How can you spice up your retrospectives?

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Karolina, Senior Quality Engineer

How can you spice up your retrospectives?

I’ve noticed that since the start of the pandemic, and even before, many teams have been struggling to make retrospectives interesting, to the point where people couldn’t see the value of these meetings anymore. The best retrospectives should provide a forum where the team can look at the work done during the last iteration and find improvements to the way they work or things to look out for in the future.

The main issues to beware of are: not following up on agreed actions or creating too many actions, as well as always following the same format. Participants will quickly find this boring, and end up treating the retro as a formality rather than an opportunity to make improvements.

So, how can we improve our retrospectives? How can we engage people during the meeting?

When the pandemic started, it was challenging and we struggled a bit with retrospectives. After working from home started, it seemed more difficult to get the attention of people participating in the meeting. Luckily, new video conferencing tools and retrospective online boards made it smoother, even with everybody in different places.

At the time, my team struggled with getting everybody to share their ideas and to engage in the meeting. How did we overcome this? We did a retrospective about retrospectives!

At the beginning of the meeting, we analysed how our moods were that day and how we felt about retrospective meetings. Looking at the results of these activities, we asked each other about why we think people participate less or more, or don’t feel confident to share their ideas. Then as an outcome, we talked about how we can help each other be more open and have a quality retrospective that adds value to everyone.  

One of the ideas was to start each meeting with a short ice-breaker. This allows the team to relax at beginning of the meeting, which will improve results by increasing productivity and engagement. There are various ways to do this, for example: describe a sprint as cartoon characters, cars, movies, answer questions to get to know each other, or play a little game.

It’s important to remember that a retrospective is not a place to judge each other – it’s an open forum to share our thoughts about past sprints, where all opinions are valid. To enforce that, it is worth reminding ourselves at the beginning of each meeting of Norm Kerth’s Prime Directive, which says: "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."

The central part of the retrospective, which involves feedback about what went well or badly, does not always need to be in the same format. We could improve it by using different approaches, for example the 4Ls retrospective where you can discuss what the team learned, longed for, lacked or looked forward to.

Personally, I like to get a bit creative and conduct a drawing retro or Dixit style retro. In the case of a drawing retro, the team is set the task of drawing how they felt during the past sprint, or some meaningful aspect of the sprint for them. Then other participants try to guess the meaning of the drawing, or the person who did the drawing will explain what it symbolises.

The Dixit approach is similar. From a set of cards, a person selects the one that best describes their last sprint, and the team tries to guess why that specific card was selected. In this way, the retrospective focuses on the most important features of the last sprint for the meeting participants, and shows the empathetic side of the team.

By sharing just these two methods I don’t want to give the impression that this is the only way retros should be executed – it depends on the sprints themselves. Sometimes the simplest retrospective (good/bad) works best, and if the team identifies too many areas to discuss, they can vote to focus on only the most important ones for the participants.

Another type of retrospective, which is perfect for when a new project starts, a new team is created or a new year begins, is the Futurospective. By looking at past experiences, this style of retro analyses possible future outcomes. The result of such a meeting might be in the actions to follow for the future, an agreement on how to work, or what to do when issues that were encountered by the team in the past arise in the future. I particularly like this retro when the new year starts, as it lets the team create new year’s resolutions for ways of working to improve how issues are handled. It also provides an opportunity to remember previous good practices that can be applied to the new year’s projects.

Now we come to the most important part of any retrospective – actions. It’s quite common that our team will identify a large number of actions but then not follow all of them up. If your team also struggles with this issue, my suggestion is to choose only two or three actions everyone agrees on and focus on them during the next sprint. Try to focus on short-term actions, which also makes it easier to follow up on them. Make sure selected actions are visible to the team and revised at the next retrospective.

To end the retrospective in a positive mood, I try to encourage my teams to write ‘thank you’ notes to each other for things that happened during the last sprint. It creates a nice atmosphere and helps bond the team.

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