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Agile retrospective: What it is and how it works

Kaleigh Moore

As more businesses opt for flexibility in their project management, they turn to agile methods.

Keeping an agile project on track requires a lot of communication between team members, customers and stakeholders. This makes the agile retrospective one of the most important parts of agile project management.

This practice of reflecting on previous work before moving on to the next is even catching on in businesses that aren’t fully on board with all things agile. 81% of surveyed businesses use retrospectives regularly in their projects. Perhaps you are one of them.

If you’ve never run a retrospective before, it might seem intimidating — but it doesn’t have it be. We’ll show you what they are and how you can easily get started using them with your team.

What is an Agile retrospective?

Agile retrospective is a set meeting to reflect on an iteration so teams can continue to make projects better.

It’s a chance to celebrate wins and correct mishaps before moving on to the next iteration. You may also hear this practice called a sprint retrospective if you use the scrum framework.

The retrospective is the last of the agile practices listed in The Agile Manifesto, yet it is at the heart of what the methodology is all about.

This process brings an agile team together at the end of each sprint to discuss their progress with continual improvement as the goal. It’s collaborative, inviting all members of the team to share both their successes and shortcomings during the sprint. Once everyone’s shared, the agile team decides together what your next steps should be.

Where do retrospectives fit into the Agile methodology?

Retrospectives are the final step in the agile methodology — but what is agile, anyway?

Agile project management breaks down projects into smaller segments, each with its own deliverable. These segments are called iterations (or sprints in scrum). Each one lasts for a short amount of time — usually one to two weeks — with the goal of creating something useful that can be sent out to users and stakeholders for feedback.

At the end of each iteration, your team will come together for an agile retrospective to both reflect on the previous one and plan the next.

The Agile lifecycle 

The agile life cycle is designed to keep your project progressing through each iteration with defined steps.

What those specific steps are will depend on which agile framework you’re using. Are you using Scrum, Kanban, Scrumban, or something else?

But there are some similarities. Each agile life cycle will follow the same flow, although the names and details of each step will change from framework to framework.

the agile lifecycle

  1. Project planning — this is your opportunity to define your goal, choose your team, and start thinking about broad scoping guidelines. Remember, though, the agile methodology is flexible and iterative.
  2. Product roadmap creation — Next, you’ll break down your final product into several smaller ones that will fill up your backlog and serve as the deliverables for each iteration.
  3. Release planning — Once you’ve filled your backlog with features and smaller products, you’ll organize them and assign each one a release date.
  4. Sprint planning — For each feature, you’ll spend some time sprint planning to ensure everyone knows what the team’s goal is for the sprint and what each person is responsible for.
  5. Daily meetings — Throughout every sprint, you’ll hold short, daily briefings for each person to share their progress.
  6. Agile retrospective — After each iteration, your team will come together to review the works they’ve done. You’ll find that retrospectives are an essential part of every project, giving you the opportunity to hone your processes and deliver successful, working features after every sprint.

What is the Agile retrospective format?

You’ll follow a clear agile retrospective format to make sure everyone walks out of the room understanding what they accomplished during the last iteration and what they’ll be working on in the next one.

While people have developed several formats for retrospectives, one of the most popular is the 5-step retrospective developed by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen.

1. Set the stage

Start by establishing the purpose for the meeting. What do you want to accomplish in your retrospective and what do you hope to gain from having the discussion? Setting the stage is the meeting’s “ice breaker.” It should get everyone involved and ready to collaborate.

2. Gather data

This is your team’s chance to share what went well and what went wrong. You can have everyone share audibly with a moderator (often the Scrum Master) writing everything down or give your team a few minutes of silence to write down their experiences individually.

3. Generate insights

If the previous step was about asking what happened, generating insights is about asking why they happened. You should look for patterns in the responses, then dig below the surface result for each item’s root cause.

4. Decide what to do

Take your insights and decide collectively what you’re going to do with them. Allow your team to determine what’s most important for their work going into your next iteration. Create new processes that replicate the last sprint’s wins and prevent the same problems from popping back up.

5. Close the retrospective

Take the last few minutes to recap your discoveries and action-steps. Make sure everyone knows which actions they’re responsible for before sending everyone on their way. Show your gratitude for each person on your team and thank them for their dedication to continual improvement throughout the agile project.

Agile retrospective ideas

When you do retrospectives every two weeks, they’ll start to feel redundant. Your team might settle into a rhythm that lets them coast through the retrospective without putting in the deep thinking that makes them most effective. These agile retrospective ideas will help you mix up your meetings and keep your team engaged.

1. Keep it visual

Your team will respond better when they can watch everyone’s thoughts coming together in front of them. An agile retrospective template can help spark some ideas for how to display and organize everyone’s insights and begin building them into actions for your next iteration. Sticky notes on a window or white board is a tried and true way to keep people visually engaged.

2. Mix up your stage setting

When you all get into the room, don’t go through the same briefing process every time. Find different ways to get people engaged and ready to participate in the retrospective. Asking a funny icebreaker question, checking to see how everyone felt about the iteration, or asking them to describe it using only 3 words are all good ways to get people’s minds in the right place.

3. Gauge your team’s morale

Keeping a finger on the pulse of your team is essential for effective project management. Find ways to see how everyone feels about the previous iteration, how excited they are for the next one, and how engaged they feel with the project as a whole. The retrospective is a great opportunity for people to open up and discuss their mental and emotional engagement.

4. Guide the meeting, don’t lead it

Agile is a collaborative methodology — and that extends all the way to the retrospective. Each one will be most beneficial when your team takes ownership and leads the conversation. You’re there to guide and facilitate the discussion while everyone else shares their wins, failures and ideas.

Put the Agile retrospective to work

The agile retrospective is a great way to put a bow on each iteration as you get ready for the next one.

Keep your projects organized and running smoothly from planning to reflection –

Try our scrum retrospective template!

Kaleigh Moore
Kaleigh is an experienced writer on all things SAAS at monday.com. She is a Forbes + Vogue Business retail contributor on her free time.
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