How teams increase agility with agile retrospectives

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The agile retrospective is much more than just a meeting done at the end of the sprint. When done well it becomes a practice that helps teams to learn how they are doing and finding ways to become better and increase agility. It helps teams to become flexible and adapt themselves to changes. Good retrospectives increase the efficiency of teams.


What is an agile retrospective

An agile retrospective, or sprint retrospective as Scrum calls it, is a practice used by teams to reflect on their way of working and to continuously become better in what they do.

The whole team attends the retrospective meeting, where they inspect how the iteration, sprint has gone, and decide what and how they want to adapt their way of working.  Actions coming out of a retrospective are done in the next iteration, making retrospectives an effective way to do short cycled continuous improvement.


Retrospectives increase agility and efficiency of teams

Agile promotes the usage of retrospectives as they help teams to solve their own problems and improve themselves.

What are the benefits of doing them? A first benefit is that they give power to the team. Since the team members feel empowered, there will be little resistance to do the actions that come out of the retrospective.

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Another benefit is that the actions that are agreed in a retrospective are done by the team members, there is no hand-over! The team analyses what happened, defines the actions, and team members do them. This is much more effective, and also faster and cheaper.

Retrospectives are also a great tool to establish and maintain stable teams, and help them to become agile and lean.

And let’s not forget that one of the main aspects of agile is continuous improvement. Retrospectives help teams improve their processes for the project on which they are working. Agile Retrospectives give this good opportunity to allow the team to discover for themselves what they can do better as a team and see the progress. 

Other benefits you may find here


What comes up in retrospectives

Over the years I’ve seen many different things come up in retrospectives. Which is actually a great thing as it proves that retrospectives can help teams to improve in many ways. And they don’t have to be dull or boring.

One team that I coached used the retrospective to discuss their working policies, after having issues with people who worked from home. They explored the different needs and preferences that team members had, which increased understanding. As a result they defined working policies that improved collaboration in the team.

At one occasion I facilitated the retrospective where I felt at the start of the meeting that something was wrong. I did a quick round where each team member stated in one word how they had experienced the sprint. Where the first one said is was “ok” (with a somewhat negative tone), the second team member used the word “troublesome” and the third one said it “sucked”. Discussing their feelings the team found out what’s bothering them and agreed on some ground rules to prevent similar issues in the future.

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I’ve seen teams that used their retrospective to analyze major problems, like quality issues, failure to deliver, customer complaints, or major disturbances, for instance with a 5 times why exercise. Usually such retrospectives lead to updating the Definition of Done by changing or adding practices or tools that teams use to develop and deploy software. 


Toolbox with retrospective exercises

What comes up in the retrospective depends partly on how the retrospective is facilitated and what exercises are used. Different exercises lead to a different data to be gathered and explored. Depending on what the team wants to work on you might need different exercises.

It’s good practice to vary the exercises that you use in retrospectives. Some of the exercises that you can do in retrospectives are: asking questions, backpacking for agility, perfection game, asking why, solution focused/strengths, and four L’s. There’s a free online Retrospective Exercises Toolbox with many exercises which you can use to design your own retrospectives.

The retrospective facilitator (often the scrum master) should have a toolbox with retrospective exercises and be able to pick the most effective one given the situation that the team is in and the kind of improvement that they are aiming at.

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Getting value out of Agile Retrospectives

Do you want to know more about retrospectives and on how to increase agility of your team ? In 2014 I published the bestseller Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives. This book helps you to make your retrospectives work for your teams. It contains many exercises that you can use to facilitate retrospectives, supported with the “why”, “what” and “how” of retrospectives, the business value and benefits that they can bring you, and advice for introducing and improving retrospectives.

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About the author

Ben Linders is a Trainer / Coach / Adviser / Author / Speaker. He is an Independent Consultant in Agile, Lean, Quality and Continuous Improvement, based in The Netherlands. Author of Getting Value out of Agile RetrospectivesWaardevolle Agile RetrospectivesWhat Drives Quality and Continuous Improvement. Creator of the Agile Self-assessment Game.

As an adviser, coach and trainer he helps organizations with deploying effective software development and management practices. He focuses on continuous improvement, on ways to increase agility of teams, collaboration and communication, and professional development, to deliver business value to customers.

Ben is an active member of networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a well know speaker and author. He shares his experiences in a bilingual blog (Dutch and English), as an editor for Culture and Methods at InfoQ and as an expert in communities like ComputableQuoraDZone, and TechTarget. Follow him on twitter: @BenLinders.


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