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Agile Retrospectives: What They Are and How to Run Them

Improve your team's collaboration and communication. Learn what an agile retrospective is and how to run one effectively.

Motion Blog
at Motion
Oct 3, 2023
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As a business owner, you’re no stranger to the challenges of managing projects and teams. You may have faced communication breakdowns, repetitive mistakes, or inefficient workflows.

Enter Agile retrospectives: a dynamic Agile ceremony designed to transform these challenges into opportunities for improvement.

KPMG’s 2022 PMI Project Management Survey found that 71% of respondents who adopted Agile in their business felt it improved overall project delivery. This was because Agile made it easier for them to adapt to changes due to its incremental approach.

In this article, we’ll explore how retrospectives fit into the Agile framework and can serve as a game-changing tool for your team.

What is Agile?

Agile is a flexible way to manage projects, focusing on teamwork, adaptability, and progress.

But, how is it different from more traditional methods like waterfall?

Agile works in short bursts of activity, or sprints, where feedback rounds and review meetings form a regular part of ongoing sprint iterations. With Agile frameworks like Scrum, the work is dictated by the product or service (and what the customer wants) rather than sequentially as planned.

Let's look at an example.

For a website project, copy, design, and UX tasks are worked concurrently, rather than the design team waiting for copy and the UX team waiting for design.

Scrum recognizes (and encourages) that cross-functional work can be done at the same time.

Waterfall is a sequential approach that takes after its name. One task is completed before the next, and so on. For example, in a manufacturing or construction business, each (build) stage must be completed before the next can be started.

Agile is most easily recognized by its ceremonies and how agile teams are structured.

Agile ceremonies: A quick overview

The Agile ceremonies provide a structure to manage projects within the Agile methodology. These ceremonies, or meetings, promote communication within your team and drive continuous improvement over time. These ceremonies also keep the team aligned and help make sure roadblocks are addressed promptly.

The five Agile ceremonies are:

  1. Sprint planning meeting: Outlines the tasks for the upcoming cycle (sprint) to make sure everyone knows what they are working on.
  2. Daily stand-up: A quick daily check-in for updates and to identify roadblocks early.
  3. Sprint review: Demonstrates completed work to clients and other stakeholders to gather feedback for potential improvements after the previous sprint.
  4. Sprint retrospective or Agile retrospective: Reflect on the recent cycle to identify successes and improvement areas.
  5. Backlog refinement: Regularly update the task list and keep it relevant and manageable.

A table outlining the agile ceremonies

‎These ceremonies work together to create a continuous rhythm (cadence) of meetings that refine processes, set sprint objectives, and review completed work as projects progress. Here’s how they work together.

Diagram of the Agile ceremonies

‎In the image, sprints run in 1-4-week cycles with daily scrums, regular reviews, and retrospective meetings. Through this iterative process, project delivery is optimized continuously.

What are the Agile roles?

The Agile ceremonies are just one part of the Agile process. The second piece of the puzzle is the Agile roles.

Project teams have functional roles, such as copywriter, graphic designer, or project manager. Scrum, an Agile framework, also has specific Scrum roles on the project team.

Three people with labelled Scrum roles

‎The Scrum roles are:

  • A Scrum Master who owns the Scrum process and facilitates your retrospectives.
  • A product owner who’s responsible for refining the backlog and making sure what the client most wants is up first for the next sprint.
  • The remaining project staff, or development team, who own the production of the work to be delivered

These roles bring consistency to Agile ceremonies, including the retrospectives.

What is an Agile retrospective?

The Agile retrospective is an important Agile ceremony because it is the primary mechanism for feedback.

These meetings provide a structured framework to review and evaluate past project activities. They also can help you:

  • Foster collaboration
  • Improve team morale
  • Streamline processes

Ultimately, Agile retrospectives help you achieve better project outcomes.

What is the goal of an Agile retrospective?

Stealing a little bit from Kanban, also an Agile framework, the goal of Agile retrospectives is continuous improvement. You do that by:

  • Reflecting on the recent sprint
  • Assessing what went well
  • Then, implementing changes to improve the way work is done

This is achieved by asking the three questions.

What are the 3 retrospective questions?

These three questions act as the framework for open and honest discussion.

A person next to a clock and review questions

‎1. What worked well?

This question:

  • Celebrates the team's successes and achievements.
  • Recognizes successful strategies and collaborations that can be repeated in the future.
  • Boosts confidence by focusing on the positive.
  • Provides an opportunity to highlight how your team has contributed to wider business outcomes.

For example, on that last point, maybe you've been running a new marketing campaign, and it attracted 50 new leads for your business. This lead increase may have moved you closer to your annual revenue goal. This deserves recognition.

2. What could be improved?

This question:

  • Highlights any issues or problems your team faced during the sprint.
  • Objectively breaks down how issues can be prevented in the future.

As a team, you should openly discuss challenges without blame or stories.

For example, the new marketing campaign may have attracted 50 new leads. Still, your Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) indicates you should be able to attract 100 for the same budget spent, so to improve, you could work on reducing your CPA and increasing your leads while spending the same budget.

3. What actions can we take for next time?

This question:

  • Helps the team come up with suggestions for improvement.
  • Promotes brainstorming as a team to create practical solutions to problems.
  • Helps the team come up with positive changes to processes.
  • Focuses on improvement.

Make sure to assign follow-up tasks to team members to implement the changes discussed.

Continuing with the marketing example,‌ some action items that could come out of the retrospective are:

  • Try three different ad images and headline combinations to see if a combination meets your goals.
  • Review the leads you've obtained and track them over the next 30 days to see how many make a purchase. Then, you can determine if they're a better quality of lead (and worth paying extra for) because they buy more over time than the usual leads.
  • Improve how quickly ads are turned off or changes are made when budgets blow out.

How to run an effective Agile retrospective - your checklist

How do you run a retrospective with enough time to cover the three questions and get the most out of the scheduled time?

First, the retrospective should be long enough to adequately cover lessons learned and set up action items to make improvements in the future.

When it's time for the meeting, use this checklist to get underway (and keep on track):

A checklist of steps to run a retrospective
  • ‎Create an agenda (and 30-45 minute time limit) and distribute it before the meeting.
  • Gather the team in a quiet space and quickly review the agenda.
  • Set the tone. The discussion should be nameless, shameless, and blameless so that communication isn’t held back. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak.
  • Keep the discussion focused and constructive.
  • Ask: What went well in our recent work? Discuss wins and positive aspects of the teamwork.
  • Ask: What could have gone better? Talk about problems and challenges (without blaming or naming).
  • Ask: What can we do better next time? Brainstorm ideas for improvement.
  • Record practical action items to take away and assign.

3 pro tips for the most effective retrospectives

Your retros will only be as successful as you allow them to be. Here are some tips to make them as productive and enjoyable as possible:

1. Create a productive environment

  • Create a safe space: Make sure your team feels comfortable to share successes and challenges openly. After all, you’re all there to work towards better outcomes.
  • Focus on action: The aim is to ensure that action is taken to improve where issues exist. Keep insights actionable and practical.

2. Lean on the hive mind

  • Rotate facilitators: Regardless of your team members' roles, give everyone the opportunity to run these meetings. Not only does this build confidence and leadership skills, but, by taking turns running the meetings, everyone feels empowered to contribute.
  • Include everyone: Make sure that all team members actively participate. Let them contribute freely.
  • Reflect and adapt: Once you get the hang of the meeting flow, feel free to reassess and adapt the meetings in the future. The whole point is to make these ceremonies work for you. Get creative!

3. Use project management tools

  • Use a central project board to record meeting notes and action items.
  • Assign retrospective action items to responsible team members after the meetings
  • Track the progress and status of retrospective action items to make sure they are being completed.

What’s next for your Agile retrospectives?

Managing teams is hard enough without making the same mistakes happen repeatedly. And while it may be difficult to convince your entire team to sign up for another meeting each week, by the time you master your retros, you’ll be saving them time.

Partner with Motion to optimize your ceremonies:

  • Pair your retrospectives with Motion’s AI-driven meeting scheduling and task automation to create a regular review process.
  • Use a meeting scheduler to schedule weekly retros automatically.
  • Automate recurring tasks for action items.

It's time to stop just talking about issues in your business. Use Motion with your ceremonies to create smart solutions that transform roadblocks into opportunities.

Try Motion free today!

Motion Blog
Written by Motion Blog