Toggle Menu

Insights / Agile Transformation / Improving the Team, One Retrospective at a Time

July 24, 2018

Improving the Team, One Retrospective at a Time

4 mins read

“The definition of insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results” – Albert Einstein

Brilliant words, Dr. Einstein.

Have you sat through a retrospective that feels like Deja vu? Didn’t we already come up with a plan to fix this thing we are talking about, AGAIN? Are you in yet another blame/complain session with no apparent way to fix the complaint? Time and again this happens in retrospectives and before you know it, the team thinks they should cancel them altogether because they aren’t helping. Fortunately, there are clear steps you can take to fix this.

I will describe four approaches that can help retrospectives provide real value:

  • Focus on what the team can control or influence
  • Focus on only a few action items and identify a champion for each
  • Focus on measurable outcomes
  • Focus on implementing the plan

As we go through the details, remember that it is helpful to have a consistent format for your retrospectives. Here’s My Go To Retrospective Format.

Focus on What the Team Can Control or Influence

At the beginning of the retrospective, set the stage and emphasize to the team that we will focus our attention on the things we can control or that we might be able to influence. Guide them away from challenges that are outside of their control. The graphic below might be helpful to draw and reference during the session. Some call this “circles and soup.”

Many retrospectives can turn into blame/complain sessions; guiding the team towards the items they can control and influence, and away from those things outside their control, will significantly improve the quality of the conversation.

Focus on a Few Actions with a Champion for Each

If the team is comfortable focusing their attention on what they control, guide them to develop a few concrete actions that can be implemented in the weeks ahead. There are many techniques to arrive at specific action items. A good place for effective approaches is the book “Agile Retrospectives” by Ester Derby. I listed a few of my favorites in an earlier post, Favorite Retrospective Techniques.

It is easy to come up with a ton of potential actions during a retrospective. Try to limit it to just a few that the team feels will have the highest return. If you follow the typical pattern of voting on potential action items, the one with the most votes is probably the one that the team expects to have the highest return. Do that one, and maybe one or two more.

It is important to keep the actions limited because we can’t change everything at once. It will be hard to understand what helped and what didn’t, and, just like we want to limit work in progress, so we can focus and finish, the same is true with improvement actions. So, keep it limited to a short list.

It is best to have one team member volunteer to be the champion for each action. They aren’t necessarily the one who has to implement it, but they can hold the team accountable for acting on it.

Focus on Measurable Actions

Your retrospective actions should be measurable. That way the team will know when the action has been implemented. For example, if the team has identified that they want to start their daily stand up on time, they can create acceptance criteria. They might agree that if 90% or more of the dailies start at 9:00 AM, then they have met the goal. At the end of the next sprint, the team member that championed the action can report back and let the team know if the goal was achieved.

Focus on Implementing

The single most important thing is to follow through on the action items that were created. Having champions will help hold the team accountable, but additional follow-up is often beneficial. Scrum Masters, or whoever facilitates team meetings, like the daily stand up, can set aside time to check up on retrospective actions.

Another useful concept is the Scrum pattern called Scrumming the Scrum. This places the action plan from the retrospective on the top of the backlog and it becomes the top priority for the next Sprint. At each daily meeting, the team starts with a discussion of how they are progressing on the retrospective action plan.

If you want to get your retrospectives back to being effective and avoid Einstein’s definition of insanity, try taking the four steps I’ve outlined. Good luck with your upcoming retrospectives!

You Might Also Like


Overcoming Obstacles to Continuous Improvement in Your Organization

Does driving change in your organization sometimes feel like an uphill climb? You’ve tried implementing...


Responsible AI for Federal Programs

Excella AI Engineer, Melisa Bardhi, join host John Gilroy of Federal Tech Podcast to examine how artificial intelligence...