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Effective Sprint Retrospectives

David Starr is Chief Software Craftsman for where he focuses on improving the profession of software development. He also founded the online technical community,

July 2012

Explore core qualities and practices used to ensure Retrospectives are a team's most powerful improvement tool. Going beyond techniques, this article offers ways to maintain and improve the practice and results of Retrospectives. 

Applies To

Application Lifecycle Management, Visual Studio, Team Foundation Server


Increasing the Definition of Done

Making Actionable Commitments

Keeping It Relevant

Varying the Technique

When Retrospectives Don't Work

Without deliberately maintaining and improving performance, systems trend toward entropy and degrade over time. This is as true of software development teams as it is of professional athletes and expensive sports cars. That’s why Scrum prescribes the Sprint Retrospective, a regularly occurring event focused on the health and performance of the Scrum Team itself.

Sprint Retrospectives are meetings in which Scrum Teams reflect on themselves and their work, producing an actionable plan for improving. Sprint Retrospectives are the final event in each Sprint, marking the end of each Sprint cycle.

From the October 2011 Scrum Guide:

The Sprint Retrospective is an opportunity for the Scrum Team to inspect itself and create a plan for improvements to be enacted during the next Sprint.The purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to:• Inspect how the last Sprint went with regards to people, relationships, process, and tools;• Identify and order the major items that went well and potential improvements; and,• Create a plan for implementing improvements to the way the Scrum Team does its work.

Sprint Retrospectives are used by teams to deliberately improve. Effective Sprint Retrospectives are an important ingredient in helping good teams become great and great teams sustain themselves.


Why Sprint Retrospectives Matter

Retrospectives are widely regarded as the most indispensable of people-focused agile techniques. Inspection and adaptation lie at the very heart of agility, and retrospectives focus on inspecting and adapting the most valuable asset in a software organization, the team itself. Without pursuing improvement as retrospectives require, true agility is simply not achievable.

Performance can be neither improved nor maintained without exercise. Simply conducting a meeting isn’t enough to be successful, however. Attention must be paid to ensuring teams plan improvements. If a plan to improve is not part of the outcome, it wasn’t actually a Sprint Retrospective.

When done well, retrospectives are often the most beneficial ceremony a team practices. When done poorly, retrospectives can be wasteful and grueling to attend.

Anatomy of a Healthy Sprint Retrospective

Scrum says little about the internal structure of Sprint Retrospectives. Rather than prescribing how the Sprint Retrospective is conducted, Scrum specifies the output of the Sprint Retrospective: improvements the Scrum Team will enact for the next Sprint.

This flexibility has birthed a wide array of tools and techniques specifically designed to conduct retrospectives. Several popular practices are described later in this article, but regardless of the specific technique used, good Sprint Retrospectives have these characteristics:

  • The entire team is engaged

  • Discussion focuses on the team rather than individuals

  • The team’s Definition of Done is visited and hopefully expanded

  • A list of actionable commitments is created

  • The results of the previous Sprint Retrospective are visited

  • The discussion is relevant for all attendees

The entire Scrum Team attends each Sprint Retrospective. Usually, this means the Product Owner and Development Team attend as participants while the Scrum Master facilitates the meeting. In some cases, Scrum Teams invite other participants to the meeting. This can be especially helpful when working closely with customers or other stakeholders.

Regardless of who attends, the environment for Sprint Retrospectives must be safe for all participants. This means attendees must be honest and transparent while treating others with respect. Passions can ignite in retrospectives as issues of performance and improvement are discussed; skilled facilitators ensure discussions stay positive and professional, focusing on improvement of the team as a whole. This is not an opportunity for personal criticism or attack.

For information about Agile tools to help you plan and manage sprints using Visual Studio Online or on-premises TFS, see Work in sprints.)

Increasing the Definition of Done

Development Teams in Scrum use a Definition of Done to note what must be true about their work before it is considered complete. For example, a Development Team may decide that each feature it implements must have at least one passing automated acceptance test. Or the team’s Definition of Done may state that all code must be peer reviewed.

A Development Team’s Definition of Done is meant to expand over time. A newly formed team will invariably have a less stringent and smaller Definition of Done than a more mature team with a shared history of improving. Expanding a team’s Definition of Done lies at the very core of Kaizen, a Japanese term meaning a mindful and constant focus on improvement. While a team may initially require only that code build before being checked in, over time they should evolve more exacting standards like the need for unit tests to accompany new code.

With each Sprint, Development Teams hopefully learn something that informs the expansion of the Definition of Done. The Sprint Retrospective is the perfect forum for discussing what was observed and learned during the Sprint and what changes might be made to the Definition of Done as a result.

Because not every Product Owner has interest or involvement in internal Development Team practices, some Scrum Teams divide the Sprint Retrospective into two different phases:

  1. Focus on the entire Scrum Team

  2. Focus on the Development Team

For more information on the Definition of Done, see the MSDN article Done and Undone.

Making Actionable Commitments

Although discussion may diverge and converge during the meeting, no Sprint Retrospective is successful if it doesn’t result in commitments by the team. It is not enough to simply reflect on what happened during the Sprint. The Scrum Team makes actionable commitments for what it will:

  1. Keep doing

  2. Start doing

  3. Stop doing

The word “actionable” is significant. Actionable commitments have clear steps to completion and acceptance criteria, just like a good requirement. An actionable commitment is clearly articulated and understood by the team.

When teams first start performing retrospectives, they often find it easier to identify problems than plan what to do about them. Accordingly, the commitments published by the team may look like these:

  • Work in smaller batches

  • Make requirements easier to read

  • Write more unit tests

  • Be more accurate when estimating

These are not commitments; they are either goals or perhaps thinly veiled complaints. These are certainly issues that teams may wish to discuss during the Sprint Retrospective, but a list of actionable commitments looks more like this:

  • Check in code at least twice per day: before lunch and before going home

  • Express new Product Backlog items as User Stories and include acceptance criteria

  • Create a failing automated test that proves a defect exists before fixing it

  • Use Planning Poker during Product Backlog grooming sessions

Commitments made in the previous Sprint Retrospective are visited in each new Sprint Retrospective. This is necessary for retrospectives to retain their meaning and value. Few things are as frustrating as being on a team that continually commits to improving itself without making tangible progress toward doing so.

For the Sprint Retrospective to be valuable team members must be more than present, they must be invested. Collaborating to create actionable commitments engages attendees and invests them in the success of the team.

Keeping it Relevant

Sprint Retrospectives are fundamentally a technique used to reveal the practices and behaviors of the Scrum Team to itself. When a self-organizing system becomes self-aware, it self-corrects and deliberately improves when given the tools to do so.

For retrospectives to be useful, they must be meaningful to the participants. If the focus isn’t on something valued by the participants, benefits will simply not be realized. The team must be allowed to consider and improve in areas it believes are important. Further, if a facilitator or dominant personality is driving the retrospective to a specific conclusion, the team avoids taking responsibility for itself and its work.

Topics visited should be relevant for all levels of expertise. For example, there is little value in visiting the fine points of advanced Test-Driven Development (TDD) scenario if some team members aren’t even familiar with unit tests. The real value may be in deciding to increase the number of tests the team is writing, in getting some training, or in having a team member confident in TDD coach others.

Keep the focus on the Scrum Team, not the individual, and not the broader organization. Focusing holistically allows the team to genuinely see itself as a self-organizing unit, rather than as a loose confederation of individuals.

Addressing issues of individual performance is not appropriate during a team retrospective. Not only is personal feedback most appropriately given in private, individual behaviors are not something the team can change together. Having the team focus on one individual during a Sprint Retrospective is recipe for disaster and may result in irreparable harm to team member’s trust of each other.

For retrospectives to be meaningful, they should focus on issues the team can control. Criticizing a company-wide vacation policy may be gratifying for the complainer looking for a sympathetic ear, but does little to help the team improve. Attention must be paid to those issues the team can affect itself, like the reaction it may choose to a particular policy.

Varying the Technique

There are numerous techniques for conducting retrospectives. Trying different constructions of the Sprint Retrospective meeting keeps things fresh and interesting. As the primary facilitators for the Scrum Teams, Scrum Masters should at least be familiar with some of the more popular techniques.

There are entire books about retrospectives and blog articles aplenty to help people get the most from their practice. Some of the most popular are briefly described here.

Fundamental Techniques

In the most basic of Sprint Retrospective’s a facilitator simply asks basic questions of the team and facilitates discussion. The facilitator or Scrum Master may use various brainstorming techniques to get the team to answer:

  1. What went well in this Sprint?

  2. What happened in this Sprint that could use improvement?

  3. What will we commit to doing in the Sprint?

One simple technique to derive these answers has each team member write 2-3 answers to these questions on sticky notes during a 3-5 minute period of silence. Once created, the suggestions are grouped on a wall for all to see before being voted upon. A list of actionable commitments can thereby be derived from the collective wisdom of the team.

Most other Sprint Retrospective techniques are variations on this theme and may focus on only one question or stage of this process. In any case, the outcomes are most important and any good technique supports this basic model.

Reviewing Previous Commitments

In addition to looking ahead to the next Sprint, each Sprint Retrospective should include a review of commitments made in the previous Sprint and a discussion about the team’s success in meeting those commitments. If this discussion isn’t part of each Sprint Retrospective, attendees soon learn their commitments don’t matter, and they’ll stop meeting them.

Further, the right place to review Sprint Retrospective commitments is throughout the Sprint, not just at the end. Once commitments for improvement are made, posting them publicly can help ensure they are considered on a daily basis. Some teams value posting commitments made during Sprint Retrospectives on the wall in a public area as a reminder to everyone what they should be focusing on improving each day.

Specialized Techniques

There are many other techniques for conducting parts or the whole of the Sprint Retrospective. The names of many techniques are listed below and each is worthy of detailed discussion. All of the following are well documented online and in various publications.

Techniques for Sprint Retrospectives

  • Fishbowl

  • Mad Bad Sad Glad

  • Starfish

  • Problem Tree

  • Journey Lines

  • 6 Thinking Hats

  • Appreciative Retrospective

  • Top 5

  • Plan of action

  • Race Car

  • The Abyss

  • The Perfection Game

  • The Improvement Game

  • Sailboat Retrospective

  • Force Field Analysis

  • Four L’s

  • World Café

  • Emotional Seismograph

Two particularly rich resources for facilitators looking to expand their retrospective toolboxes are:

Sprint Retrospectives aren’t the Scrum Master’s playground. Newly minted Scrum Masters are sometimes tempted to vary the techniques wildly from Sprint to Sprint. While variety in retrospectives prevents teams falling into a rut, tempering this with some consistency will yield the best results. Teams focusing on actionable outcomes will see the most value from their retrospectives.

When Retrospectives Don't Work

Worse than being ineffective or a waste of time, badly run Sprint Retrospectives can be destructive and harmful to the team. For this reason, having a skilled facilitator conduct the meeting is highly recommended, especially when teams are new to the practice.

Facilitation is typically the job of the Scrum Master, but for Scrum Masters new to the role, this may not be an area of expertise. It requires more than a working knowledge of Scrum for Sprint Retrospectives to have positive outcomes; it requires facilitation skills and the ability to lead a group away from negative discussion toward positive outcomes.

Common Smells

A common example of a bad retrospective is one that deteriorates into a gripe session. It is much easier to remember that went poorly than to identify things that went well, and a trickle of “improvement suggestions” can easily turn into a torrent of complaints when the facilitator doesn’t redirect this conversation.

Other smells that a Sprint Retrospective isn’t working well include:

  • Considering the retrospective a “post-mortem” or “after-action” report rather than an opportunity to plan for improvement

  • Unengaged attendees

  • Critiquing a single person’s performance

  • No resulting actionable commitments

  • Having no "what we did well" answers; teams need to understand and appreciate their positive as well as negative behaviors and practices

In all of the above situations, it is often easy to trace the root cause of the negativity to a lack of trust and commitment on the part of one or more team members. While there is no silver bullet to address this, Scrum specifically charges the Scrum Master with working toward addressing situations like these.

It Worked So Well We Stopped

Although Sprint Retrospectives are powerful and valuable events, they are a commonly discarded element of Scrum. Scrum Teams with recent and regular success tend to rationalize away the need to conduct Sprint Retrospectives. This is rather like a fit person deciding to stop exercising.

The meta-conversation may sound a bit like the following:

Six Months after Introducing ScrumDeveloper Dave: Quality is up, bugs are down. Morale is high, manual regression cost is low. Since we are doing so well, we don’t need the Sprint Retrospectives to help us improve anymore.Boss Bob: That sounds reasonable. Cancelling that meeting will save us time that can be spent on adding more features.Six Months LaterBoss Bob: Quality has dropped and bugs are increasing. Team members are dissatisfied and much of the regression work is being performed manually.Developer Dave: It’s because of Scrum. We told you that it wasn’t a silver bullet and it obviously doesn’t work.Boss Bob: True. I’ll find a methodology consultant to implement a new process.

Obviously, it wasn’t Scrum that failed here. The organization’s decision to omit a key ingredient of Scrum’s success was the catalyst for failure. Unfortunately this scenario is all too common.

Scrum Teams reaching that most tenuous state of high performance are rare, beautiful, and fragile. Meaningful retrospectives are a significant ingredient in keeping those teams functioning at such high levels. Reflecting upon itself allows the team to self-adjust and achieve even higher levels of performance and product quality. This is the very essence of Kaizen, and core to any real program of improvement.

When retrospectives work, the results are palpable. There is an excitement in the team to try new things. When retrospectives work, these things will inevitable be true:

  • The team achieves measurably higher and higher levels of quality over time

  • Individuals understand their role within the context of the team

  • Actionable commitments are known by all team members

Finally, when Sprint Retrospectives work well, the team grows more focused, productive, and valuable to the organization. Excellent software development teams do not simply appear. They emerge over time and then only by deliberate attention to improvement. Sprint Retrospectives are a key ingredient in that emergence.