Jake Worth

Jake Worth

How to Run an Agile Retrospective for Leaders

Published: March 15, 2023 • Updated: March 20, 2023 4 min read

  • agile

Retrospectives are one of my favorite engineering team practices. In this post, I’ll explain why and how I run retros. If you’ve never done one before; you can do it!

I’ll be covering:

  • What is a retro?
  • Why should we retro?
  • Retro setup
  • Running the retro

Let’s get started.

What is a Retro?

What is a retro? From a dictionary:

Retro, short for retrospective: ‘a surveying of the past.’

Retros are a Scrum/Agile ‘ceremony’, a collection of best practices for software engineering teams.

I see a retro as a safe space for a team to pause, discuss what’s going well and what could be going better, and take action to improve.

Why Should We Retro?

Why should we retro? We retro because processes can evolve with effort and communication.

Effort is the intent. Everyone has to try and believe that things can improve. Communication is the tool— talking, listening, taking notes, and following up.

In Extreme Programming Explained, Kent Beck shares one of the core ideas of XP: if something is good, we should do it all the time. Communication is good and retros are an easy way to communicate often.

Every great team I’ve worked on has done retros. As a leader, it shows you have vision beyond the current obstacles and are building processes to last.

When Should We Retro?

When should we retro? Anytime!

I like to do retros at the end of a project. They can be done weekly or monthly, too. If you feel like you’re not getting as much value out of each one, do less. If you feel like communication is poor, do more.

Retro Setup

Let’s get set up!

First, put the retro on the calendar and invite your entire team. Everyone must attend the entire meeting; no absenteeism, fighting fires, or multitasking. I think an hour is the right amount of time.

Second, assemble materials. The tools I use are:

  • A whiteboard
  • Sharpies (not pens! They’re too hard to read from a distance)
  • Post-Its

Running the Retro: The Prime Directive

Sometimes tensions can be high, even on productive teams. That’s why I always start by reading ‘The Prime Directive’ aloud:

“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.” —Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

Retros must build on top of this agreement to succeed.

Running the Retro: Collecting Feedback

How do we actually collect the feedback that we need?

The most common format I’ve seen is asking:

  • “What’s going well?”
  • “What could be better?”

Write these on the whiteboard as two columns, and give everyone five to ten minutes to jot down their thoughts on Post-Its. When finished, have people place their Post-Its on the whiteboard under the appropriate column.

If tensions are high on the team, you can anonymize the feedback with online tools like Easy Retro.

💡Pro tip: mix up the retro format. Next time, ask:

  • “What should we start doing?”
  • “What should we stop doing?”
  • “What should we continue doing?”

Or, try one of the dozens of retro formats you can find online. Mixing up the format wakes people up and elicits better feedback.

Running the Retro: Reading the Feedback

When you’ve finished collecting feedback, pick a team member to read the Post-Its. I like to delegate this task to a different person each time to increase participation.

If you’ve chosen to anonymize the feedback, give people the opportunity to speak up and own their feedback. Listen, ask good questions, and take notes.

Running the Retro: Action Items

Retros need action items; demand action. Here’s an example:

  • Feedback: Our bug reports are often vague
  • Action Item: Jake is going to add a bug report template to Tracker and teach everyone how to use it

If you aren’t assigning concrete tasks from the meeting, you’re doing it wrong. People don’t just want to be heard, although that is important. They need to believe that things can improve. To build that belief, you must take action.

Start the next retro by reviewing the previous action items. Did everyone do what was asked? Keep pushing until the answer is yes.

💡Pro tip: take a picture of the retro board when you’re finished. It’s a snapshot in time and a record of the effort your team is investing to get better.

Wrapping Up

If you want to dig deeper, Atlassian has a great collection of resources about Retrospectives in their Playbook.

Retros are important; give them a try! They’re one of the best tools I know to evolve a team.

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