5 Techniques That Will Revolutionize Your Agile Retrospectives

Agile retrospectives are paramount. They help you reflect on your progress and understand how to improve for next time. They expose hidden issues that plague your team’s productivity for weeks or even months. They are the ONLY way for agile teams to improve consistently after every sprint. Yet, so many teams struggle to conduct their retrospectives efficiently.

In this article, we’ll share 5 Agile retrospective techniques that:

  • Keep your retrospectives relevant and actionable
  • Help your team grow with each sprint
  • Facilitate quick team adoption of retrospectives 

Let’s dive in!

Retrospective Technique #1. Attendee Review

Here’s how it starts off: a team follows the scrum guide religiously and only has the scrum team members attending the retrospective. Then after a while, Michael, a marketing director, asks Jill, the scrum master, if he can join the sprint retrospectives. Michael feels like he works a lot with some scrum team members and has some great ideas for improving the team. 

But there’s a catch: Michael is not a part of the scrum teamWould you add Michael to the attendees? There are at least several reasons why you shouldn’t. 

For starters, Michael is an outsider. His perspective is often skewed towards his own goals and rarely considers everything that happens within a team during their work. Outsiders are usually interested in short-term solutions instead of long-term improvement in team dynamics. 

Second, even if Michael participates as a mere spectator, his presence affects how open teammates are about their issues. And retrospectives are all about team members being open and vulnerable. 

Lastly, Michael or someone in his department might be part of the problem, negatively affecting scrum team performance. In this case, scrum team members might be hesitant to discuss possible solutions in Michael’s presence. Over time it’s very easy to forget how you started out, and to add outsider attendees to the retrospectives until the ceremony starts to lose its original purpose.

But what if the Michaels in your organization actually have some really good feedback and ideas for the team? Two good compromise options here are:

  1. When someone from outside the team comes forward with feedback, set up a 1-to-1 between them and the scrum master. The scrum master can then listen to what they have to say, bring back anything constructive to the team directly, and help the outsider understand some of the team dynamics at play. 
  2. In addition to the fixed sprint retrospective, set up ad hoc retrospectives, say at the end of a big project or large deliverable. Invite anyone and everyone involved in the delivery (including the scrum team) to bring their feedback and suggestions to this session.

Tip! Remember to proactively check that only scrum team members attend the regular sprint retrospectives. 

Now and again you should carefully review who is attending your sprint retrospectives to see if you might be unknowingly breaking the free and open spirit of your retrospectives. 

Benefits of keeping the retrospectives to the scrum team members only:

  • The scrum team learns to self-organize. As one of the Agile manifesto principles states, “The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.” In other words, you will get the best results if outside managers who might try to control teams don’t attend, and you instead let teammates perfect their processes themselves.
  • Team members become more transparent and open. Ultimately, team members must be honest about their performance and be committed to continuous improvement. But sharing and discussing team performance is hard, especially with strangers. Don’t let just anyone join the retrospectives to ensure that trust and openness remain high

Retrospective Technique #2. Role-Playing

It’s official: people don’t like boring retrospectives. Retrospectives that are boring are the worst possible retrospectives because bored people don’t care about improving anything. They just want it to end. 

If that sounds all too familiar to you, then maybe your retrospectives are too stuck in the old ways. Perhaps they are too repetitive. Maybe people find them useless. Regardless of the case, the best thing you can do is spice it up. Role-playing techniques are a great way to get your retrospectives off the ground. 

Below are our favorite role-playing gems:

  • C-suite role-playing. C-suite is an excellent role-playing game to play when your team feels that the issues impacting them are beyond their control. Every member of your team imagines themselves as a C-level executive for one day and writes down the top 3 things they would address immediately.

    After collecting feedback from everyone, you might even start noticing the same things showing up over and over again. When patterns emerge, it’s time to take this information to the top of the chain!
  • DnD role-playing. Who doesn’t like Dungeons and Dragons? Thomas Metzmacher, an engineering team leader from Leipzig, turned a retrospective meeting into an action-packed quest with Heroes (i.e., team members), Adventures (i.e., issues), and Taverns (i.e., discussion points). At the end there were many insightful action points, and the team had a lot of fun too.
  • Chocolate Brand. We covered this retrospective technique in our best retrospective games guide, so here’s a quick recap for you: ask every team member to describe the latest sprint as a chocolate brand. Did it feel like a breezy vacation with a Bounty, or distant and vague like Mars? Honestly, this technique’s name could be a “Toy Brand” or “Medieval Historic event.” 

    Using this technique, team members can discuss specific problems indirectly to provide more direct feedback. Also, it’s a real laugh and will set everyone at ease.

Benefits of role-playing in retrospectives:

  • Warm people up before retrospectives. People’s ability to provide open and to-the-point feedback is paramount to the success of retrospectives. Role-playing techniques set people at ease and foster the atmosphere of sharing and trust. 
  • Encourage change. Changing is tough for anyone, and retrospectives are all about producing a change in teams. Role-playing allows people to try out new things and new ways of doing things before any solid commitment. 
  • Find new perspectives and creative outside-the-box solutions. Deep underlying team issues are tough to spot and even more challenging to solve. A role-playing process helps you discover outside-the-box perspectives you’d otherwise never consider. 

Retrospective Technique #3. Total Recall

One of the common problems with retrospectives is the absence of team memory. Surely many valuable insights and opinions could be gained from a weekly retrospective, but what difference does it make if no one remembers how each retrospective helped a team in the first place?

The worst thing is that if no one can remember how retrospectives helped the team become better, the team members become skeptical and less engaged in the process. The Total Recall technique will come to your rescue. 

How to use the Total Recall retrospective technique: 

  • Facilitate note-taking and data collection. Encourage every team member to collect valuable notes during the retrospective.
    Note: If your team is a bit lazy in that respect, use automated solutions such as Geekbot to effortlessly gather and organize feedback from everyone during a retro.
  • Organize your notes. After the session ends, bring all the notes together and spend 5 minutes grouping them. You can group notes by problems, positive or negative feedback, or the effort required to solve the problem.
  • Use an emotional seismograph. Finding out what people think is valuable, but even more valuable can be finding out how people feel about retrospectives in general. Start your retro by asking everyone: How useful do you find our retrospectives on a scale from 1 to 5?

    Analyze these survey responses to see how group perception changes over time. You can also apply NLP analysis to your team responses in Slack to monitor for team happiness automatically and in more detail. 

Benefits of the Total Recall retrospective technique:

  • More actionable retrospectives. After doing Total Recall for some time, you’ll start seeing whether your retrospectives impact your team productivity and output. If your retrospectives don’t seem to produce any tangible impact, it’s time to change something!
  • Long-term issues are resurfaced and can be addressed. Long-term team issues are much harder to spot. Is your team having a communication problem? Is there a lack of trust between departments? You can use Total Recall to clearly define long-term issues and finally resolve them.

Retrospective Technique #4. Short Retrospective

Attention! Short retrospectives are not a long-term solution. 

Typically, a retrospective should last at least 45 minutes for every week of sprint duration. For a two-week sprint, that’s a 90-minute retrospective. But… Some teams don’t conduct retrospectives at all, which is so much worse. 

There are many reasons: maybe their previous retrospectives were poorly conducted. Perhaps they believe retrospectives are a waste of time. Or maybe they are just pretending to be Agile. Try Short Retrospectives if you want your colleagues to see the point of doing retrospectives again. 

How to conduct Short Retrospectives:

  • Set a 20-minute timer at the beginning. Get your team’s buy-in by explicitly stating that this retro will not last long. 
  • Assign a measurable goal to the retrospective. For example, your goal should be to identify 3 issues that affect team productivity and 3 actions for the next sprint. 
  • Collect feedback in advance. Before the retrospective starts, ask every team member to send their top 3 issues from the last sprint. 
  • Organize feedback in advance. Organize everyone’s issues around common problems. 
  • Conduct a barebones retrospective.
    • [3 minutes] Explain how the retrospective will go. [Check-in stage]
    • [3 minutes] Share everyone’s top 3 issues from the last sprint, anonymously. [Presentation stage]
    • [5 minutes] Ask everyone to vote on the most important issues. 
    • [7 minutes] Ask every team member to propose at least one action to solve one of the top 3 issues.
    • [2 minutes] Close the retrospective, thanking everyone for their time. 

In under 20 minutes, you’ll have an action plan for the next sprint for the top 3 issues your team identified during the retrospective. You can present this plan during the next sprint planning. 

Want to make this process even more simple for you and your team? Use Geekbot and conduct no-fluff asynchronous retrospectives directly in Slack and Microsoft Teams in under 5 minutes

Benefits of the Short Retrospective technique: 

  • Short retrospectives are better than no retrospectives. A team that doesn’t conduct retrospectives is a team that doesn’t improve. It’s as simple as that. 
  • Restore team trust in retrospectives. When you prove that retrospectives can be efficient even when very short, you’ll boost your team’s confidence towards more prolonged and in-depth retrospective sessions. 

Retrospective Technique #5. Appreciative Retrospective

It’s easy to criticize people. It’s easy to compliment people. Do you know what’s really hard?  To balance both. Retrospectives are often turned into blaming sessions, especially with inexperienced teams. And even if your intention was never to criticize someone, you never know if someone perceives it that way.

That’s why, with time, team members may start to perceive retrospectives as a meeting where their work will be 100% criticized. This perception hurts both the level of trust and openness in your team. Ultimately, it leads to stiff and less insightful retrospectives.

Do you want to get out of this closed circle? Conduct Appreciative Retrospectives!

An appreciative retrospective focuses the entire conversation (or a portion of the conversation) during the retrospective exclusively on positive aspects of the team’s experiences in working together.
Philip Rogers, an established Agile coach and advisor. 

Here’s how to conduct an Appreciative Retrospective:

  • Set the positive stage. At the beginning of your retrospective, share with team members that today you’ll be focused only on positive aspects of your work.

    This is a no-criticism session. Transfer negative experiences into positive ones and try to see the good in everything.
  • Collect data with a twist of appreciation. Team members ask and answer a series of questions that help them to focus on individual and team strengths and successes.

    For example, ask colleagues to share stories of when someone helped them during the last week. Or how they liked working with someone and why. Facilitate the appreciation spree!
  • Generate positive insights. Make sure all of the data-gathering questions are followed by a question that creates a happy, productive vision.

    For example, ask every team member to imagine traveling into the future at the end of the next release and talking to their future selves. In this future, they learn that it has been the most productive, most satisfying work they have ever done. What do they see and hear in that future?

    Let each team member connect with this vision.

    Then, ask: “What changes did we implement in the past that made such productive and satisfying work possible in the future?”

Benefits of the Appreciative Retrospective technique:

  • Restore the “trust battery” within a team. In the past, we interviewed the Shopify team and learned about their “trust battery” concept that was fundamental to their team success.The Shopify engineering department used the trust battery metaphor extensively to promote trusted relationships among their co-workers.

    If you struggle with low trust during your sprint retrospectives, an Appreciative Retrospective is an excellent way to recharge your trust and encourage a culture of growth within your team.
  • Connect to and facilitate a positive vision. There is no shortage of books and case studies on the power of visualization in inviting personal and professional success. The Appreciative Retrospective helps your team visualize a desired future outcome, thus boosting performance and aligning them around a shared positive vision.

These 5 retrospective techniques are designed to turn your retrospectives into a powerful tool for team growth. 

We hope you’ll find a way to incorporate them into your sprint. If you’re looking for a way to conduct effective, actionable, and to-the-point retrospectives directly in your Slack or Microsoft Teams, try Geekbot!

Feel free to check out our free 14-day trial to make your distributed team happier, more focused and productive!

Frequently asked questions

How Do You Facilitate a Good Retrospective?

A good retrospective is one in which everyone on the team feels comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings. To facilitate such a retrospective, you need to ensure that your team members trust each other and your process. Start with warming up exercises and icebreakers to set everyone at ease, and gradually proceed to more complex subjects while analyzing the team’s mood.

Why Should You Use Different Retrospective Techniques?

Every team is unique, and some teams will have more effective retrospectives than others. If your team struggles to make the most out of agile retrospectives, there are several techniques you can use to address that. Different retrospective techniques allow the agile team to increase the level of trust, make retrospectives fun and engaging and facilitate actionable output with tangible positive consequences for your team.

What is the Retrospective Technique?

A retrospective technique is any approach or framework that aims to make your retrospective more efficient in one way or another. Some retrospective techniques help address low trust and disengagement towards retrospectives. Other techniques make retrospectives more actionable and focused, helping teams to achieve better results without wasting precious time.

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