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What is a Sprint Retrospective? and why should we run it?

What is A Sprint Retrospective?

By definition, a retrospective allows us to look back on past events or situations. According to the Scrum Guide, the sprint retrospective is an “opportunity for the Scrum Team to inspect itself and create a plan for improvements to be enacted during the next Sprint.” Makes sense, especially since the focus of agile development is continuous improvement. In order to get better, we must know which sword to sharpen.

The retrospective should create a safe space for people to share their honest feedback on what’s going well, what could be improved, and generate a discussion around things that should change next time around – with actionable items documented. Retrospectives can be used for any type of team working on a shared project, but the sprint retrospective is specially optimized for an agile production team. It is one of the ceremonies that Scrum and Kanban teams leverage throughout cyclical product development.

What’s great about the retrospective is that it happens right as a sprint closes, meaning fresh ideas are usually top of mind and ability to be teased out by the whole team. We’ll dig into how this differs from a sprint review later, but the main point to remember is that it all boils down to continuous improvement. The purpose of the sprint retrospective is to drive positive change in the project, the team, the account, and potentially the organization.

Why should we run a Sprint Retrospective?

If we’re practicing some sort of agile methodology, chances are the sprint retrospective is already a part of our routine. Ironically, the routine might be an issue that some production teams face. Often, teams can fall into their rhythm, and vital ceremonies like the sprint retrospective can become so run-of-the-mill that teams aren’t using them to their intended advantage. Rest assured, we’ll dive into some ways to mix things up later.

If you’re asking yourself whether we should run a sprint retrospective, here are a few of the many benefits of retrospectives:

  • It creates a safe, blameless space for team members to share their valuable feedback.
  • It allows the team to document wins and areas of opportunity.
  • It provides an actionable list of next steps and identifies who’s owning which item.
  • It identifies small, incremental changes that can lead to larger waves of improvement.
  • It allows teams to iterate on their process to amplify results.
  • It allows opinions to be heard.
  • It helps the team mature.
  • It makes each sprint better than the last.

Sprint Review vs Sprint Retrospective?

Both the sprint review and the sprint retrospective are scrum ceremonies used around the world by production teams. While similar – in that they both take place at the end of the sprint – they are separate and distinct exercises and should always be treated as such.

The sprint review creates an opportunity for the team to showcase the work that has just been completed in the latest sprint. This can be more casual in nature, where a demo of the work is presented to internal team members. It can also be a more formal meeting, where stakeholders outside of the core team can be invited to a showcase. The work should always be fully demonstrable and meet the team’s defined quality in order to be reviewed. So, it’s said, the team can celebrate their accomplishments and get immediate feedback from sprint review attendees during this meeting.

Once the sprint review is over, the sprint retrospective typically takes place. This is where the team reflects on the work they just completed, offers up kudos to what went well, and identifies suggestions for improvement moving forward. It should be action-oriented, blameless, and adapted to fit the team’s needs. It is typically facilitated by the Scrum Master.

 

To put it plainly, the sprint review is showcasing the demo of the work that was just completed, and the sprint retrospective is about identifying areas of improvement to make the next sprint better.

A somewhat important sidebar is that all these ceremonies should be timeboxed appropriately. There are a lot of resources available that break timeboxing down a bit more, but all ceremonies should have strict time boundaries. This helps to ensure the most important topics are addressed

in each ceremony. Timeboxing also helps to reduce unnecessary time spent in agile meetings and creates a more efficient development process.

Note that timeboxing does depend on the length of the sprint. Let’s take a two-week sprint for example. The sprint review should last a maximum of 2 hours. After that, the sprint retrospective should only last 90 minutes. It may be tempting to extend these, but we will likely experience diminishing return. Keep them timeboxed and focused!

Challenges while conducting a Sprint Retrospective and how to handle them

Even if sprint retrospectives are new to the team, chances are production members that we work with have been a part of these before in a previous role. As with any ritual, there may be varying levels of emotional baggage that we or our team bring to the table, based on previous experiences. Here are some things we might run into during a retrospective and how to combat said speedbumps:

Apathy

If the same questions are asked sprint after sprint after sprint, team members can become less engaged in the answers and stop offering up constructive suggestions to improve the process.

Combat apathetic participation by mixing things up! The outcomes of a good retrospective can be reached by adopting different exercises and questions. There is no “one ring to rule them all” when it comes to retrospectives for a reason – we should iterate on the way we run this.

Emotions

At the end of the day, we are people. And people have emotions. We are also not perfect creatures. Retrospectives should invite constructive feedback on what could go better in future sprints, but it should never support hostility, baseless negativity, and finger-pointing.

It’s vital for Scrum Masters to be non-judgmental and unbiased facilitators during the retrospective meeting. People should feel safe to share their feedback in this meeting. We should set expectations when we kick off the sprint retrospective, mediate along the way when necessary, and promote a positive conversation.

Lack of conversation

We might have a sprint retrospective where it feels like questions are met with blank stares. Instead of pulling teeth to get the conversation going, we should come up with a more engaging opening to the meeting and treat it like the great opportunity to drive incremental change that it is.

Apart from that, we can encourage our teams to write their suggestions and thoughts down throughout the course of a sprint. This will give them something to look at during the retrospective instead of feeling like they need to pull anything out of thin air.

Pushback from Leadership

Sometimes, action items identified in the retrospective impact members outside of the production team. Whoever is owning that item should be working with leadership to develop a conversation around the suggestion and detail ways to make the requested change. It is possible, however, that leadership will be resistant to the suggestion.

If that is the case, keep at it. Find champions within the organization who will go to bat for the production team and the improvements that stem beyond them. An agile company is one that values positive change and eventually is willing and open to implementing process improvements that benefit the team at large. We should be sure to frame any recommendations in a way that doesn’t single anyone out or cause undue stress.

Earnest Participation

Sprint retrospectives can be a ceremony that people look forward to most because it should create a space to assess how process improvements have gone and allowed for more suggestions to follow.

We should strive for participation by offering up gratitude when team members really dive into the conversation. Be thankful to those who use this time to make meaningful contributions. Be positive.

Pros and Cons

  1. If run well, what can Sprint Retrospectives provide?
  • Takeaways on how to improve my personal process and/or role, as well as an opportunity to voice potential team-wide process improvements, have conversations around how to be better as a team, and how to better engage with our clients in the future.
  • Help the team identify areas for improvement and provide a platform to talk about values or results the whole team can work on going forward.
  • Insight and collaborative feedback into what is going well within the team, what isn’t and what can be improved. The best-case scenario is when the team is guided to create and experiment with solutions to challenges on their own.
  1. If Run Poorly, What Can Happen?
  • It can turn into a complaining or bashing session. Another negative is if things are brought up that never end up changing or getting implemented.
  • It could result in a missed opportunity for the team to grow.
  • The status quo is kept. While this may be tempting to let pass for the short term, it can have a disastrous long-term effect of changing the culture within the team.

5 tips to improve the effectiveness of Sprint Retrospective

 

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