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Techniques for Keeping Retrospectives Lively

A Reflection on Retrospectives

29 April 2014

This article highlights the importance of one of the key ceremonies of the sprint, the retrospective. It then goes through some of the common challenges teams face while holding retrospectives. It also puts forth a few thoughts on how to make these reflections thought-provoking ones!

One of the principles of the Agile Manifesto: At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

The retrospective

The key Scrum ceremony that helps the team reflect on its behavior is the retrospective. Of course the team can look back on itself every day, but the retrospective is one of the events that is specifically aimed at the "inspect and adapt" behavior of the team. The Scrum retrospective ceremony is a platform that gives team members an opportunity to reflect, see how they worked together, and discuss how they can become more efficient in the coming sprints. In my view, this is not any new concept or jargon the team needs to master -- but yes, in reality it sometimes becomes challenging to keep the momentum lively at all times! Let us look at the reasons why this happens and discuss a few ideas for making these meetings effective.

Some of the reasons retrospectives becoming boring and monotonous after a while could be:
  • Retrospectives are always conducted the same way.
  • No action is taken on retrospective action items.
  • People lose trust in the retrospective.
  • People see it as a blame game.
  • Beyond the team level, impediments are not getting resolved.
Of course, there may be many other reasons as well.

Now, when the team is running a two-week or even a one-week iteration, it is all the more difficult to keep the retrospectives lively due to their frequency. However, there are a few good techniques commonly used in the industry to conduct retrospectives:

A few thoughts for making these meetings interesting

My two cents, after performing retrospectives in a fairly good number of teams and projects, is that retrospectives can become monotonous and boring over time, and so they become ineffective. I have personally faced this challenge and felt that there was a need to bring something new, fun, or exciting to the retrospectives to make them lively.
  • Put on a creative and innovative hat.
  • Change the facilitator.
  • Change the style.
  • Come prepared with some data.
  • Follow up on the retrospective action items!
An interesting experience: The Fly High Technique
I was flying kites with my friends at the Pongal festival, and we had a few tangles on the ground, but we could remove these by ourselves. But as the kite flew high, it became stuck between some wires, and we had to get some external help from our neighbors and use sticks and other tools to remove these blockers so we could have a smooth flyway.

A thought came to me that this experience was relevant to some of the scenarios that we see with teams. We come across many bottlenecks during the sprint, and they can be classified into two categories:
  • Team-level impediments that the team is stuck with but that can be resolved by the team if they work on them consciously (similar to tangles on the ground).
  • Organizational-level impediments that are beyond the team level and need to be escalated to the next level for resolution (similar to the wires in the sky).
So we had a retrospective a few days after the Pongal festival, and I drew a kite on the board and asked the team to imagine the kite as the good work that they have been doing. I also encouraged the team to:
  1. Identify the good work they have been doing so far and that they would like to continue doing
  2. Identify team-level impediments that they could resolve themselves, provided they really work on them
  3. Identify impediments that need escalation to the next level because they require support from the organization or senior management for resolution
Teams liked this method a lot, and they were easily able to draw a clear line of distinction between the team-level impediments and those that needed escalation to the next level.

So the message is that when we come across some interesting experience in our day-to-day work, we could take it back to our teams and use it whenever it makes sense and suits the teams.

A real launch example
This is another example. I hope most of you remember that India sent Mangalyaan (Mars Craft) into space recently. One of my teams had a retrospective scheduled for the very next day. This made me think of creating a news buzz of sorts, giving an introduction about Mars Craft to the team and saying, "Mangalyaan (Mars Craft), India's first interplanetary project, launched in 2013, has about one year to reach its target." We drew a picture of a rocket on the board and named it "Team Yaan." We noted that while Mars Craft has one year to reach its target, our project had just one sprint left to complete its release. It was the most critical, high-visibility project in the organization, as important as Mars Craft is for India. We said, "Let us identify, as a team, the driving forces -- i.e., what we need to keep doing to ensure that we hit the target -- as well as the pulling forces, the impediments and bottlenecks that are pulling us back from reaching the target." The team was very excited by this analogy and they came up with good information.

So maybe it will help if we use some live examples that we come across, as many people will be easily able to correlate these to their work experience.

A team journey creates bonding
Let me introduce you to another technique I came up with, which I named "Team Journey." I noticed that whenever we said that the team has been traveling together, be it in a train, boat, or a plane, it created some special bonding between the team members. They could come up with data about how their sprints had gone and how they could make their journey a better and more enjoyable ride. The Team Journey concept could be used after the team has completed a minimum of four or five sprints, so that they can really visualize how they work together.
A focus word creates real focus!
In my experience, adding a specific focus quadrant sometimes helped a lot. For example, if we are nearing a release, we add a focus quadrant for quality in the retrospective and ask the team to come up with items that need immediate focus so that they can make a 100 percent quality delivery. Similarly, the focus quadrant could be anything that needs immediate focus from the team.
Secret box
With a secret box, team members can just drop in their views -- things they would want to discuss in the retrospective -- whenever something strikes their mind. This way, that they don't forget anything. This can also be used if, initially, people are little reluctant to speak out when the team is in the team storming phase. However, the team needs to remember that if an issue needs immediate attention, they should bring it up in the stand-up meeting, or immediately with the team, instead of waiting until the retrospective. Over a period of time, such a box need not be used, as each and every team member should be speaking openly.

Simple word-pair techniques
  • "I like / I dislike"
  • "I am proud of / I am sorry about"
  •  "Do more of / Do less of"
We could also use simple word pairs to handle our retrospectives in order to keep them short and sweet.

Open-space retrospective
With one team that was doing a one-week sprint, we actually had only three days to work, due to holidays. I was not sure what technique to use in the retrospective, as it was a very short sprint. So I let the team come up with a topic that they wanted to discuss. Amazingly, the team had a good discussion about how to increase their domain knowledge, do cross-learning, etc. This made me feel that sometimes leaving the option open to the team and asking them what they wanted to talk about can trigger a good discussion. Hence, perhaps asking the team explicitly whether they would like to have a discussion about specific topics, and facilitating the discussion around those topics, can really help.

Change of facilitator
Instead of the same person -- i.e., the ScrumMaster -- conducting the retrospective, we can ask each team member to take turns conducting the meeting. This way they can try out their own "flavor" and enjoy taking ownership as everyone starts thinking in their own way about making the retrospectives effective. We can introduce the simple concept of rotating the facilitator.

Change of style
Change of style also adds value. Once in a while we can have the retrospective over a coffee, lunch, or while the team is on an outing. At these times, the facilitator has to be attentive and note down what the team is saying. He or she could also summarize the points discussed very briefly in the next day's stand-up.

Kudos to the team!

The most important thing is never to forget to appreciate and thank your team members for the ways they have helped each other. Maybe you can give them small kudos in the form of chocolates, smiley badges, and so on. In my experience, this can have a lasting impact on the team and really help it gel. Reserve a small space in the team room and capture all the kudos given to each team member every sprint; this helps them feel good when something positive is visible in their team area.

Retro radiator
Last but certainly not least, a very important thing to keep in mind is the follow-up on action items that the team identifies in the retrospective. Having some sort of visual indicator of the action items, along with the people responsible for them, always helps the team stay focused. Generally we tend to forget the action items that are derived from the retrospective. So before starting the retrospective, it's important to revisit the previous retrospective's action items and see how many of them are still pending.

Tracking the retrospective action items can be done in different ways. We can use some electronic tool or a visual indicator, as in the example here:
Retro radiator classifications:
  • Sprint: In which sprint were the action items identified
  • To Do: Action items yet to be worked on
  • In Progress: Action items being worked on
  • Done: Completed action items
  • Waiting: Action items that are waiting on something else to support their getting done
On each card, we can write the name of the owner responsible for the execution of that item.

Concluding thoughts

  • Understand the purpose of the retrospective: It is to learn, not to blame!
  • Do not experiment with too many new things at once.
  • Try plain vanilla first.
  • Then try to add toppings!
  • Ask the team how they want to handle the retrospective and get their buy-in.
  • There is no single right answer for how to make the retrospectives effective -- each team has its own preferences.
  • Drive it.
It always helps if we iterate the prime directive at the beginning of the retrospective, especially when we have some new members in the team.

The facilitator can iterate the prime directive: Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

I conclude this article by saying that the methods mentioned here may not work for everyone; much depends on team composition and on the environment. However, in my experience I could see some visible improvements in productivity, quality, one-to-one coordination, collaboration, and so on after using some of these methods.

I would be glad to hear from any readers who have tried anything different that has worked out for your teams and retrospectives. Thank you!

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.8 (33 ratings)


Jai Singhal, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 4/30/2014 10:02:55 AM
Very good post Madhavi!

You have addressed an important topic at great detail. This are so many traps as repeating retrospectives become ineffective.

Some other reasons are:
1. There are just too many action items taken from retrospectives for the next Sprint
2. During sprint, team starts working on new action items without considering if the previous ones taken from last retrospectives were effective or not
3. Team starts to take it as a meeting to get done and move forward - vacationer mindset
4. Not interesting exercises to engage the Team
5. Special themes to boost team's energy - sometimes I share a video like: - I am sure you can find tons of clips like this to share - India is big on the silver-screen!

Good coverage and creativity at play with your ideas to keep it interesting.
Madhavi Ledalla, CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 4/30/2014 10:42:11 AM
Thank you Singhal. Good videos for boosting the team's morale, thanks for sharing!
Praveen S, CSM, 5/13/2014 3:19:53 AM
Hello Madhavi,

Very Good Techniques. Thank You
Madhavi Ledalla, CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 5/16/2014 8:06:41 PM
Hi Praveen, there is one more book apart from the list that I have mentioned above in my article named "Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives". It has a good techniques that can be used for retrospectives. You can read that book if you are looking for more techniques. Here is the link
Tammina Raghu Ramudu, CSM, 6/2/2014 6:35:21 AM
Excellent Article Madhavi. Thank you for sharing
Todd Galloway, CSP,CSM, 7/15/2014 5:07:43 PM
Thank you for the article Madhavi. I like the kite exercise and plan on trying it out within my teams during their next retrospective.
Madhavi Ledalla, CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 7/16/2014 4:12:12 AM
Sure Todd, do let me know how it goes:)
Radhika Gaja, CSM, 8/2/2014 5:06:46 AM
Very Nice article Madhavi. The information shared can be useful to teams who miss something valuable in scrum
Luis Gonçalves, CSM,CSPO, 10/13/2014 3:14:16 PM
Great blog post :)

Me and Ben Linders we wrote a book about Agile Retrospectives exercises:

Might be interesting for you as well.

Madhavi Ledalla, CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 10/18/2014 3:20:39 AM
Thank you Luis. Yes, I read the book written by you and Ben Linders, it was an interesting read.
Eshwaraiah Jakkula, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 10/23/2015 9:09:30 PM
Good work Madhavi. Creative thoughts and techniques. Please share your new learnings in last one year.
Madhavi Ledalla, CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 11/19/2015 2:54:26 AM
Hello Jakkula,Sure, I would be happy to share my thoughts/learnings, let us connect on LinkedIn and discuss:) Hoping to hear from you.
Karthik Balasubramanian, CSM, 9/14/2016 5:08:15 AM
Hi Madhavi,

Very good post. Very useful.
Madhavi Ledalla, CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 9/20/2016 11:11:16 PM
Thanks Karthik!
Sreenivasulu Patthipati, CSP,CSM, 1/31/2017 1:14:59 AM
very good info...Madhavi
Aswini Kumari D, CSM, 2/12/2017 11:46:07 PM
Very nice info Madhavi. I have tried " A real launch example" which you have posted above and yes it worked out for our team. It has given an opportunity to have thought process differently than from the regular way we do. Thanks for your posts. Can you suggest me any technique on how to enable the team to be open within themselves/ to demonstrate the scrum values within them
Ankit Varshney, CSM, 2/22/2017 6:20:31 AM
Interesting ways and creative thoughts.
I have just started up my journey as an Scrum Master and seems like that I have something now for my next retrospectives :).
Thanks for sharing your experience.
Out of curiosity: Did you tried out any other techniques or do you have something to share more
Madhavi Ledalla, CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 4/8/2017 10:20:48 AM
@Aswini, thank you for letting me know that "real launch" worked for you. You can use any technique, much depends on how you facilitate and engage the team and the context.
@Ankit, I have tried all the techniques that I posted in my blogs, you can read Agile Retrospectives by Diana Larsen, or look at retrospectiveswiki if you are looking out for more.
Madhavi Ledalla, CTC,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 4/8/2017 10:22:04 AM
Thank you all for posting feedback on the techniques, this really helps me in coming up with new ones :)
Ramanjeet Singh, CSM, 6/9/2017 9:40:05 PM
I wish I had read this prior to my phone screening with HR of a company. I gave straight answer to question regarding how do you keep team engaged. I didn't get to next level since my answer wasn't creative enough.

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