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The Purpose of Agile Retrospectives: Reflect, Adapt, Succeed [+ Tips]

Sprint Retrospektive PBI Typ

Contents of this article

Retrospectives are an integral part of Agile culture. But in a world with limited fixed components, every ceremony (or ritual) becomes important. In this article, we take a critical look at the Sprint Retrospective, reveal common mistakes, and show how it can be made more effective. Because despite its importance, many teams and organizations seem to struggle with its implementation. 

What is an Agile Sprint Retrospective?

The Sprint Retrospective is a regular meeting in agile teams that takes place at the end of each Sprint. Its purpose is to reflect together on the previous Sprint, share what went well, what not so much, and identify opportunities for improvement for the next one. 

To put it simply, the essence of a Retro is to improve the team’s processes.  

Agile Retrospectives are undoubtedly an integral part of Agile culture, standing in a series of ceremonies alongside Review, Planning, Daily Standups, and… and… what else? 

If we take a closer look, we realize that there are not so many fixed components of this agile culture. Depending on the scale at which we operate, there are also PI Plannings and SoS.  

Organizations often feel compelled to invent their own meetings for certain topics because they feel they can’t manage with so little.

But is this actually necessary?

Let’s leave this question open for a moment. Either way, it’s obvious that the set meetings are not so many and if you’re trying to work the Agile way, you really need to make an effort to get used to this.

It’s important to remind ourselves that with such a small number of rituals, each individual one is crucial and should not be undererstimated 

Why are Sprint Retrospectives so important?

Recognizing Successes and Good Processes

Sprint Retrospectives enable teams to identify and appreciate positive aspects and successful work processes during a Sprint. This not only fosters a positive work environment but also strengthens team morale and the sense of working together towards a common goal. 

Identifying Areas for Improvement

Through critical reflection and open discussions, teams can identify weaknesses and improvement opportunities in their working methods. This process encourages continuous adaptation and optimization of team performance, leading to more effective and efficient workflows. 

Fostering Open Communication

The Agile Retrospective serves as a forum where team members can communicate openly and honestly. It encourages constructive feedback, allows teams to identify challenges, celebrate successes, and address concerns. This transparency not only builds trust but also solidifies team cohesion. 

Encouraging Problem Solving

By analyzing what went well, what didn’t, and what could be improved, teams become experts in problem-solving. Each retrospective is a step towards refining processes, eliminating bottlenecks, and optimizing workflows. 

Team Empowerment

Retrospectives give teams the superhero cape they deserve. They convey to team members that their voice is valued and that they have the authority to initiate changes. They provide a platform for positively influencing the work process and ensuring that issues do not remain unresolved. 

Why are Sprint Retrospectives often ineffective?

While Sprint Retrospectives are a recognized part of Agile processes, it is surprising that they are often not particularly effective in most organizations and teams. And hardly anyone is bothered by this fact.  

In this article, we take a look at the shortcomings of Retrospectives, explore why this is the case, and discuss how things will be improved. 

Yes, “will”, not could.

Let’s start with the ones to blame.  

For once, it’s not the Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches who perhaps don’t know how to facilitate a good Retrospective.  

It is also not the organization, or any managers or stakeholders who may not participate in retros at all, but are often blamed for issues in their absence (the poor Scrum Masters then have the honorable task of delivering the message to the managers and stakeholders concerned, with the best wishes of the team, of course).  

It’s also not the teams that either don’t feel like doing Retros, don’t see the point because their recommendations to management won’t be heard anyway, or just still have to prepare the next release and simply don’t have time for chats (nor any understanding). 

Nor is it the Product Owners, who are often absent or are not invited at all because they often also have a disciplinary role in the organization (Team Lead, Project Manager). 

Nor is it the anonymity that many Retro moderations take refuge in because transparent, open, and mutually appreciative communication (still) seems impossible in organizations that have been prescribed “Agile” and are now “playing” Agile without being Agile. 

No, the one to blame is – and this may sound surprising at first – the Retro itself. 

How can that be? The Sprint Retrospective is just a ceremony. Exactly, and both the term “retrospective” and the ceremonial staging of this event are to blame. Let’s take a look at both terms and the fog will soon clear: 

Retrospektive

(lat. retrospectare "to look back")
↪︎
Refers to a look back at events that have already happened.

Ceremony

↪︎
Usually involves certain rituals or predetermined actions that often have a symbolic character

Both terms sound appropriate and sensible at first, quite appropriate and even purposeful. But they are not.

Common Mistakes in Agile Retrospectives

A retrospective always reminds me more of a display of an artist’s work in a sterile exhibition space, such as an art gallery. The artists are usually already deceased, and their work is to be saved from oblivion. Art halls and galleries are places where art is exhibited, not places where art is created. 

 

The same applies to Retrospectives—they observe; they do not create or, translated into an “agile language” – they look at past problems, but they do not solve them, at least not until you decide to name, address, and possibly delegate as a solution. 

 

The concept of ceremony is even worse off. Many Retros follow a certain pattern – people dutifully stick their yellow, blue, red and green notes on the wall or digital board (yes, even the notes have been digitally imitated, which only emphasizes the character of the ceremony – or caricatures it, depending on your perspective). Then there’s a proper grouping and voting, sometimes even a discussion, by which time the timebox is usually as good as over.   

So in the remaining 7 minutes, measures are quickly decided, usually recommendations on what others should do. Weeks later, the team gathers again, and the cycle repeats, with little consideration given to what came out of the previous retrospective, or it is looked at and noted that not much has happened, which does not exactly increase the motivation for the current Retro. 

Every Agile Retrospective organizer reading this may say, “Nonsense, our Retros run much better. We have good discussions, track progress, and are transparent, honest, and open. Everyone enjoys doing them regularly—everything is great.”  

And yet I have seen very few teams in which something has substantially changed in the agile process and agile mindset over the course of – let’s say – 3 to 6 months as a result of carrying out Retros.

At the same time, the need for change and improvement in most teams is significant.

Where does the Sprint Retrospective stand in the Agile process?

Let’s go back to square one for a moment. We established that there are not many events (ceremonies, meetings, or whatever you call them) in the agile culture, yet the agile process is complex. Each of the remaining elements is crucial. 

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to underestimate the power of the retrospective.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to underestimate the power of the retrospective. It is the only place, the only forum, where optimizations—or even a deeper understanding—of the agile process are directly addressed. There is nothing else. If you don’t take advantage of this opportunity, you won’t have a good process, no substantial development in the teams, etc. The Retro is the most underestimated meeting. And this is unfortunately encouraged by the term “Retrospective” and by treating it as a ceremony. 

How to properly conduct an Agile Sprint Retrospective?

At the end of every (!) sprint, we do an “Agile Process Inspect & Adapt” session. The name isn’t even that complicated. It says “Agile Process…” it is not about the canteen opening 20 minutes earlier; it’s about the agile process. Everything else must be discussed elsewhere; here, this is solely about the agile process.

Then the name says “…Inspect & Adapt,” indicating that it is 50% about inspect—what happened and 50% about adapt what do we change. 

Now, imagine the people in the meeting not coming unprepared. Instead of the moderator saying, “Think about this and that for 10 minutes, write it on a note, and stick it to the wall,” they hear, “We have these and those items in our improvement backlog, where each of you can add things at any time (including Scrum Masters, Product Owners, Stakeholders).

 

Let’s prioritize these items using a (possibly adjusted) WSJF method, or look at the current prioritization and change it if necessary, and then make the top item the subject of a Planning, including an implementation plan, i.e. not only say what we want to improve, but precisely when and how.” 

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Then we look at our “agile Process Inspect & Adapt DoR” (Definition of Ready), which states that the measures must be tailored in such a way that they – or at least some of them – can be implemented in the upcoming sprint, negotiate the minimum capacity for these process improvement items (as agreed with the organization) and pull in as many as that capacity allows.

These items become regular topics in the next sprint, treated like User Stories, and discussed in Daily Standups and Sprint Reviews. 

Now let’s imagine that this happens in every sprint, routinely and without exception, also using a DoD (Definition of Done).  

And now at the end, every organizer of a Retro can compare this procedure with their own Retro of the past. Draw your own conclusions. 

Summary – 8 Steps to a Successful Retrospective

Here are the key points for conducting a Sprint Retrospective effectively: 

 

👉 At the end of each sprint, teams should conduct a Sprint Retrospective (Inspect & Adapt Session) exclusively focused on the agile process. 

👉 The session is divided 50% into “Inspect” (What happened?) and 50% into “Adapt” (What are we changing?). 

👉 Participants are prepared and use an Improvement Backlog where anyone can suggest ideas. 

👉 Prioritization follows an (adjusted) WSJF method, and the top item becomes the subject of detailed planning. 

👉 The “Agile Process Inspect & Adapt DoR” dictates that actions must be implementable in the next sprint, with a negotiated minimum capacity. 

👉 Selected measures are treated like User Stories and are part of Daily Standups and Sprint Reviews. 

👉 This process repeats in every Sprint without exception, applying a Definition of Done (DoD). 

👉 At the end of each Retrospective, the organizer (usually the Scrum Master) can compare this process with the previous Retrospectives to assess the progress. 

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Klaus Riedel
As an agile coach, Klaus Riedel, together with his team, supports the digital transformation and the introduction of Scrum and SAFe in large organizations such as Deutsche Bank, Conrad Electronics, Volkswagen, PWC and others.

All his gained practical experiences in more than 15 years of agile transformation have been incorporated into the articles of his blog.

In Scagile Academy he trains young Agile Experts and since 2016 he teaches agile project management at the German Faculty of TU Sofia.

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