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Retrospective 101

How to Choose a Retrospective Technique

The sprint is over. The team is assembled. The working agreements have been read. 

It is time to retro! 

 

As a facilitator, choosing the best technique for the team and selecting a guiding topic to lead a meaningful discussion will set your team up for success in the next sprint. Are you just going to focus on the bigger technical aspects of the sprint? Will you focus on bugs? Does the team need to discuss organizational concerns? All of the above? Deciding what to discuss and how in your retrospective is no easy task! 

Here’s the scoop though, not all teams benefit from every technique and not all retrospective activities work for all situations.🤯 

Clearly a futurespective doesn’t make sense for teams that want to focus on the past sprint. While teams that need to focus on specific pain points (like psychological safety and engagement) should use techniques that help get to the root cause of issues. Similarly, if your team’s focus changes in each retrospective the techniques you use will probably vary as much as the topic.

So, where do you start? You can narrow down your technique options before each retro by asking yourself a few simple questions:  

  • what, 
  • when, 
  • where, 
  • who, 
  • which, 
  • how, and
  • why?  

Let’s take a closer look at how each of these questions can help you pick the best technique for every retrospective. 

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What will be the goal of the retrospective?

If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be? 

Is it sweet? Salty? Savory? Spicy? Some combination of all of the above? 

Thinking about that first bite, it is probably delicious and it's hard to imagine a time you wouldn’t love it. 

Now think about the 100th bite. The 1000th bite. The 10000th bite. Not quite as tasty when you are only eating one thing. 

The same rule applies to retrospectives. If you are taking the same approach to your retrospectives every time. The quality of the conversation is affected. 

You might be asking yourself, aren’t retrospectives supposed to be about whatever the team wants to discuss? 

Absolutely! 

But as a facilitator, you can help your team experience different flavors by setting different goals for your retrospective for the team to reflect on. 

 Let me be clear though, it is not the job of the facilitator to come up with specific discussion topics. The team should always feel comfortable discussing the specific items that matter most to them. What I mean by focus, is creating a guiding question or idea for the team to use in later ideation. By leading retrospectives with different themes and foci, participants can have the space to innovate and think critically about the systems affecting the team and why they are all retrospecting.

Example goals could be: 

  • Discover how we can improve focus time. 
  • Discuss what changes need to be made for better communication between teams.
  • Learn how we can improve testing procedures. 
  • Discuss ways to improve team morale.
  • Discover new ways to incorporate feedback into backlog refinement.
  • Discuss what success looks like in the next sprint.
  • Discuss what we learned from the previous project. 
  • Discuss how pizza can be improved. 
  • Discover how we can improve the retrospective process.

The sky and your team’s creativity are the limits. Holding retrospectives that have specific goals for the discussion helps your team get out of the familiar comfort of the same retro discussion and spice it up!


When was your last retrospective??

Thinking about the timing and cadence of your retrospectives is the first step in choosing a technique. Depending on your creativity level, retrospectives can be used in infinite ways. (My favorite so far has to be the team that uses retrospectives as a way to evaluate which activities would help new facilitators get feedback.) However, if you are using the same retrospective technique too often, you run the risk of talking about the same issues in every retro.

Too much of a good thing

 If you are running two or more retros a week then your retrospective technique is to pause retrospecting and give the team more time to work on action items. 

Let’s look at Avery, a new facilitator with a new team on a new project.✨

For Avery, running the popular Start Stop Continue technique won’t bring much success. After all, what is a new team going to stop doing? Considering this team has never worked together before, focusing on a futurespective technique, such as Sailboat or Wishes Risks Appreciations and Puzzles provides the structure for a more engaging conversation that everyone can contribute to equally. 

However, if we fast forward and Avery is now running her 50th retrospective with the same team, the team will have action items to examine, systems that may need refining, or holiday plans to schedule around. The team’s circumstances have changed. 

Avery knows what the team has been working on, and she knows a particular method of debugging that should be examined closer. In this case, a Start Stop Continue or Starfish retrospective would be great technique options for the team. 

Understanding when the last retro occurred and what was discussed will help you decide if you need to go further into one problem that the team has been working on consistently, or if you need to go in a different direction and get the team to consider larger goals. 


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Where in the project?

Now, it’s time for some honest reflection. Take a deep breath and consider your answers: where are you in the project? At the beginning? Near the end? Somewhere in between? Or, frankly, do you even know? Are you sure?

If you’re working towards a very specific goal, you probably have a pretty clear straightforward answer. On the other hand, if you are part of a more established team that’s juggling multiple projects and deadlines and they’re all at different stages, your answer may not be as concrete. 

Let’s take a deeper look at each of these scenarios. 


When you are focused on one project

Taking time to focus on the specifics of a project is important. Retros in these cases can help you look at the effects of the team’s systems and processes. Think of it as reverse engineering. You already have a system in place, now look at the problem. However, not all techniques work for all parts of the project. 

The beginning of a project is an exciting time. Consider techniques that help your team run a “futurespective.” Futurespectives come in all shapes and sizes, but one of my favorites is Sailboat. This technique helps your team look forward and anticipate possible obstacles and take a proactive approach to anything that might slow the team down.


If you are in the midst of a larger project -or just in the middle of your fiscal quarter- look at techniques that help your team examine what is happening, and what is in the team’s sphere of influence and examine how the team can pivot to improve, such as Lean Coffee. 

When the end is near, it is time to dig deeper. Look for techniques that will help your team reflect on the entire experience and help team members learn what lessons and actions can be taken into the next project.

When you are running multiple projects

What if you don’t have a specific project? Retrospectives are no longer just for software development. This means that you could be running retrospectives to discuss ideas for improvement that are not tied to a specific project. When this happens, it’s important to consider larger goals and organizational timelines. Ask yourself a few questions: Is it the beginning of the year or are you halfway through the third fiscal quarter? Is the organization just starting to get off the ground or do we have decades of systems in place? Was the team just established or have they been working together for years? 

Having historical context helps you, as the facilitator, see opportunities for when to dive deep into current systems, when to look at infinite possibilities, and when to change course entirely. 

When extreme pivots happen, it can be exceedingly overwhelming. Especially, for project managers or facilitators who need to keep up with all the projects happening. 

Bringing Avery back, let’s say she is working with her seasoned product team which has been split into pods responsible for separate projects.

Avery has three options for her next full team retrospective:

  1. Discuss the specific projects happening in the pods. 
  2. Look at the projects and the way they are conducted as a whole.
  3. A combination of 1 and 2 that the team decides on based on the outcome of the ideation and voting phases.

What should Avery choose?

As usual with agile, there isn’t necessarily one right answer. However, some paths are better than others. 

Let’s take a closer look at these three options.

Option 1: Discuss the specific projects happening in the pods.

If every member of the team is involved in every project to some varying degree then retrospecting on a single project can narrow the team’s focus to ensure each project runs smoothly and the team remains aligned on the goals and expectations of the work. 

On the flip side of that coin, if you have team members that will never work on the project in question, then the retrospective will not be the best use of their time. In this case, if Avery focuses on projects related to Pod A, the members of Pod B are going to be bored, confused, and may even distract others from the discussion. Yikes. 😱

Running a separate retrospective for each pod or each project keeps the discussion more focused and allows those that don’t need to be there to work on other tasks.

Option 2: Look at the projects and the way they are conducted as a whole.

Another way to put this is to have participants ideate on issues that affect the whole product team. Instead of focusing on the work of one pod think about the issues that affect the larger team. This will ensure that team members are engaged and find value in the retrospective experience.

Option 3: A combination of 1 and 2: The team decides on based on the outcome of the ideation and voting phases. 

Odds are, many of us fall into this category and there’s a healthy mixture of hyperspecific and broad topics. This means it will be up to our facilitator, Avery, to make sure that the conversation stays pertinent to the needs of the team and recognizes when a discussion needs to be held separately. 

If your team is juggling multiple projects, discuss with your team ahead of time if they feel there’s more value in focusing the retrospective one project or if the retro should inspect the project as a whole.

Who should be in the retrospective?

This question has led to some controversy. In an ideal world, your retrospective is limited to team members only. Remember, your retrospective should be a safe space to be vulnerable and have hard conversations. It’s hard to be vulnerable when someone from outside the team joins the retrospective, and even more challenging when that person wields operating power over the team. However, sometimes it is necessary. 

If Avery and her team discover a greater issue around decision-making and communication with stakeholders and management, then inviting management to the retrospective may help the team overcome the issue. 

If the team is constantly struggling with issues outside of their influence, you need to bring in someone who can understand and have an impact on the impediments facing the team. 

Regardless of the circumstances about why your team is inviting non-team members to join the retrospective, it’s important that the facilitator choose a retrospective technique that will help your team demonstrate issues that the outside force could impact. Use a technique that will explore the topic at hand and help the visitors understand the issue, such as a Start, Stop, Continue, or Starfish.  

If your team is missing a key member or two, it is ultimately the same solution. Consider what challenges the remaining team members may face and use a technique that will focus the conversation on topics most relevant to their concerns. For example, a team full of new team members won’t get as much benefit from a Starfish as a team that has been working together.

Which retro technique was used last?

Familiarity is comforting. The warmth of your favorite coffee. The calm of your favorite podcasts. The excitement of your favorite movie. Familiarity can be nice. It can also be stale. 

Over time, specific retrospective techniques have become staples for successful agile retrospectives. Techniques such as Start Stop Continue, What Went Well, and Mad Sad Glad have become ingrained in the retrospective habits of teams and coaches from around the world. Why? Because they are great techniques! These retro activities help the team set the foundation for a great retrospective discussion.  

Ultimately, if you are using the same retrospective exercise  - whether you are using a more traditional agile approach or something of your own creation - you are asking your team the same question in every retro. 

Team discussions thrive on change. If you are constantly asking the same questions, it’s only reasonable that you will get different variations of the same answers each time. 

Consider what techniques you use heavily. By leaning heavily on what’s familiar and comfortable, are you missing any new or additive perspectives that can help your team improve? For example, if you are constantly running a Mad Sad Glad you are focusing the discussion on the team’s current emotional state. Switching it up with a Wishes Risks Appreciations Puzzles retro helps transition the conversation to action by examining where energy is within the team. 

You can also switch up your retro without changing focus completely by asking the question differently. If you love Start Stop Continue, then a Starfish retro (start doing, stop doing, keep doing, do more of, and do less of) will help you gather more ideas to help the team go beyond the boundaries of a Start Stop Continue. 

Whatever your favorite retro activity, introducing variety can help keep the discussions energized, innovative and valuable. And remember, those old standbys will always be there for you.

How has the team been in the last few weeks?

This question isn’t asking about vacation schedules. Instead, consider the morale of your team. Are they exhausted near the end of a long project? Are they energetic after a holiday off? Are they struggling? Are they thriving? Is the organization as a whole impacting the team’s productivity? 

Teams do not exist in a vacuum. Taking into account the environment, conditions, morale, and any other factors that can impact the team you can pick a technique that will match the energy levels of your team. Are they up for a challenging deep dive into a difficult topic with a fishbone, or would discovering smaller action items to make incremental improvements through a 4Ls (like, learned, lacked, and long for) be a better fit? 

Pro Tip: if you don’t know the answer to this question, team radars are a great way to learn.

Why does your team want to run a retrospective?

Here is a hint: because you are supposed to, is not the right answer.

Meetings for meeting's sake can make retrospectives miserable. Ensure that your team has buy-in for the retrospective process. (We talk about how to build buy-in in Chapter 12.) When your team doesn’t understand the value of the retrospective, discussions become stilted and shallow - or worse- combative. When this happens, look for techniques such as goals alignment radar as an opening activity to get everyone on the same page and ready to retro.

If you don’t know all the answers, that's ok. You have access to the best source of information about your team you can have –your own team members. If you come across a question you aren’t sure about, ask! Ask your team members for their opinions, experiences, and preferences. Don’t feel that you should have all the answers just because you are a retrospective facilitator. 

Choosing retrospective techniques should be less of exact science, and more of an ongoing scientific experiment. Sometimes you will choose a great balance, and other times you will learn something new about running a great retrospective. 

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