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Agile Retrospective Fundamentals

Ask ten software developers and you’ll likely get ten different answers to what an Agile retrospective actually is. The retrospective is equal parts loathed and longed for developers and the people who supervise them in the modern workplace. At their core, however, this essential ritual is about shoring up productivity and keeping your team on track. Software development is notoriously complex. Teams can easily become overwhelmed managing complexity and staying motivated. Distributed teams working remotely can add another layer of complexity to a workflow. Retrospectives play a key role in productivity and team cohesion. Through these vital meetings, teams have to think about their abilities to adapt to changes based on what worked — and what didn’t in the last sprint.

Agile retros have several key components that make them more effective. Here are some of the fundamentals to help you run better, retrospectives and more productive teams.

What is a Retrospective?

A retrospective is an opportunity for your team to reflect on its past actions and adopt innovative techniques to improve. An agile retrospective, in particular, is a time-boxed meeting, where teams constantly reflect upon their last sprint and identify actions to do it better in the next sprint.

Retros are for software developers for the most part but are also increasingly popular in other fields. Generally speaking, a retrospective is a meeting held by software development teams at the end of a project to discuss the successes and failures of the project with future improvements in mind. It encourages iterative learning and continuous improvement to help make small improvements regularly, which lets you apply these improvements in a controlled and immediate manner to your team performance.

Agile’s twelfth principle from the Agile Manifesto lays out this vital ritual: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly", and it is one of the core values of Agile thinking.”

Retrospectives happen after a sprint review, at the end of a recurring meeting, as a release retrospective, or at the end of a project, and when done right they lead to better outcomes.

In a retrospective meeting, you usually start by inspecting what happened in the last sprint and then decide what to do to improve the team’s processes accordingly. They usually occur after sprint reviews and before sprint planning. Specific time and cadence are up to teams as long as everyone agrees. Team members sit together to come to a conclusion in this meeting about improvements by identifying pitfalls, past mistakes and seeking out new ways to avoid those mistakes. Conclusions inform the next iterative meeting, allowing continuous and timed “adaptation” to serve as an effective way to pivot.

In other words, put simply, a retrospective meeting identifies what an agile team is doing well in, what activities should be continued or discontinued, and what else can be done to improve the next sprint. The words “inspect” and “adapt” are key principles of agile thinking in this case, and should always be considered when you are working on your sprints.

For most projects, there is always a dedicated project manager or leader. In the case of retrospectives, this leader is the scrum master. They’re responsible for facilitating the retrospective and are accountable for understanding the roles of each project team member.. Ideally, they remove blockers and ensure that a project is delivered successfully, on time, and meets stakeholder requirements.

As a scrum master, you should be able to know every retrospective technique there is. Some of these techniques include:

·   Asking questions

·   Being solution-focused

·   The agile self-assessment game

·   Resolving the root causes of a problem

·   Resolving retrospectives of your retrospectives

·   Making team members state their feelings in one word

Once a scrum master implements these techniques during a retrospective meeting, it’s important that these actions make it into team planning considerations and are visible by putting them on a planning board. Other than that, user stories can also plan and track larger improvements by describing who, what and why. These meetings then look at the actions of the noted changes and see what can be done for a more efficient workflow.

How do Retrospectives Increase Productivity?

It can be counterintuitive to think that repeating something over time would bring about a different result. Adapting to agile retrospective is something so simple and instinctive that almost everyone has committed to attributes of the methodology unknowingly. Its sense of productivity is almost natural to us at this point that we never really realize it. We would not be able to accomplish much in life if we didn’t always try to look back and think of ways to improve.

Daria Bagina, a practicing scrum master, scrum trainer, founder of the online community ScrumMastered, host of the Mastering Scrum, explained over email that retrospectives are essential tools for scrum teams to inspect workflows and adapt to be more effective. "The whole point of having a team," She explained, "is to gain the benefits that teamwork, collaboration, and self-management bring. This is where you see the increase in productivity and effectiveness. A group of individuals working towards the same goal will never be able to achieve the same success as a true team. If they can achieve it at all." 

Great teams, however, don't just form on their own. "People need to learn to work with each other, resolve conflicts and make decisions in collaboration," said Bagina. "They need to build trust between each other and let go of their individual goals to the benefit of common goals."

One way in which retrospective workflow serves in an effective manner is through the value of dependencies between features. In agile planning, new features are always introduced and added while thinking about existing ones or considering the integration of other features. This allows members to remember and address previous issues, meaning that you never make the same mistake twice. Keeping track of what you agreed on and what changes need to happen in the next sprint is vital. Using a tool such as RetroTeam helps you organize your thoughts and get an accurate read on your development team, regardless of where those developers are sitting. This ability to always choose the best possible solution by eliminating older solutions, though crude, is ideal for a productive workflow as it minimizes risk. This process also disregards any unnecessary or partial features which in the initial development phases had warded off any potential users.

Retrospectives also provide a platform for you to celebrate your success and think about your failures, all while your team plan your next sprint. It encourages participation, sharing your interests and views, and focusing on solutions. In terms of process improvements, they should never be a separate process and must instead always be included as a part of the regular development process. This way of thinking is a crucial aspect of agile retrospectives. It’s capable of establishing a culture across a company that is forever striving for success, and it does so in small steps of assessment that's easy to implement

Bagina recommends focusing on building an environment of trust and encouraging collaboration by setting strong goals and getting roles and responsibilities on paper. One of her main lessons is to focus on solutions and improvements during your retros. Don't let your retros turn into a blaming match or an airing of grievances, she said.  

Overall, the advantageous productivity of Agile is a consequence of its problem-solving approach and its subsequent ability to deliver more value to your customers. It is thinking which breeds productivity almost instinctively and should consequently be valued as such.

Fundamentals of an Agile Retro

The fundamentals of the agile retrospective  are as follows:

Inspect and Adapt — The Twin Motto of Retrospective

At its most basic level, inspecting and adapting is what essentially comprises agile thinking. All of your solutions rest on these two words. According to the Agile Alliance, agile is "the ability to create and respond to change. It is a way of dealing with, and ultimately succeeding in, an uncertain and turbulent environment," and this ideal encapsulates agile teams’ need for continuous improvement.

Efficient Management

A project isn't anything without efficient management to run it. In the case of retrospectives, scrum masters play a crucial role, and in agile thinking, they take on most of the responsibility for the project. They act as the retrospective facilitator, and they’re responsible for understanding everything about the agile team.

Scrum masters should be able to know all of the processes that go into the team workflows, the personalities of each of the team members, and how to cope with their quirks and tics as a unit. Everyone is unique in their own way and these differences contribute to the project. However, it is a scrum master’s job to understand how each individual attribute contributes towards the whole and how to effectively implement it.

Scrum masters tend to differ from traditional project leaders, in this sense, as they have different responsibilities when it comes to managing people. They only work to enforce the rules of scrum, chair key meetings and set up challenges for the team to improve. They are meant to understand the methods of agile team building in-depth and be able to implement them appropriately. They should practically be a toolbox of all possible retrospective exercises and be able to pick the most effective solution at any given time.


Finally, you should realize that retrospectives are about your team as a whole and not just one person. It is impossible to have a retrospective by just discussing everything with one person, so everyone should be included no matter how small of a stake they hold in the project. Ultimately, the decision should always lie on your team and you should never alone enter a room deciding what steps you and your team must do to improve; that "inspecting" and "adapting" is up to your team as a collective decision to take.

As the Scrum Master, however, this doesn't mean that you shouldn't contribute to the discussion. You should instead be able to actively engage your team members to take part. You should act as the mediator for their discussion rather than be part of it; be able to instigate a discussion and keep it on the track that leads to productive growth. This includes being able to practice a good retro structure and keeping up with practices to help your team be a part of the discussion more easily. You should be able to make sure that everyone takes part in the conversation, and one person just doesn’t dominate without giving anyone a chance to voice their opinions.

A good Scrum Master is capable of altering discussion dynamics while not letting their emotions get the better of them. When faced with a frustrating situation or deadlock, you should calmly be able to handle it by pointing the finger back at yourself. Ask yourself how the discussion came to this point and what you can, as the Scrum Master, do to change the dynamic.


Overall, agile retrospectives are meetings through which you constantly think of ways to improve yourself. You do so by learning more about your team and which techniques you can apply that effectively allow you to control the dynamics of a conversation. agile retros play a key role in dynamic thinking and through them, you can reflect upon more than just what is wrong with a project. You are capable of thinking about all past processes and get to the bottom of a problem and fix it.

Every possible problem ever thought of would be systematically solved through active discussion and you would be able to always produce the best version of your product after a retrospective. Agile values teamwork more than anything, so collectively thinking together to solve something is a representation of agile values, and indicates how fundamental retrospectives are.

Agile retrospectives are essential as they serve to give credit to your team for their effort, allowing you to find the true limits of their capabilities. When everyone puts their mind to something, you are bound to get a good result, and retrospectives are definitive proof of it.

Keep your team on track and productive no matter where you’re working. Try RetroTeams for free today.