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Your team has just finished a sprint. How did it go?
Hopefully, it went exceptionally well and everyone feels motivated to kickstart the next one—or perhaps the progress was underwhelming, and there was less to show to the business than expected.
More often, the feelings toward a sprint lie somewhere between these two extremes.
The team did good work, but not great. Maybe there were signs of interpersonal friction between team members, or the energy in the room became a little stale.
It can be harder to identify the areas for improvement when the performance is somewhat middling.
Whatever your reasons for reading this article, we’ll assume you’re keen to find a way to revitalise your sprints without losing the team’s great qualities.
Here’s where retrospectives can help.
To see these benefits come to life, the meeting has to be facilitated in the most constructive way possible, and that includes asking the right questions. Before we jump into those, let’s quickly remind ourselves of some retrospective fundamentals.
The retrospective is a meeting that takes place at the end of a sprint (a timeboxed iteration).
The length of the meeting depends on the time scale and complexity of the iteration. A one month sprint might require a three-hour retrospective, for example. Whereas a team might find 45 minutes suffice for one that was timeboxed to a week.
The purpose of the sprint retrospective is to find areas for improvement. The meeting sets out to identify potential pitfalls and past mistakes while finding ways to avoid them in the future. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on what was successful and therefore should continue.
What it isn’t is an opportunity to highlight who performed strongly, and then list who stopped the team from achieving their goal.
Ultimately, the conversations that happen in the retrospective are the ones that will make the next sprint more productive and enjoyable.
A retrospective can produce some solid, bottom-line results. It also:
To obtain genuinely, useful feedback and constructive suggestions, it’s important to follow a meeting structure to discover what went well, what didn’t go well, what was learned and what is still puzzling people.
We suggest the following framework:
This framework will help you control the meeting, without dictating the conversations. It will also allow the conversations to go where they need to go, without going off track. A vital part of that is asking the right questions.
Below, we’ll break each stage down in more detail, and include the questions to group into it.
Purpose: Welcome the team, show appreciation for everyone’s time investment, provide the purpose of the retrospective meeting and outline the desired goals.
Desired outcome: Everyone in the room is focused and understands the expected objectives from the retrospective. The room is a safe atmosphere to disagree with each other, but everyone should also share the same goals.
1. Is there anything I’ve missed from today’s agenda?
2. Can you describe to me how you feel in one or two words?
Tip! Ask everyone in the room to provide an answer to this second question. When someone doesn’t speak at the beginning of the retrospective, they’re more likely to remain silent for the rest of the session. The point of the retrospective is to get the opinion of everyone and encourage the team to think as a group. To achieve this, you need everyone's participation.
Purpose: Discuss the cycle’s events, metrics, and interactions, as well as the features and stories accomplished. Even if a person missed one day in a week-long cycle, they’ve missed 20% of it.
Nobody can see everything that goes on during the week, and people carry different perspectives on the same incidents. Gather all sides, views and experiences.
Desired outcome: Develop a shared, picture of what happened during the sprint.
3. What did you do during this sprint?
4. What went smoothly?
5. What, where and when did things go wrong?
6. Did anything go wrong, that caught you off guard?
7. What problems came up most often?
8. What did you expect from your team, as a group and individually?
9. Which project management software or techniques proved to be useful?
10. Which tools or techniques weren’t useful?
11. What was your greatest hindrance?
12. What was your greatest enabler?
13. Is there anything from this project that keeps you awake at night?
Purpose: Now it’s time to ask ‘why?’. Refer to the data you’ve collected to reflect, discuss and think about what needs changing. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of the team. Identify potential risks that could derail the project. What should change?
Also, focus on success. What were the patterns and behaviours that contributed to it?
Desired outcome: Understand what changes need to be made to make a positive difference, based on data and feedback.
14. What caused the problems in this sprint?
15. What have you learned?
16. Why did you take that approach?
17. Would we have benefited from a different approach?
18. Why did this (or didn’t this) work for you?
19. What wouldn’t you change?
20. What were our best qualities?
21. Why do you feel this way?
22. [Insert name], what do you think?
Tip! Always ask the opinion of the quietest person in the room. One or two people often dominate the conversation in group situations. The floor should be open to everyone, or you might miss some vital information.
Purpose: Create a list of action points to implement based on the previous task. Aim to pick one or two top items to implement for interaction, and plan how to apply them. It’s okay to add experiments, as long as there's a belief that the outcome will positively impact the team’s productivity levels.
Desired outcome: A decision is made on one or two action points to commit to for the next iteration. Careful not to overwhelm the team by applying too much change at once.
23. How should we tackle this problem?
24. How can we improve this entire process?
25. What would work better next time?
26. What don’t we want to change?
27. What do we want to keep?
28. What should we do more of?
29. What should we do less of?
30. What are our final iterations?
Purpose: Print materials, photograph any visual records (such as a whiteboard filled with sticky notes). Plan follow-ups, and document the experience. Thank the team for their time and presence.
Desired outcome: The team feels motivated, as well as a sense of ownership for the next iteration.
The right questions not only help pull out the most useful information, but they also help move teams from individual outlooks to a shared perspective.
Regardless of whether you follow an agile framework for project management or not, a retrospective meeting acts as a fantastic opportunity to pause and reflect. Your team will gain a comprehensive view of every increment, and quickly identify areas for continuous improvement. The quality of work delivered to the business will be stronger, productivity will increase, and so will the happiness of your team.