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How to facilitate an agile retrospective effectively

Ben Linders


Note: This is a guest post from Ben Linders, an Independent Consultant in Agile, Lean, Quality and Continuous Improvement, based in The Netherlands. He is the author of Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives, Waardevolle Agile Retrospectives & What Drives Quality. We are thrilled to include his thoughts on our blog!

Agile teams use retrospectives to reflect, learn, and change their way of working. The facilitator of the retrospective plays an important role to make retrospectives effective. Let's explore what facilitators can do to help teams to get more value out of their retrospectives.

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 been done, and decide what and how they want to “adapt” their processes to improve.  The actions coming out of a retrospective are communicated and done in the next iteration. That makes retrospectives an effective way to do short cycled improvement.

Role of the facilitator

The retrospective facilitator has to do everything that is needed to make sure that the retrospective is valuable for the team. This includes:

  • Planning the meeting and assuring that team members can attend the retrospective
  • Selecting appropriate exercises and preparing them
  • Running the retrospective meeting
  • Setting the conditions for effective follow up on the actions

Some examples of the exercises that retrospective facilitators can use are a one-word retrospective, the perfection game, exploring strengths with core qualities, futurespectives, etc.  Many retrospective exercises are provided via the the Retrospective Exercise Toolbox, a free of charge agile and lean tool that helps you to do Valuable Agile Retrospectives.

Retrospective facilitation good practices

To make the retrospective effective, the facilitator shall:

  • Establishing a open and honest culture in the meeting
  • Ensure that all team members participate in the meeting
  • Assure that the team establishes a shared understanding of how things went
  • Help the team to decide upon the vital few actions that they will take

Here's a couple of practices that I recommend for facilitating retrospectives to make them valuable for the participants.

Many retrospective facilitators use the prime directive to establish a culture where team members speak up and will be open and honest. It sets the assumption that team member did the best they could possibly do, and that the purpose of the retrospective is not to blame people.

A retrospective facilitator should not have a personal stake in the outcome of the meeting. The team has to decide which actions they will do, the facilitator should not influence their decision. If the Scrum master is facilitating the retrospective this can be a challenge, as (s)he is also a team member.

Retrospective facilitators must be able to deal with negative issues. They should help the team focus on the issue and to understand them and don't blame any team members for what has happened. This requires strong communication skills, paying attention to verbal and non verbal communication.

Dealing with silence is another skill that facilitators should have. Silence helps people to think, to reflect, or to accept things that have happened. Sometimes the best thing a facilitator can do is to say and do nothing and give space to the team members to come up with their ideas.

A facilitator should focus on the process of the retrospective meeting. They should assure that exercises are done in an appropriate way, keep time, and help team members in performing activities that are needed to do the retrospective.

A facilitator should serve their the team in the meeting, but should not lead them based on their own opinion on what the team should do. It is important that a facilitator remains independent, which again can be challenging when the facilitator is also the Scrum master of the team.

Active listening can be useful in retrospective meetings, for instance when the facilitator recaps what is being said and checks if it has been understood by all attendants.

Doing effective agile retrospectives

Agile retrospectives are a great way to continuously improve the way of working. Getting feasible actions out of a retrospective and getting them done helps teams to learn and improve.

The book Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives from Luis Gonçalves and Ben Linders provides many different retrospective exercises that you can use to design effective retrospectives for continuous sustainable improvement.

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