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4 simple tips to make your retrospectives worthwhile

As a developer in a product team following the Scrum framework, I have participated in numerous Agile retrospectives. Some of them were crucial because the situation was an emergency, but others, with no specific problem to solve, were redundant.

In this blog post, I would like to share some ideas that could change these unnecessary retrospectives into high-value retrospectives, even if there are no problems in your team.

Idea 1: Share reports to participants

I have seen a lot of Agile retrospectives ending with a picture of a whiteboard full of Post-its and a post in Slack. Even if I appreciate the effort of sharing comments and action items, this picture does not give enough visibility on the past exercise. Here’s why :

  • Readability Zoom-in to find the information I’m looking for, zoom-in again to decrypt my teammate's writing, figuring out that the Post-it with the most votes is hidden by another. These are a few situations I do not want to be in when I need to remember the important facts of my last retrospective.

  • Relevance We express, vote, edit and regroup multiple ideas during a retrospective. Some ideas are excellent, others help solve a debate, but most of them can be ignored. When I read a report, I want it to get straight to the point. The most important comments and action items should be highlighted, so I can easily visualize the information I need.

  • Exhaustiveness Most of the information coming from a retrospective can be found on the whiteboard, but some of them can not. For example, the list of the attending or not attending members, the facilitator and the notes that could have been taken during the activity are essential points to keep track of. A picture does not hold all this information.

A good report requires some additional work from the facilitator. It is necessary to highlight important comments, action items, participants and any information that may influence the understanding of the past retrospective. Having this information easily available will give a better vision of the team’s challenges and action items at the beginning of the next retrospective.

Earth and graviting retrospectives

Idea 2: Track your action items

An Agile retrospective ends with multiple action items that the team must accomplish to be more successful. If only one thing had to be in the report, it would be those action items. Unfortunately, they often get sidelined.

Even if everyone understands their importance, they are easily forgotten.

Improving teamwork is crucial, but the principal goal of your team will always be to make your project move forward. Action items should be placed at the same level of importance as your sprint’s stories or your Kanban board’s tasks. They are essential to make your teamwork well and should be prioritized like the rest of your project.

It is necessary to track the life cycle of your action items. As a developer, it is far easier for me to add a new feature to my application than to have a tough conversation with one of my teammates. Even if I’m aware of the importance of this conversation, I could unconsciously put it lower on my list of priorities. A good coach/scrum master will track the state of these action items to help a team member that is struggling to complete them.

Each Agile retrospective should start with a discussion about the action items from the last activity. Which ones are still in progress? Why? What challenges did the team face while addressing others? Here are some questions that may help you introduce a new retrospective and assess the current state of your team.

A retrospective ends with multiple action items that the team must accomplish to be more successful. If only one thing had to be in the report, it would be them.

Idea 3: Keep a history of your past retrospectives

The history of your team's retrospectives portrays its past and evolution.

It should be simple for any member of your team to go back and find the report they are looking for. Many reasons could justify the need to find this information :

  1. Find the solution to a challenge your team has overcome

  2. Track the evolution of your team

  3. Avoid repeating retrospective exercises

  4. Identify recurring situations

  5. Continuously improve your retrospectives

No matter the tool you use, the most important part is to provide an easy, centralized and sorted solution for anyone who would like to access these reports.

Even if you do not keep track of your action items, keeping a history of your past retrospectives will give you enough facts to assess the state of your team at the beginning of each new activity.

Idea 4: Generate your own data to improve your team

This is probably the most difficult idea to implement because it requires adapted tools.

The Agile retrospective is an activity that generates a lot of data. Comments, votes, labels, and notes all have the same goal: find a solution to a problem and then create action items to help your team. But, there are ways to extract a lot more information about your team’s performance:

  • By keeping a history of past retrospectives and generating optimized reports, you could easily generate relevant information for your team.

  • Use labels to regroup your comments and find out which are the recurring topics in your team.

  • Discover who participates the most or the least in your retrospectives, or even who participates the most or the least to a specific topic.

  • Track your action items in a more efficient way and follow the team members who struggle to complete them. Identify the most challenging topics by linking action items and labels.

  • See if your facilitating skills improve with time. Has your team participation increased? Are your teammates attending more retrospectives? What are your most discussed topics? Is your average return on time invested satisfying?

The history of your team's retrospectives portray its past and evolution.

These four ideas share the same message: keep all your data and organize them. As a coach/scrum master, your retrospectives' data is your most valuable tool.

“Knowledge is power.” This quote may sound cheesy, but it’s hard to prove it wrong.

Taking the most out of your data will put you in the best position to help your team. Of course, it will take time and will place you out of your comfort zone. But with adapted tools, the amount of time you dedicate to harvest and organize your team’s data will be greatly reduced.

I hope this will help you change the way you look back at the information that you have gathered from each Agile retrospective. Maybe you will even want to incorporate some of these ideas in your future activities.