Six Techniques for an Effective Retrospective

If a non-agile team were to adopt one single agile technique, what would it be?

My answer, without a doubt, is a regular retrospective.  Why?  An effective retrospective allows you to continually improve your process.  It allows you to add in the other Agile techniques, gradually, as your team is ready for them.  Over time it can be the gateway to a fully agile process that is completely customized for your team.

But there is a fine line between an effective retrospective, and a gripe session that that fails to lead to process improvement.  These six techniques can help you get the most out of your retrospectives.

1. Prepare items before-hand

One of the most important steps for an effective meeting is to have a clear agenda.  Asking team-members to prepare retrospective items ahead of time lays an specific agenda which facilitates:

  • Allocating an appropriate amount of discussion time per item
  • Producing more well thought out, higher quality suggestions
  • Knowing when the meeting is over

2. Centralize items in a repository

Specifying a central location such as a Google Docs spreadsheet or a SharePoint list that team-members can add to as items occur to them can further increase meeting effectiveness.  Not only can team members see and prepare to respond to other team members, but it represents a history of changes, and can provide more structure in entering items.

3. Identify problems and solutions

Unstructured retrospective items submitted by team members seem to come in one of two forms:

  1. Solutions in want of a problem; and 
  2. Problems without a clear solution 

Both types of submissions aren't necessarily bad, but they can lead to ineffective process changes or long discussions that fail to result in meaningful change.

The most effective retrospectives I've seen ask team members to present both a problem and a solution.  By separating off the two sides of the coin the group can decide as a team if there are perhaps better solutions that fit the problem.

4. Revisit old solutions

If a team member has identified a problem and the group has arrived at a process change, how can the team be sure that the solution fixed the problem?

The best approach is to have the team revisit old unresolved items at each retrospective.  If the solution solved the problem, resolve it.  If not, postpone for another meeting or propose another solution.

5. Focus on process, not individuals

Invariably person X will do something to upset person Y.  Then Y will want to bring the issue up at the retrospective.

Having a problem/solution format will help discourage airing personnel issues, but proactive leaders will want to establish some rules ahead of time to encourage team members to work out issues outside of the retrospective to keep the meeting focused on the team's process.

6. What went well

While no concrete changes typically comes from a "what went well" section of a meeting, a pat on the back never hurts, can keep morale up, and can encourage team members to keep doing the good parts.


With a little extra structure your retrospectives can be shorter, more results-oriented, and more effective.  Why not give these tips a try at your next retrospective?

And if you aren't doing retrospectives?  Schedule your first, you won't regret it.