A Scrum Master’s Guide to Effective Agile Retrospectives

  • Kyle Cedrone
  • August 13, 2015

Anybody who has played the role of Scrum Master on an agile project can agree that the Team Retrospective is one of the most important meetings to drive the success of a Scrum Team. The feedback gained is essential to the team’s growth and the long-term success of a project. In the world of self-organizing teams, the Team Retrospective is also a place where a Scrum Master can jump in and help generate valuable feedback.

In my experience as a Scrum Master, switching up the retrospective format is effective in sparking fresh and beneficial feedback from the team. With plenty of retro formats out there to choose from, which will work best for your team? I have found it’s ideal to do some research on different formats, pick a few to present to the team and then have the team vote on which one they find most valuable.

To help with some of the research, here are four different formats that I have found to work great with Scrum Teams. These formats are all fairly easy to run, do not involve many supplies and can fit into an hour time-box.

The Classic Retrospective

When to Use This Format:

  • You're in the first few sprints of a new project.
  • New team members are brought onto the project.
  • Your team isn't fully grasping the goals and objectives of the retrospective meeting.

The Classic Retro format asks the team to review and discuss what went well and what needs improvement. The Scrum Master should document the feedback given by the team in the different categories. Once the team has exhausted all feedback, group similar items in each category to come away with larger themes. Have the team discuss the larger themes and produce “takeaways” to carry into the next or future sprints.

I find it best for the team to vote on just one or two takeaways that they feel they can realistically implement in the next sprint. More than a few can get overwhelming for a team and could be a burden on the next sprint. As Scrum Master, it’s valuable to know and understand each of the takeaways just in case they come up again in later sprints.

Scrum Master Tip: Pay attention to when your team starts to feel comfortable with this format or when the feedback/energy starts to become stale. That’s when you should introduce other retrospective formats to keep the momentum of the project going.

The Sailboat Retrospective

When to Use This Format:

  • The team is struggling to identify the cause of issues it's facing.
  • The team isn't voicing blockers or impediments consistently during sprints.
  • You need to switch it up from the Classic Retrospective.

The Sailboat Retro format is similar to the Classic Retro; however, the team is asked to review and discuss the following three points:

Wind in the Sails: Things that helped push the team along during the sprint

Anchors: Things that slowed the team down during the sprint

Icebergs: Potential risks/impediments that could bite the team in the future if not addressed

When you group insights into these three categories, it helps provide the team with a framework for discussion and allows them to understand the biggest areas in need of improvement. Much like the Classic Retro, with the Sailboat Retro the Scrum Master should document the team’s feedback in each category. I find it’s best to use the “person-by-person” approach in this retro format, as it makes sure everyone on the team participates and provides feedback. (If you’re not familiar with the person-by-person approach, it simply means that you gather the feedback in some sort of order rather than having team members shout out their feedback as it pops up.) Once feedback is provided by each team member in each category, group similar items together into themes, if possible. Have the team discuss each of the themes and, again, produce takeaways for future sprints.

Scrum Master Tip: Pay particularly close attention to the Icebergs section, as it typically brings to the surface obstacles that the team will look to you to address. It can help to use visuals of a sailboat with the wind, anchor and icebergs that the team can view during the retro. These will help the team grasp the concept of this format.

The Appreciative Retrospective

When to Use This Format:

  • The team is experiencing inner turmoil.
  • The team has just completed a rough sprint.
  • The team is dealing with pressure from external sources.
  • The team could us positive reinforcement.
  • The last retrospective(s) generated mostly negative feedback.

The theory behind the Appreciative Retro is that sustaining positive or good habits is just as important for team success as resolving negative habits. In the course of a project, the team will likely face adverse situations during sprints, and this is a light format to help balance out any negative energy. I have seen many different ways to run an Appreciative Retro, but the one I describe below has worked well for me.

High-Fives (Ice Breaker): Ask the team to write down one to three high-fives that they want to give to the team or members of the team. This is meant to be a quick, time-boxed part of the retro but it really works wonders to set the positive tone for this format.

Sprint Successes: Ask the team to look back at the previous sprint and provide examples of success (little or big) they experienced. There are bright spots even in tough or challenging sprints, and the team will benefit from bringing these to the surface.

Team Strengths: Now, ask the team to look at the whole project and provide a list of strengths that the team exhibits or has exhibited. This activity will build team confidence and allow the team to look at the big picture and realize that one tough sprint does not reflect the whole project.

If the team is able to develop action items or takeaways from this retro, great! However, this retro is meant to be a team-building exercise and heal any bad feelings about the project. If you accomplish that then it should be considered a successful retro.

Scrum Master Tip: Use sparingly. I wouldn’t use this format more than once a quarter, as it won’t generate necessary and productive feedback if used too often.

The Challenge Retrospective

When to Use This Format:

  • The team has just completed a successful sprint.
  • The team has been firing on all cylinders lately.
  • The last retrospective(s) generated mostly positive feedback.
  • The team seems bored.
  • The team is overconfident.

The Challenge Retro is focused on both personal and team challenges. For this format, I’ve found it helpful to allow the team to prep a little bit beforehand, so make sure your team has these insights prepared ahead of time:

  1. Challenges faced personally.
  2. Challenges faced as a team.
  3. Next sprint, I challenge myself to...
  4. Next sprint, I challenge the team to...

The Scrum Master should facilitate person-by-person feedback in each section. In the team challenge section, have the team vote (two votes each) on the challenge they would like to take on for the next sprint. It’s great motivation to compare progress on challenges week by week, so make sure to keep track of this challenge as well as team members’ own personal challenges. The Challenge Retro is a great way to stir up the status quo, even for teams that are producing high-quality work every sprint.

Scrum Master Tip: Avoid situations in which team members are challenging other team members individually. Challenges should be made to either oneself or the team as a whole.

There are endless retrospective formats to choose from, so if one doesn’t work for your team, challenge yourself to try a new retro, tweak traditional retro formats or even create new formats. The main goal is to reflect, learn and set goals for success in the future. Feel free to share your experiences in the comments section or connect with us if you have any questions on using agile for your web projects.