The last event in Scrum is the Sprint Retrospective. Don’t let the word last fool you though; the Retrospective actually plants the seed for the next Sprint and continues the cycle of improvement. This is the nature of agile in Scrum: dividing a complex problem — delivering value in an uncertain and changing environment — into small, manageable units, iterating with a framework to reduce risk and variability in order to receive feedback as soon as possible, and adjust accordingly.
The Retrospective was born on the fringes of Scrum. In fact, this type of meeting and the techniques that come with it can be applied in any context: reviewing a supplier relationship, examining a department’s operations and functionality, or analyzing the way we respond to problems.
It is common to do post-mortem sessions after specific events. Scrum’s innovation is to make it a regular occurrence (not an exception) as a way to ensure continuous improvement. The consistency and standard cadence contributes to the Sprint Retrospective’s purpose, as the Scrum Guide defines it, “to plan ways to increase quality and effectiveness.”
The Sprint Retrospective Event
The maximum duration of a Retrospective should not exceed 3 hours for “a one-month Sprint.” Hopefully, a shorter Sprint will require a shorter Retrospective, but it’s not a matter of applying a rule of three hours: Retrospectives need a minimum amount of time to be truly effective.
If the purpose of the Review is to analyze and collect feedback on the what, a Sprint Retrospective looks at the how. This how refers to “individuals, interactions, processes, tools, and their Definition of Done”. That is, everything that makes it possible to reach the what, or the value delivered that is aligned with the Sprint and Product Objectives.
The entire Scrum Team actively participates in the reflection and analysis, without exclusions. This analysis and conversation should result in changes that the team can make to improve their effectiveness. These improvements are then prioritized based on their impact and time to implement. To ensure these actions are carried out, it is a good practice to include them as part of the next Sprint Backlog.
The Scrum Guide doesn’t go into how the Retrospective should be conducted, but fortunately there’s been a lot written about it and even more resources to ensure your Sprint Retrospectives are effective.
The Sprint Retrospective is Scrum’s most important meeting. In it, the team (as a whole) will review their operation and effectiveness to identify how to correct their defects and experiment in their ability to continuously improve.
It is important to not get overrun with routine and treat the Retrospective like just another meeting. This leaves room for a snowball effect of spacing its occurrence farther and farther apart, and eventually stop holding it altogether. Neglecting and potentially abandoning the practice of looking back to reflect is the best way to hinder continuous improvement. Who can think that he has reached the zenith in the way he works?
Fortunately, there are multiple techniques to help break up the monotony and make each session different from the last. Retrospective Resource Wiki or Retromat are both great resources to discover techniques for examining the team’s functionality from other perspectives and identifying aspects that can be improved.
Of course, be careful in choosing the techniques; the best and most appropriate will likely depend on the context and maturity of your team. An activity that gets people moving and engaged can be very fun, but probably isn’t the most appropriate for a new team or one experiencing a tense situation. (Some agile techniques have gotten a “bad reputation” because of this tendency to be playful in any circumstance.)
While there aren’t specific rules to follow during a Sprint Retrospective, there are a few guidelines that are essential to respect when facilitating it: host the event in a safe space, ensure everyone on the team participates, this is not a session for blaming or shaming a single person – the responsibility belongs to the team. Don’t forget that these conversations might not be easy; that they can evoke strong emotions.
Even though this is not included in the Scrum Guide, in their book “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great“, Esther Derby and Ken Schwaber (one of the Guide’s co-authors) suggest a five-step retrospective template to help structure the event and ensure that the desired goal is reached:
- Set the Stage: a form of “warm-up” to create the right mood among the attendees
- Gather Data: review how the Sprint went and collect all the relevant facts
- Generate Insights: extract the patterns, aspects of improvement, and key elements within the data
- Decide What To Do: of all the possible actions, generate a prioritized action plan with a commitment to complete them. Add them to the next Sprint Backlog to ensure they aren’t forgotten.
- Tie a Bow on the Retrospective: commitments and next steps, including considerations on how to improve future retrospectives.
Within each of these steps, there are various techniques and ways of conducting the event that help make Retrospectives a productive and enriching experience.
The active participation of the accountabilities, the entire Scrum team (PO, SM, and Developers) is essential. The continuous improvement of their work is in their own hands.
In previous versions, the Scrum Guide went into more detail on the “who” and the “how” of facilitating the Retrospective, but the current version doesn’t specify a certain person to facilitate or that it be done in one way or another.
From practical experience, it must be recognized that the Retrospective is an example of a facilitated session, so it needs a person who cares about preparing and leading it to be effective and useful. That person can be the Scrum Master (this is typically an action expected of the accountability), another person on the team, or even an external person. Regardless of who plays the facilitator role, they should not participate to avoid manipulation (or its variant: “facipulation”). Having a person outside the team (for example, an Agile Coach, if available in the organization) allows for neutral facilitation that guarantees everyone on the team can participate.
The Retrospective is the most important event in Scrum because it is where continuous improvement is explicitly applied. You can give up many things, but never stop holding Retrospectives at the end of the Sprint. Scrum is very flexible and not very prescriptive, but a team that stops doing Retrospectives cannot consider themselves to be doing Scrum. Without the Sprint Retrospective, the team can’t experience the benefits and purpose of the framework.
Infographic: What is the Sprint Retrospective?
Download the full infographic use to use as a reference in your own Sprint Retrospectives.
(And, don’t forget about our companion infographics – What is a Sprint?, What is Scrum Planning?, What is the Daily Scrum?, and What is a Sprint Review?.)
Beyond the Sprint Retrospective
Dig in to Scrum with our Agile Fundamentals course. Learn all the terminology, ceremonies, principles, techniques, and day-to-day application of Scrum. (And, earn your ICAgile ICP certification!)