What is a sprint retrospective? A brief guide for agile software development teams

The sprint retrospective is a critical part of the scrum agile methodology for software and digital development. A supportive, facilitated environment – either face to face or online – allows everyone involved to constructively review and consider feedback, resulting in specific action steps for improvement signed up to by the whole team. This article contains guidance on structuring your sprint retrospective meetings, including a number of suggested approaches and tools.

What is a sprint retrospective? A brief guide for agile software development teams
Contributor Photo - Dave Foxall

Dave Foxall

Blog Editor

Scrum is well-known as an agile development methodology, particularly suited to software and other digital projects. The basic unit of the incremental scrum approach is the sprint – a contained period of work focused on producing a useable (and often releasable) product or product increment.

A critical part of every sprint is the sprint retrospective, a chance for the project team to analyze the development processes and practices used during the sprint with a view to continuous improvement, discussing what went well, what could be done better, and – most importantly, perhaps – what specific actions the team will commit to improving in the next sprint.

What is a sprint retrospective

The sprint retrospective is critical to ensuring that your scrum project is constantly improving the quality of its approach, and therefore the quality of the product. Everyone involved in the project should be involved in the sprint retrospective: scrum team (devs, quality engineers, business analysts, visual and UX designers, etc.), scrum master, and product owner so that fully rounded feedback can be shared and acted upon.

A sprint retrospective takes place after a sprint review (see below for the differences between the two) and should take no more than 2-3 hours, on average, for a one-month sprint (shorter sprints usually mean shorter retrospectives).

An important point to note is that a retrospective is a positive meeting. Yes, if there were negative aspects to the finished sprint they should be raised and discussed but always through the lens of How can we make this better or How can we ensure it doesn’t happen again.

A good motto for a sprint retrospective would be, No complaints without recommendations!

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Sprint Reviews and Sprint Retrospectives – what’s the difference?

“Review”…, “Retrospective”…, they’re both about looking back, right? So, why have two different meetings? The answer is simple, they’re both rear-view mirrors but they are used to reflect on different elements of the project.

Put simply, a sprint review is a meeting to look at the work completed in the sprint: the product increment. In essence, does it work as intended? Do we need to change the product backlog? What do we do in the next sprint to maximize the value of the product? Whereas a sprint retrospective is a meeting to look back in order to agree ways to improve the next sprint. One is about the product, the other is about the process.

You could say that a sprint review is focused on the present (What do we have and is it what we want?) while a sprint retrospective is focused on the past to influence the future (How did we do what we did and how can we do it better?)

How to run a sprint retrospective meeting

There are a number of tools you can use to analyze sprint performance (more on that, in a moment) but whichever you use, the following useful categories can help ensure that your retrospective is covering all key elements of the sprint:

  1. Results – Did you achieve what you planned to achieve? If so, what helped? If not, what got in the way?
  2. Productivity – How productive was the team’s way of working, of achieving the results? How can you improve that next time round?
  3. Processes – Development, design, review… how well did those processes work?
  4. Tools – What tools (electronic tools, communication tools, physical objects, technical tools…) were in use and how did they work for this project?
  5. People – Did you have the right people on board, in the team? Are all necessary roles covered’ Do you need more ‘human resources’ on the next sprint?
  6. Relationships – How well did everyone work together? What support was offered? What was the quality of the collaboration?

Feedback from team members is classically gathered by asking them to write their thoughts on sticky notes, which are then grouped and displayed for all to see (and often regrouped according to the ensuing discussion).

As for the tools and methods to use when reviewing (or should that be ‘retrospecting’?!) all of the above, consider the following options…

The 4 Ls

The 4 Ls technique is a way of drawing out feedback and discussion and can be used to dive into each of the six categories listed above. The 4 Ls are: Liked, Learned, Lacked, and Longed For. Everyone is asked to write down what they liked during the sprint, what they learned, what they lacked and what they’re missing. Feedback from everyone is collated and discussed in small groups to promote deeper analysis and more ideas for improvement.

START, STOP, CONTINUE, LESS, MORE

Very similar to the 4Ls, this method replaces the Liked, Learned, Lacked, and Longed For with a different set of questions:

  • START: What should we start doing that we (probably) haven’t done yet?
  • STOP: What should we stop doing because it’s not working well or is impeding our work?
  • CONTINUE: What works well that we should continue?
  • LESS: What should we do less?
  • MORE: What should we do more?

Mad, Sad or Glad

Again, the principle is the same but with this method, the perspective required of meeting participants is:

  • What drove them mad or crazy during the sprint; i.e. problems, waste, unwanted or unexpected surprises, etc.
  • What made them feel sad: problems between people, things that didn’t go as expected, etc.
  • What made them feel happy: the sprint’s successes, achievements, triumphs, etc.

For all of the above methods, you can use them in a slightly more technologically advanced manner by using an on-screen and online tool, such as Boldare’s own Sprint Retrospective Tool (see below for more).

For more detail and depth on sprint retrospective methods and techniques, we recommend our article: “Sprint Retrospective ideas for Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches”

Pros and cons of an agile sprint retrospective

Pros:

  • A sprint retrospective meeting is a safe space to share views on the project performance.
  • Product quality improves with each sprint.
  • Ways of working steadily improve, becoming more efficient and collaborative.
  • Practical (and actionable) plans for change for the better are produced by the whole team together – meaning greater commitment to improvement.
  • A team focused on relationships and collaboration tends to be more productive, optimistic, and resilient.
  • Coming immediately at the end of each sprint is good timing as events and ideas are fresh in everybody’s minds.
  • The retrospective itself is a collaborative process, mirroring and exemplifying the approach needed for the whole project.

Cons:

  • Facilitated badly, a sprint retrospective can become a game of blame.
  • Some people may use the opportunity to complain instead of offer constructive feedback.
  • In a project with many sprints, asking the same questions or using the same review methods at the end of each one can be repetitive and the team may contribute less and less (HINT: mix it up!)
  • Actions agreed at a sprint retrospective may impact negatively on people outside the project.

Sprint Retrospective Tool by Boldare

Online sprint retrospective - how to handle it?

Not all teams work in the same office or even the same city. And the client or product owner may be half way round the world. In other words, it may be difficult for everyone to be in the same room for a sprint retrospective. The answer, of course, is to run the meeting online. But for that, you’ll need the right tools.

At Boldare, we hate to be immodest but equally, we don’t believe hiding our light. And that’s why we recommend our own Sprint Retrospective Tool, a FREE online app for conducting scrum retrospectives.

With the Sprint Retrospective Tool, you control the number of headings and what they are (maybe the 4 Ls, maybe STOP, START, etc., maybe Mad/Sad/Glad… or whatever works best for you), individuals can add their feedback under each heading, and then collaboratively, the team reviews and votes on each item of feedback, leading to discussion and action items (also voted on).

It’s light, fast, flexible and gets the job done, allowing your team to engage, share opinions and feedback, and discuss and agree outcomes and next steps – and it doesn’t matter where they are in the world.

Summary

There are always ways to improve in any team and the retrospective concept, and more specifically the various retrospective methods and tools, guide you through the process of doing just that.

Retrospective meetings are a safe and structured space in which to create and share feedback with the aim of always doing better, whether you’re all in the same room or not. Sprint retrospective meetings are all about continuous improvement of your development project, sprint by sprint, ensuring that each sprint stands on the shoulders of its predecessor.

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