Many think of hosting a sprint retrospective as a 30-60-minute task on their to-do list that comes with being on an agile team. This unfortunately reduces team retros to a typical "Start, Stop, Continue" routine that does little to bring out their full benefits for fostering trust and improving team productivity.
The truth is: hosting an effective team retrospective takes work – not only during the meeting, but also before and after it's conducted.
In this guide, I’ll share some helpful tips I used as an Agile Coach to help you facilitate truly effective retros your team will enjoy.
What is a retrospective?
A retrospective is a team meeting typically hosted at the end of a sprint cycle or product launch to discuss what went well, what didn’t, and what can be done to improve the process of working together for the next round.
Teams, in general, rarely take the time to pause and discuss how things are going and what can be done better. Agile retrospectives, therefore, offer teams the chance to inspect their workflow and processes, identify roadblocks before they grow, and come up with actionable improvements to try for the following sprint. Retrospectives are not only limited to tech teams - Formula 1 teams diligently conduct multiple post-race debriefs after each race, attended by nearly every department so that everyone can be aligned on how to maximise their potential before the next race comes. Though retrospective and post-race debrief have different names, they follow similar formats and achieve the same outcome: rapid, continuous improvement.
Retrospectives can be held on a team level, across squads or tribes, and can vary in the timeframe of reflection depending on your organization's sprint cycle. In fact, you can broaden retrospectives to any size and even host company-wide or executive-only retros, but the time you dedicate and the activities you choose will greatly depend on how much you scale the meeting. F1 team debriefs can range from 50 to 500 attendees, and can last from 2-4 hours. For the purposes of this guide, I'll focus on team-level retrospectives, as they're the most common and most in demand.
Why are team retros important?
To understand why retros are important, let's take a look at some of the benefits they bring to teams:
Optimize work processes
By having open discussions with the team about what methods can be made better, and the "what", "why" and "how" of what needs to be eliminated, retros let you refine your work process.
Catch project bottlenecks before they explode
Retros give teams the time to identify and resolve technical bottlenecks and issues affecting the team before they grow into bigger obstacles that impact team productivity and work culture.
Improve team communication
Teams can develop a better understanding of its members and how to work better together when they go beyond the "Start, Stop, and Continue" format for retros and shake things up by trying different activities that highlight the importance of clear communication and active listening.
At Ourspace, for example, we played an improv game as a fun way to foster collaboration and teamwork, and learn how to support one another when things go awry.
Infuse trust within the team culture
Retros provide a regular opportunity to discuss concerns and find solutions around them. In the long haul, employees develop the habit of not only opening up about issues during retros, but also proactively raising them outside of retro sessions.
Regular retros help create a psychologically safe environment that encourages everyone on the team to bring up their concerns about the people, process, and product. Selecting the right activity will help with the problem-solving part of the retrospective. Equipped with the right retrospective tools, any cross-functional team can become collaborative, effective, and self-organized even when conflicts arise.
How to run an effective retrospective in 4 simple steps
Effective retros don’t just require work during the meeting. To have a truly productive retro, prepare before the session and stay engaged after.
1. Block time for regular team retros
Without it, you’ll find yourself putting retrospectives on the back-burner, prioritizing other things that may seem higher priority - like that next feature launch or design sprint.
At Ourspace, we have weekly retros on Tuesdays for the product team, and on Wednesdays for the Go-to-Market team. We keep these separate because the functions have different processes they each follow, but we also schedule in a monthly "company retro" that everyone joins together so as to not be out of sync with one another.
Having a regular cadence also helps the facilitator know when to prepare for. At Ourspace, we rotate the facilitator role so the responsibility to prepare doesn't always fall on one person.
2. Pre-retro work: reflect on what needs discussing
Taking time to reflect on what and how the work has been done before the retrospective can help decide whether the meeting format needs to be technical, or personal.
Here are some considerations to keep in mind:
Reflect on what needs addressing
Ask yourself: Are there any major themes that I think will come up in the retro? Is there any underlying tension that I think should be addressed through an activity like Mad, Sad, Glad?
Poll the team on what’s top of mind
Learn what your team thinks needs to be brought to the discussion table. You can also create a retro inbox where members share post-its with topic suggestions.
Host one-on-ones with team members if needed
Work can be stressful, and some conflict is normal (and healthy!). If there are tensions brewing, host one-on-ones with the people involved before the retrospective. Aim to create psychological safety by understanding each person’s perspective on what went wrong and encouraging them to bring up the issue in the meeting. Make sure you tell team members that you’ll be there to steer the discussion toward a solution rather than dwelling on the conflict itself, so they feel supported and less worried about the risk of escalating the situation.
Send topics beforehand
If you're limited on time, after selecting a theme or topic, share it with the team so they have time to prepare for the activity beforehand. This is also a best practice to ensure the activity is inclusive for introvert and extrovert teammates.
Start with an icebreaker
Research shows that when people speak at the beginning of a meeting, they'll be more likely to speak again later on. Use this theory to encourage participation from all members of the team by introducing an icebreaker at the beginning of the session. At Ourspace, we've done everything from choosing a song or movie poster to represent how we're feeling, to sharing which chihuahua we identify with that day.
3. During the retro: adapt as you go
It's important to have a plan going into the retro, but once you're there, be prepared to adapt according to what comes up.
In general, try to timebox topics equally, but if you find that one particular topic is important for the whole group, then extend the timebox but decide as a group which other topics to put on the back-burner.
All this requires active listening. As a facilitator, encourage everyone in the session to listen actively as well. This means removing potential distractions like phones and laptops — but if hosting remotely, encourage others to only have the video conferencing window and retro activity open during the session.
As a facilitator, be ready to steer the conversation when you find:
- The conversation keeps diverging and is not leading to an actionable solution
- Employees spend too long discussing personal matters that aren’t related to the team
- Employees are discussing something they have little control over, i.e. is out of scope
Lastly, pay attention to who isn’t participating and encourage them to share their views on one of the topics. If this persists, consider speaking to them outside of the retro to understand the reasons behind it.
4. Post-retro work: keeping everyone accountable
By the end of the meeting, you should have a list of actionable items from the session to implement and a member of the team to take lead on each of them. At Ourspace, after we go through our ice breakers, we start each session by reviewing the status of the action items set at the previous retro.
Mid-way through the upcoming cycle, send a gentle reminder to the team to ensure people haven't forgotten about the commitments you've made as a group, and begin the next retro by reviewing the status of the action items.
3 free online retrospective tools to spice things up
As we wrap this up, I’ll leave you with the retrospective tools and templates that we use at Ourspace alongside for remote team retros:
1. Free Remote Whiteboard
We use (and love) Miro to brainstorm, mindmap, strategize, and as a space where we run and keep our weekly retros. Here's an example of a retro we did a few weeks before our first offsite, where we discussed how to better prioritise our time in the upcoming cycle.
2. Free Collaboration Templates
Whiteboard templates give you a great starting point to make remote retros feel more collaborative. If you're looking for new ideas, then SAFe® Collaborate or FunRetro offers some great options for energizers, check-ins and retrospectives. Here are two example templates we’ve trialed:
3. Free Conversation Cards for tech teams
At Ourspace, we’re big fans of conversation cards as our go-to ice breaker for team offsites and retros, so much so that we’ve created our own version of Leadership Conversation Cards. Our first edition is for product teams specifically with input from 25+ Product, Design, Growth and Engineering leaders who shared their most pressing big-picture and operational topics. Feel free to use them for your own team retros, brainstorms or 1:1s. We hope they increase team communcaiton and collaboration!
Now you're ready to be a retro pro
By now, you've prepped, selected your activity, and you're ready to host your retro. Whether you want to call them retrospectives or debriefs, having regular team retros while shaking up the meeting format delivers benefits to the team efficiency and culture. Make sure you’re proactively taking the steps to create a safe space where everyone feels understood, and doesn’t hesitate in sharing their concerns and ideas. Here’s to effective team retros 🥂