Mastering the Agile Retrospective to Seek Continuous Improvement


Keeping an Agile project on track requires frequent communication between team members, customers and stakeholders. This makes the Agile Retrospective one of the most important parts of Agile project management. It is an important Agile ceremony that can often fall through the cracks and end up just being a check box. In this article we will walk you through a practical and effective framework for conducting your Agile Retrospectives.


What is an Agile Retrospective?


An Agile Retrospective is a meeting that is held at the end of an iteration, or Sprint, in Agile software development. The twelfth Agile principle outlined in the Agile Manifesto states “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” During the Retrospective, the team reflects on what happened in the iteration and identifies actions for improvement going forward. It is the timely opportunity to celebrate successes and correct mishaps before moving on to the next iteration.

Retrospectives come in many approaches, including broadly defined project debriefs and postmortems, to more specifically defined Plus-Minus-Interesting (PMI) Analysis, Five Whys Analysis and STEALTH Debriefs. They all share the overarching objective of achieving continuous improvement via collaborative and objective reflection.


The Tone and Process of the Retrospective

The Retrospective should be part of your organization’s execution rhythm, scheduled to occur immediately following the end of the project, iteration or Sprint. The Retrospective is team-driven, and team members should decide together how the meetings will be run and how decisions will be made about improvements. A skilled facilitator is not explicitly required to lead a Retrospective. However, the designated facilitator, selected in advance of meeting, should be prepared, well organized and capable in the art of objectively guiding a team through the debriefing process.

The tone is the most important, and often the most difficult facet of the Retrospective to achieve. Team members should all feel free from judgment or repercussions in order to achieve the objective of identifying the root cause of any challenges or mishaps that occurred during the Sprint. To do this, the Retrospective should establish a trusting open environment, typically involving only the team members who contributed to the project, and adopt an “it’s not who’s right, its what’s right” mindset. 

An effective Retrospective must go fairly deep within a relatively brief period of time, allowing the team to examine the successes and struggles. Discussion is the key to finding the cause of each result. The cause should be how the result occurred, the action or omission by an individual or the influence of an external element that led to that result. Once the cause has been determined, the team must then determine the root cause or why the result occurred. This step will help to guide the collective analysis past individual attribution and into the processes that led to the result.

Other objectives of the Retrospective include establishing a standard format and timeframe, deciding the level of advanced data gathering and preparation required to have a meaningful Retrospective, and defining the forum for documenting findings and outcomes (lessons learned).


Our Retrospective Framework

Given the tone and general process described above, there are a number of formats for Retrospectives.  A simple yet effective framework for capturing the output of the Retrospective is illustrated below.  This simplified framework keeps the team discussion focused and organized.  Being able to call out the standout team players in the team recognition section helps create a positive vibe in the team.  It is also important to have a candid discussion about the failures and lessons learned from those.



Keeping the final output in mind, we can now talk about the process for getting there. We suggest starting with this standard five-step process, with a one-hour time constraint to promote efficiency and productivity.

  1. Set the Stage (5-10 minutes). Start by establishing the purpose for the meeting, typically by asking the “what do we want to accomplish in our Retrospective” and “what do we hope to gain from having the discussion?” Setting the stage is the meeting’s ice breaker, designed to get everyone involved and ready to collaborate. A good starting point is to restate the Sprint objective and compare the actual results against the intended results.
  2. Gather Information (10-15 minutes). Using a brief set of summary information collected in advance of the meeting, create a shared picture of what happened during the Sprint. This is your team’s chance to share what went well and what went wrong. This information can either be shared by everyone verbally with a designated moderator documenting the observations or by giving the project team a few minutes of silence to write down their individual experiences.
  3. Generate Insights (10-15 minutes). Discuss what was successful and identify any roadblocks to success. The project team should look for patterns in the responses, but then dig below the surficial observation for each item’s root cause.
  4. Agree on Actionable Next Steps (15 minutes). Identify the highest priority items to work on and assign measurable goals on those items so they can be completed. In this step, the project team determines what is most important for their work going into your next iteration. This is also an opportunity to create new processes that replicate the last Sprint’s wins and prevent the same problems from occurring again.
  5. Close the Retrospective (5-10 minutes) – Take the remaining few minutes to recap your discoveries and action steps. Make sure everyone knows which actions they are responsible for before ending the meeting. This is also a timely point to identify the successes of the iteration as well to express gratitude for each person on the team for their dedication to continual improvement throughout the project. Finally, do not forget to document and post the findings in the appropriate community share forum.


Closing Thoughts

Agile is a collaborative methodology, and that methodology extends all the way to the Retrospective. Each Retrospective will be most beneficial when your project team takes ownership and leads the conversation. If you are the Retrospective facilitator, your job is to guide, facilitate and document the discussion while everyone else shares their successes, failures, lessons-leaned and ideas. A well-run Retrospective meeting can do wonders to achieving continuous improvement and improving team’s velocity, as well as helping build an environment of trust and camaraderie.