The key to a successful project through a sprint retrospective

Even great teams have room for improvement. Learn what is a sprint retrospective and how to do it
the right way getting every single member of your team on the same page towards a successful project.

Sprint retrospectives help Agile teams reflect on their work, tools and processes to pinpoint what went well, and what is holding them back. But don’t be fooled by its name: sprint retrospectives are not just about dwelling in the past. This powerful tool allows developers to find actionable improvement opportunities and do a better job in the future. Learn more about sprint retrospectives, what they are used for, and how to implement it in a practical way. What we will talk about:

What is a Sprint Retrospective?

A sprint retrospective is usually the last step (or event) of a sprint. A sprint, on the other hand, is a short period of time during which a determined amount of work will be completed; it can last a week or several, but usually not longer than a month. At the end of a sprint, comes a sprint retrospective.

Scrum Framework

Scrum Framework by Institute Project Management

This is usually a meeting with the team or teams involved in the sprint. In this meeting, discussions revolve around the work developed, difficulties encountered,  team interactions, processes and tools, as well as other project-specific topics.

What is the purpose of a sprint retrospective?

The main purposes of a sprint retrospective are:

  • Inspecting how the sprint went in terms of people, processes and tools;
  • Assessing what went well and what went wrong;
  • Identifying potential improvements for the next sprint.

In other words, a sprint retrospective is an opportunity for teams to analyse and evaluate how they work, to identify ways to work better, and to plan how to implement what they learned on future sprints. Sprint retrospectives are a great way to improve problem solving skills, efficiency, and collaboration, and to nurture a positive culture and work environment.

Common mistakes

While sprint retrospectives are very straightforward, there are some common pitfalls that can stall progress and benefits of these meetings.

  1. Lack of honest communication: team members may feel put on the spot during a sprint retrospective and fail to bring up issues or difficulties they’ve encountered during the sprint. The solution is to create a safe space for your team to communicate openly.
  2. Too much focus on the negatives: while one of the purposes of a sprint retrospective is to identify what went wrong, it is equally important to focus on what went well. Focusing only on the negatives can bring down morale and cause team members to not be upfront about their issues.
  3. Allowing for “destructive” criticism: remember, criticism without suggestions of improvement is just a complaint. Make sure to encourage constructive criticism from everyone involved, and to avoid framing criticism as a reproach. Keep in mind the goal is to improve the work being developed, and not to single out any one individual.
  4. Mixing performance reviews with sprint retrospectives: For individual criticism and/or remarks, a sprint retrospective might be too exposing. Instead, deal with individual performance issues in a one-on-one with the team member, especially if they are recurrent.
  5. Long and ineffective sprint retrospective meetings: if a team of 8 attends a one-hour sprint retrospective meeting, that is eight hours of time invested into a meeting – this time better be used wisely and effectively. To avoid wasting everyone’s time, make sure to structure the meetings with clear and defined points, and to only key team members (more tips on how to do just that below).

What is the structure of a sprint retrospective?

There are a number of formats for sprint retrospectives: Mad Sad Glad, DAKI, Sailboat, Mountain Climber, 4 L’s, KALM, Three Little Pigs, Pacman… and we could go on. The exact format is to be decided depending on the project and the team, but we suggest starting with a simple format that answers three basic questions:

  1. What went well?
  2. What didn’t go well?
  3. What can be improved?

Combine this format with simple prompts, such as Start, Stop, Continue. These three commands answer the questions above and are easy to follow.

  • Start: what the team should start doing (equivalent to what can be improved).
  • Stop: what the team should stop doing (similar to what didn’t go well);
  • Continue: what the team should carry on doing (or what went well).

To improve the sprint retrospectives, gradually add layers, such as “what went well and why”, “what went wrong and why”, “what can be improved and how”, or which steps in the next sprint can benefit from these learnings.

How to do it and do it well?

Here are some of the best practices for fruitful sprint retrospective meetings:

  • Length of the sprint retrospective: Aim at 45 minutes per week and per project. A sprint retrospective of a week-long sprint shouldn’t run longer than one hour, so you should be looking at 30 to 45 minutes for a weeks’ worth of work. Same rule of thumb says one and a half hours for a two-week sprint, two hours and fifteen minutes for a three-week sprint, and three hours for a month-long sprint.
  • Set recurring sprint retrospectives: ideally, the sprint retrospectives will be a recurring event and possibly even have a set day and time of the week, like Friday’s at 9am or Monday’s at 3pm. The goal is to give teams time to prepare and organise their thoughts, contributions, and ideas.
  • Prepare the meeting: gather the data on the project, including current progress, the issues that were resolved during the sprint and the ones still open, and others that are relevant to the meeting. Appoint a notes-taker. Organise online voting forms or other tools that require set up. Have the meeting structured and ready to go. If the team is scattered, use these tips to be productive in online meetings.
  • Get visual: don’t be afraid to get a couple of different coloured markers and drawing on a whiteboard. If using a column format for your sprint retrospective, like the Start, Stop, Continue format, this can be especially useful.
  • Promote participation: this can take many forms, such as asking every attendee to contribute with one Start, one Stop, and one Continue, organising a vote on which improvements should be implemented in the next sprint, inviting brainstorming, etc.

When to hold a sprint retrospective meeting?

Sprint retrospectives are the last of the 5 Scrum ceremonies. They are held in-between sprints, after the sprint review and before the next sprint planning. Sprint review and sprint retrospective should be kept separate, since the former deals with product and the latter with work, so not only the content will be different, but the target audience will also differ.

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Patrícia Peixinho

With an insatiable appetite for challenges, I dove deep into the captivating realm of Project Management while puzzling management processes in Near Partner’s Salesforce team. My passion for marketing and communication shines through into every facet of my work. I'm curious, imaginative, ingenious.