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10 Tips for a Great Retrospective

15 December 2015

Paul Goddard

Geoff Watts
Inspect & Adapt

Over the years, we've facilitated and observed many retrospectives – in fact, we would struggle to guess just how many. The good ones have been filled with energy, honesty, conflict, creativity, and humor. The bad ones have been repetitive, shallow, uninspiring, and predictable.

Retrospectives are one of the easiest parts of Scrum to pick up and run with. And if they are executed well, they can have an immediate effect on team productivity and morale.

To this end, we thought we would share our top ten tips for running a great retrospective.
  1. Hold the retrospective in a good venue. It's hard to expect people to think differently about their situation if they always use the same old meeting room and stare at the same four walls. Some of the best retrospectives we have been involved in have been performed inside a pub or restaurant, or outdoors in the garden or a park. You might find people "open up" more emotionally in an informal environment, or extend their creative thought by enjoying some actual "blue-sky" thinking.
  2. Get people moving. Body movement increases blood flow that, in turn, allows more energy and oxygen to move through our bodies and brains. Something like an outdoor ball game can help relieve some of the tension of the day, add some team building, and help get our brains working if we face challenging issues.
  3. Provide food and drink. Remember, you are expecting people to stay focused for one to three hours in most cases, and attentiveness will soon drop off if attendees feel hungry or thirsty. Freshly made hot coffee is a great incentive to get a team to turn up on time, too. As far as food goes, we would steer clear of too many cakes, biscuits, and "beige" choices, and opt for some fresh fruit instead to prevent the retrospective from turning into a lethargic and sleepy affair.
  4. State the purpose. Lots of poor retrospectives we have attended have wandered aimlessly for hours and culminated with no tangible outcomes or benefits. As a ScrumMaster, try to grab the attention of your audience within the first five to ten minutes of the meeting. This is your chance to entice them into participating for the entire session. Setting a compelling goal or challenge at the start of the retrospective can be a simple way to hook people from the outset.
  5. Experiment with metaphor. All of the ideas we need already exist; we just need to be able to access them. Some people truly believe they are not creative at all. By introducing a metaphor, you can allow people to think about a problem or situation differently, and that might stimulate a more natural and spontaneous response. Some examples we have used include asking questions like, "If this sprint was an animal, what would it be?" or "If this sprint was a chocolate bar, what would it be?" The key to these questions is then exploring why attendees responded with their own answers.
  6. Let people play. We feel safer if we feel like we are playing. Try introducing some games into the retrospective. We've had success with word-association games, role-playing scenarios, and even some board games. Equally, playing with toys, such as LEGOreg; blocks or modeling clay, will access different parts of the human brain and might help stimulate some different thoughts.
  7. Encourage healthy conflict. Assure the team that it isn't always about agreement, and that disagreement is not only OK but also a great way to find the best solutions. Premature consensus actually reduces the quality of the output, so perhaps introduce an element of ritual dissent as described by Cognitive Edge.
  8. Keep things varied. One of the biggest complaints we hear about retrospectives is that they become boring as the ScrumMaster runs out of novel ways to run them or techniques to employ. Asking the same questions at every retrospective can quickly become tedious, so do anything you can to keep them fresh. Some simple ideas to help include having a specific theme for each retrospective, changing the location, having a guest speaker, using a different metaphor, or bringing in a different facilitator.
  9. Reflect on facts. Encourage everyone on the team to move past plain facts and tap into how the situation is affecting them and others. Not only does this make it more real but it also increases the value to doing something about it and makes the following tip (#10, take some action) more likely. I'm more likely to make a change if I know how it's affecting me and other people.
  10. Take some action. Don't let the retrospective turn into a town hall meeting, where everyone gets to air their grievances and complain about what's not working. Ensure that the team reflects on things, thinking about what part they are playing in the situation; and, more important, take some action toward making that aspect of the team's situation better. They don't have to solve it completely so long as they are moving toward a solution.
As well as these tips, we use a structure to our retrospectives that we call THEMED, which we find helpful. All of our THEMED retrospectives have:
  • Topics to help everyone focus on a specific area
  • Hooks to engage all attendees as soon as the meeting starts
  • Events of the last sprint or iteration using interactive exercises
  • Meanings behind the events to help the team reflect
  • "Else" – the variations on the template and alternative perspectives to consider
  • Decisions they need to make as a team to move forward


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.


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Current rating: 4.4 (7 ratings)


Meghan Robinson, CSM,CSPO, 3/17/2016 4:05:37 PM
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