Retrospectives are an integral part of the Scrum cycle, used to reflect on the work done and to help the team improve (self-organization and regular adaptation). However, I have witnessed many teams whose retrospective meetings have become monotonously repetitive or have tuned into "cribbing sessions." These retrospectives also tend to get extended (not timeboxed) and usually don't produce any tangible change (business value), either identified or addressed.
If your retrospectives have fallen into this state, it's time to change the way you've been conducting them and focus on giving a direction
to the meetings, making sure they are timeboxed and end with a quantifiable action item.
Giving direction to a directionless retrospective
If your sprint team tends to go out of bounds with issues and all sorts of problems (personal, petty, and the like) are thrown at you, it is probably a good idea to give your meeting a structure (agenda) by suggesting some discussion topics. A few that I find effective are:
Sprint planning: Was our planning good enough? Did we encounter any surprises during our sprint?
Stand-ups: How effectively do we use the daily stand-ups?
Continuous integration: Are there any things we can add to our CI in order to improve our efficiency?
Time-boxed delivery: Were we able to deliver what we committed to?
Feedback from PO: How responsive has our product owner been in clarifying our doubts?
Collaboration: How collaborative have we been among ourselves?
Retrospective: Are we taking back the learnings from the retrospective meetings?
You can and should tweak this list per your environment and needs, but this can give you a head start.
Focus on quantification rather than qualification
In order to avoid subjective or qualitative remarks, I suggest teams to go for a rating system wherein they give a score between 1 (lowest) and 10 (highest). At the end of this poll, your team would have a scorecard for its sprint, where it's easy to find out the best- and the worst-performing areas.
Now let's talk!
Now that the team has been able to find its strong and weak areas, it can pick up the best and worst areas (or best two and worst two) for discussion. This is where you retrospect on how to improve in the weakest area and how to further
improve (to perfection!) the strong points.
Continuously monitor your retrospectives
The score may give your team a structured approach to meet and discuss; however, as a ScrumMaster, it is equally important for you to regularly monitor the value being derived from these meetings. For this, I recommend you maintain a trend report comparing the scores from all your sprints.
By analyzing the progress tracked on the scorecard over several sprints, you should be able to identify:
Valleys: Issues that have consistently been scoring low or have been in a downward trend.
Plateaus: Issues that have stabilized over time but not yet reached the "green zone." This may indicate a move toward stagnation or indifference brewing in your team.
Peaks: Aspects of your team that have continually improved over time, or have sustained themselves in the "green zone" for a considerable time.
At some point, you may consider removing the "Peaks" from the scorecard and introducing fresh topics, while you maintain focus on Valleys and Plateaus. This will help you assess your footing from different vantage points and will also help break the risk of monotony within the team.
When used effectively, retrospectives can provide insight into your team's health and highlight the scope of improvement. If you are not satisfied with your retrospectives, change them!