker pen

      • Any attendee who has a suggestion to make will make it – a good point, bad point, idea, or shout-out

      • The facilitator writes each suggestion into the appropriate quadrant, disallowing any duplicates.

      • The group discuss the merits of each suggestion

      • The facilitator will erase, keep, or revise each suggestion according to group opinion

    • Hybrid. This uses a mix of techniques, such as a facilitated session for identifying good points and bad points, and a sticky-note approach in order to elicit ideas for improvement. Changing the techniques used in a Retrospective every now and then can help keep the sessions fresh, and is certainly a good idea if you reckon they are getting a bit stale.

  5. Propose actions. I have five rules that I apply when “storming the board” with a team:

    • For every bad point there must be an idea for improvement. In other words, for everything that people are being asked to stop doing an alternative and better course of action must be proposed. This rule helps to keep attendees focused on the need to adapt the process constructively, and not to use the session for mere complaint.

    • If you have been storming for “good points” rather than for things to “start doing”, make sure that each of those points is matched with an idea for further improvement. It isn’t enough to look back appreciatively whenever something positive has happened. Your challenge is to translate that observation into an even bigger future win.

    • Re-assess undone action items from the previous Retrospective. If any remain undone, ask if they are worth bringing forward. Ask why they weren’t implemented, with a view to finding out what really needs to happen to expedite them. If these outstanding actions are impractical, or are no longer relevant, jettison them and concentrate on those improvements which are valuable and achievable.

    • Ask the “Five Whys”. For each action item you produce, you need to be sure that you have understood the root cause and that the action will be appropriate. A shallow retrospective is no retrospective at all. It has to be deep and probing.

    • Improve the Definition of Done. The Scrum Guide doesn’t provide much advice about holding Retrospectives, but it is quite clear about the need to revisit the Definition of Done. This is something that many teams, including some quite experienced ones, forget or otherwise fail to do. So be careful to identify any room for improvement in the team’s understanding of what “done” means, and what it should take for work to be considered potentially releasable.

  6. Vote. It’s quite possible that the list of proposed actions will be extensive. In aggregate they could amount to too much change if all were to be implemented in the forthcoming Sprint. You can resolve this by getting team members to vote on action items, so that only the most important ones are taken forward. For example, if the team can take forward five items, allow each attendee to vote for five of them. The most popular can then be actioned.

Other observations

Here are some other things to consider when conducting a Sprint Retrospective.

  • Decide whether or not to precede it with the Scrum “Prime Directive”. This is an assertion which is meant to be said, in earnest, before each and every Retrospective. It isn’t mentioned in the Scrum Guide, but it is widely recognized and some teams do choose to recite it.

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand”

We considered the significance of this assertion in an earlier article on Agile Teamwork in Practice, so I’m not going to say much more about it here. However, Martin Fowler has expressed his thoughts on the Prime Directive, and I suggest you read his opinion piece in full. All I’ll add is that I am in agreement with his observations and that I share his sense of revulsion.

  • Determine what to do about Product Owner representation. According to the Scrum Primer the Product Owner may attend a Sprint Retrospective. Only “Development Team” members are actually required to be there. Yet according to the Scrum Guide, all “Scrum Team” members must attend. The Scrum Team is a wider group than the Development team and includes the Product Owner.

The reason for this discrepancy probably lies in the interpretation of process ownership. If we see the Development Team as owning the process through which iterative and incremental value will be delivered to a Product Owner, then the PO would not indeed have a say in the adaptation of that process. He or she would merely be a consumer of its outputs, and would therefore be a stakeholder in a Sprint Review but not in a Sprint Retrospective. However, if we view the process as a more collaborative one, in which the Development Team works with the Product Owner to deliver potentially releasable increments of value every Sprint, then the PO would indeed be a stakeholder in how that process is managed, and must therefore attend.

It’s therefore important to determine what relationship the Development Team has, or should have, with the Product Owner. It’s unquestionably best if a Product Owner is on-side as a team player, and can handle root cause analysis and the exposure of potentially uncomfortable truths. Whether or not that is the case though is only something that the team can decide.

  • Remember they’re human. Bring snacks and drinks to keep attendees refreshed, and allow enough time for breaks – at least 10 minutes every hour. Consider wrapping up the session with a “touchy feely graph” of some sort, which captures the mood and confidence of the team. Allow everyone to mark a dot or cross on a chart to show how positive or negative they feel about things, and then see how the mood changes…hopefully for the better…from one Sprint to the next.


A Sprint Retrospective is arguably the most important event that a team can hold. It provides the means to inspect and adapt the team’s actual implementation of the Scrum framework. In this article we’ve looked at how to create an agenda for the session and how to facilitate it, and at the issues of when and where it should be held, and who should attend.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

- George Santayana