Make Your Retrospectives Engaging Again


After performing so many meetings at the ends of your sprints, agile retrospectives can become monotonous and boring—and that’s when they become ineffective. This article looks at the reasons this happens and provides some ideas for making those retrospective meetings more lively and effective—and therefore more useful.

A good agile team is always striving to become better than before, and an effective retrospective enables the team to seize its opportunity to improve. In my view, this is not any new concept the team needs to master; but in reality, it sometimes becomes challenging to keep the momentum for extended periods of time.

After performing retrospectives on a fairly good number of teams and projects, my view is that retrospectives can become monotonous and boring, and that’s why they become ineffective. Let us look at the reasons this happens and discuss a few ideas for making those retrospective meetings more lively and effective.

What can be done differently to break the usual norms?

  • Put on a creative and innovative hat.
  • Change the facilitator.
  • Change the style.
  • Come prepared with some data.
  • Follow up on the retrospective action items.

The Fly-High Technique

I was flying kites with my friends at the Pongal festival, and we had a few tangles on the ground, but we could remove those by ourselves. But as the kite flew high, it got stuck between some wires, and we had to get external help from our neighbors and use sticks and other tools to remove these blockers so we could have a smooth flyway.

A thought came to me that this experience was relevant to some of the scenarios we see with teams. We come across many bottlenecks during the sprint, and they can be classified into two categories:

  1. Team-level impediments that the team is stuck with but can resolve themselves if they work on them consciously (similar to tangles on the ground)
  2. Organizational-level impediments that are beyond the team and need to be escalated to the next level for resolution (similar to the wires in the sky)

We had a retrospective a few days after the Pongal festival, and I drew a kite on the board and asked the team to imagine the kite as the good work they have been doing. I also encouraged the team to:

  • Identify the good work they have been doing so far and that they would like to continue doing
  • Identify team-level impediments they could resolve themselves, provided they really work on them
  • Identify impediments that need escalation to the next level because they require support from the organization or senior management for resolution

Teams liked this method a lot, and they were easily able to draw a clear line of distinction between the team-level impediments and those that needed escalation to the next level.

The lesson to be learned from this is that when we come across an interesting experience in our day-to-day work, we could take it back to our teams and use it whenever it could apply to improving a process.

A Space Launch or a Product Launch

When India sent its Mangalyaan Mars orbiter craft into space, one of my teams had a retrospective scheduled for the next day. This made me think of creating a news buzz of sorts, giving an introduction about the spacecraft to the team. We drew a picture of a rocket on the board and named it “Team Yaan.” We noted that while Mangalyaan has one year to reach its target, our project had just one sprint left to complete its release. It was the most critical, high-visibility project in the organization, as important as the Mars craft was for India. We said, “Let us identify, as a team, the driving forces—i.e., what we need to keep doing to ensure that we hit the target—as well as the pulling forces—the impediments and bottlenecks that are keeping us from reaching the target.” The team was very excited by this analogy, and they came up with good information.

It can help on a project if you use some examples from current events, as many people will be able to easily correlate these situations to their work experience.

The Team Journey Technique

I noticed that whenever the team traveled together, it created some special bonding among the team members. They could come up with data about how their sprints had gone and how they could make their journey a better and more enjoyable ride.

The Team Journey concept can be used after the team has completed a minimum of four or five sprints so that they can really visualize how they work together.

The Focus Technique

In my experience, adding a specific focus quadrant sometimes helps a lot. For example, if we are nearing a release, we add a focus quadrant for quality in the retrospective and ask the team to come up with items that need immediate focus so that they can make a 100 percent quality delivery. This quadrant can be used for anything that needs immediate, special attention.

A Secret Box

With a secret box, team members can drop a note with things they want to discuss in the retrospective whenever something strikes their minds. This way, they won’t forget anything. This can also be used if people are initially a little reluctant to speak out when the team is in the brainstorming phase. However, the team needs to remember that if an issue needs immediate attention, they should bring it up in the standup meeting or with the team right away instead of waiting until the retrospective. After a period of time, you shouldn’t even need to use the box because every team member should be comfortable speaking openly during retrospectives.

An Open-Space Retrospective

Sometimes leaving the option open to the team and asking them what they want to talk about can trigger a good discussion. Try asking your team explicitly whether they would like to have a discussion about specific topics and facilitating that conversation, and see what comes up.

Retro Radiator

It’s important to remember to follow up on action items the team identifies in the retrospective. Having some sort of visual indicator of the action items, along with a corresponding list of the people responsible for them, always helps the team stay focused. Tracking the retrospective action items can be done in different ways—you can opt for an electronic tool, or use a simple visual indicator, such as a whiteboard.

Working with Distributed Teams

It can be much more difficult doing retrospectives with distributed teams. The biggest challenge for geographically dispersed teams is finding ways to leverage the essence behind the agile value statement "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools" and the principle that "The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face communication."

However, by using some good collaboration tools, you can reap the benefits of face-to-face communication to some extent so that these inspect-and-adapt ceremonies can be really made effective. And even though your team may not be in the same time zone, they can still use some of the above techniques and collaborative games to communicate better in retrospectives.

These games are a lean way of doing retrospectives because playing them is quick, effective, and convenient for a distributed team, and most importantly, all the retrospective game data is collated with a single click of a button—within seconds, you get an Excel sheet including the players’ names. The retrospective data can further be analyzed to check for any patterns, outliers, or surprises.

Finding What Works for You

Teams need to do out-of-the-box thinking and appreciate that these short gatherings need not be done using only the techniques or methods prescribed in a book. You can utilize specific situational examples and case studies that would make your teams really think and speak. The techniques cited above can be used for gathering data in the retrospectives—or for generate a new thought process where your team members could come up with their own ideas for holding these meetings.

The methods mentioned here may not work for everyone; much depends on team composition and the environment. However, I saw visible improvements in productivity, quality, one-to-one coordination, and collaboration after using these techniques, so I encourage you to try some different strategies. I would be glad to hear from any readers who tried something new that worked for their teams and retrospectives!

User Comments

Chuck  Roller's picture

Great Article! All of the points are spot on. The one thing I would add is that sometimes during retrospectives, team members are reluctant to speak about issues for a variety of reasons. All too often, one of the main reasons is fear or intimidation of other team members. Usually, "other team members" are not trying to intimidate, they are just perceived that way. I have found that as a retrospective facilitator; if I'm willing to ask a question about an issue that relates to team dynamics or interactions -- and I and the team are willing to tolerate the deafening silence for awhile, someone in the team will finally volunteer what the issue is, and we can go from there.  

June 2, 2015 - 10:54am
Ledalla Madhavi's picture

Thanks Chuck Roller and d you made a very good point that team members hesitate to open up during the retrospectives. In such cases, the facilitator has to play a key role, use various techniques and methods to take the team members into confidence and make them speak openly. Thank you for taking time to read the article! 

June 22, 2015 - 10:34pm

About the author

AgileConnection is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.