What is a Retrospective?
A retrospective is an event usually occurring every two weeks during which your team reflects on what happened in the past to improve the future. You can identify how you and your colleagues performed in the last Sprint by reflecting on what worked well, what didn’t, and why. Whether you’re a part of a technical or non-technical team, you can host a retro session on just about anything!
Running retrospectives is a perfect opportunity to gather with your Agile team and encourage everyone to evaluate themselves and reflect on the performance. Doing this every couple of weeks or at the end of a project milestone is a great asset to overall better communication and collaboration. It might also act as a starter to create a new plan where you can address areas for improvement in the future.
During retros, there’s no place for complacency. They’re based on a very straightforward principle — you must strive for continuous improvement and delivery. This means you have to step outside your work cycle and contemplate on hiccups that interrupt your workflow.
To ensure that a retro session is successful and that its participants feel they’ve gained any value from it, you have to make it engaging, interactive, and hopeful. Retrospective events provide a safe place where everyone can focus on introspection of the past, iteration of the current mistakes, and willingness to adapt to changes. Each person in the team can evaluate how their work went and if it complies with the team’s capacity, dynamics, and experience level.
It’s not about blaming each other for unfinished tasks or failures. Highlight positive aspects of the Sprint or project and point out things you enjoyed working on as well. Once everyone’s comments are addressed, you can collaboratively decide with the entire team what you will continue doing and what steps need to be taken to improve the current status of the working environment.
Ensure that each person sharing their opinions and comments feels comfortable doing that. Don’t force anyone to speak out in front of others, especially if they are afraid of public speaking. Today’s technology and tools like Whiteboards allow you to host retrospective sessions in a remote setup where the feedback shared remains anonymous.
Encourage teammates to communicate their opinions in a way that is not stressful for them and is not harmful to the team’s morale. Remember — respecting others’ comfort zones might help them be willing to share more, once you host another retro session. And watch out; there’s definitely one coming soon!
When to Run a Retrospective?
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, you can conduct retrospectives on any topic. Their frequency and duration depend on what you want to discuss with your team. Thus, they can be sessions held every few weeks or months, lasting from several minutes to several hours.
You can conduct a retrospective after the completion of a:
In Agile, a Sprint is a set period of time, usually two weeks, during which the team should complete specific work and make it ready for review. After that, team members gather together in one (virtual) room and make notes and discuss what they managed to do (or not) during the Sprint, how they liked their experience, and what has to be improved. Lessons learned serve as inspiration for making the work more effortless in the future Sprint.
Then we come full circle, and after another two weeks, we can again conduct a retrospective session, write down any new lessons learned, and improve the processes that are not conducive to the team. Depending on what kind of team you work with, the length of the Sprint and retro may vary. However, the goal is the same — ensure everyone works faster, more efficiently, and more effectively in the upcoming weeks.
Work is often associated with projects that must be completed within a specific time frame. People dedicated to them divide their work into smaller steps that eventually lead to successful completion. What to do when everything is finally ready? Conduct a retrospective!
A simple retro can be an excellent way to summarize a period of time during which we focused on a particular project. Looking back, we can find elements that helped us grow, elements that blocked or even hurt the project, and elements that worked so well that we want to incorporate them into our future undertakings.
Some projects can take months, if not years, before we will be able to see their final form. In such cases, the work should be broken down into milestones, which we can achieve more quickly and efficiently. And even while working only on a particular project milestone, we still will be able to spot its positive and negative aspects.
Remote Team Challenges while Hosting Retrospectives
One of the most essential principles of Agile is continuous improvement. This also translates to hosting retrospectives where we constantly strive to make better decisions in the future, work more effectively, or learn from our own mistakes. Unfortunately, not all retros are perfect, and teams often struggle with getting this kind of event just right.
The most common challenges that remote teams face when running retrospective sessions are:
Lack of honesty and trustworthiness
People often fail to bring up the issues or problems they encounter in their job and choose not to admit to their failures. Unfortunately, keeping such things secret does not lead to anything good. Instead, major trust issues evolve between co-workers, which then may turn into nasty conflicts.
How to prevent this?
Create a secure environment
To keep the conversations open and encourage everyone to share their honest feedback, ensure the environment you all are working in is safe. People will not voice their concerns if they don’t feel comfortable in the presence of certain colleagues (or even you). Here you can adopt one simple rule: what is said during the retrospective stays in the retrospective.
If you participate in many retrospective sessions, you may know that sometimes conversations can get heated and the tempers flare. Some of the retro participants may say a few words too much or even swear, but it is not the event’s goal to repeat those things, focus on them, or scold someone for using them. Of course, frustrations and failures could be worded differently, but, on the other hand, it undoubtedly helped this person get things out of their system.
Definitely, swearing does not have a place in a retrospective, but let the person raise their hand who has never heard a few emboldened phrases or unknowingly said some curse words themselves. Nevertheless, keeping such behavior out of the retro session is a part of creating a safe environment where anyone can become the main speaker, express their deepest thoughts, and not worry about being judged for stating them. The comments could at least be the seed for the changes the team needs, right?
Be the example for others
If you want your co-workers to speak truthfully, lead by example. This is especially true for team managers, scrum masters, or project owners. It’s better to say that you don’t know something instead of making things up or pretending to be omniscient.
After all, you can always get back to your teammates via Slack message or short email with the information you lacked in the first place. The willingness to impart knowledge rather than hide it will undoubtedly be noticed and appreciated by the entire team. Remember, being hesitant to tell the truth makes others hesitant as well.
Constructive criticism is a way to go
No one likes to be criticized, even if it’s for our own good. So, ask your team not to construct the comments as an attack on their colleagues but rather as a suggestion. Criticism without any recommendations for improvements or a desire to bring help is most often mere complaining. This is not what a retrospective is about.
Commit to the promises
To inspire trust and confidence amongst your team members, fulfill the commitments you have made during the retrospective. If you have agreed on changing some processes, abandoning outdated work methods that do not serve your team, or starting a new project, stick to it. People will not look forward to changes if their leaders show they don’t apply to them.
Admit that you are not infallible
Mistakes happen, ok? And there’s a 100% chance that one will happen sooner than later. Oh, and it might be you responsible for failure this time.
If you made a mistake, admit it. You changed the retrospective scope at the last minute, and it took half a day for a group of ten people to discuss everything? Admit it was not the best idea. Or you chose to ignore a task that ultimately blocked the work of several people in the middle of a Sprint? Admit it.
Yes, there’s nothing more difficult and embarrassing to do than admitting to a mistake. But hey! Aren’t you working on building trust within your team? So, set an example and say that you were wrong, draw conclusions, agree on improvements, and… move on!
Boredom creeps into retrospectives
It’s okay if some parts of your retrospectives are standardized, but if they are constructed precisely the same way every time, you can’t expect people to remain engaged. To prevent boredom during your retros, try to change the schedule from time to time and add or remove some elements. It may help to keep your team involved in the various stages of the event, and the lessons you learn from it will reveal new horizons for you, your co-workers, or your project.
How to prevent this?
Change the retrospective questions
The usual questions that teams ask themselves at the end of the Sprint are “What did go well?”, “What did go wrong?”, or “What should we do differently next time?”. Instead of using the same format every two weeks, modify the questions to discover new solutions and keep the event interesting.
Such a procedure will also keep the involvement of the participants at a satisfactory level — they might provide broad answers, shine a new light on things you haven’t noticed before, or provide solutions to problems that appeared in the last Sprint. Some of the options that you can choose from are “What should we start, stop, and continue doing?”, What does make us move forward?”, “What obstacles are holding us back?”, etc.
Switch between the templates you’re working with
Using the same tool repeatedly might become incredibly dull at some point. To spice things up, try different methods or templates each time you host a retrospective session. At Whiteboards.io, you can choose from a dozen of templates dedicated specifically to retrospectives. Keep on reading our article to discover which one will be your next favorite thing.
Retros are ineffective, unproductive, and useless
Thousands of teams around the world will tell you that retrospectives are the best things that happened to them. At the same time, you can hear a completely opposite statement. So if you feel like you’re wasting yours and everybody’s time every two weeks, it’s time to reconsider how you run your sessions and try to fix something at the core.
How to prevent this?
Invest people’s time smartly
Retrospectives, if hosted well, can be a source of inspiration, change, and progress. But not only does the way you run them matter. Also, people who attend such events and the time they invest in them are incredibly important.
Let’s suppose that you host an hour-long retrospective event for a team of ten. That’s an investment of 600 minutes. Whatever issues the team members identify, the future improvements need to be able to pay back these 600 minutes for that retrospective to have been worth the effort.
Our advice here is to invite only the people crucial to retrospectives, get straight to the point, and ensure that the time and energy invested will bring value.
Host retrospectives less or more frequently
The general rule of retrospectives goes like this — conduct one every two weeks to reflect on the past events and act upon the future. But as many teams use that method, there can also be as many versions of retrospectives. The most important thing, however, is to strike a balance.
If your colleagues feel that retros are conducted far too often, consider holding one session per month. Perhaps this solution will be sufficient if you work in a marketing team and wait several weeks for a study or survey results. In that case, retrospectives can be great for closing the ending month and starting a new one with a “clean slate” and new agreed-upon ways of working.
On the other hand, biweekly meetings in a development team may not be enough. Try to hold them more often, for example, every week, but cut their duration time in half. Your co-workers will be up-to-date with the state of work of their colleagues, and their level of motivation can be maintained at the same level.
Distributed teams cannot find themselves in virtual retrospectives
Let’s be honest; just about anything is more challenging with a remote, distributed team. To name a few — finding the perfect hour to host a meeting, breaking the internet connection on a Zoom call, staying late to align with the rest of the team, and, on top of that, hosting an effective retrospective session. It’s just a tip of an iceberg.
How to prevent it?
Consider going asynchronous
Half of your team is based in the US, the other three people work from Europe, and the next six are in India. How to conduct a retrospective session without interfering with employees’ circadian rhythms? Do it asynchronously!
Tools like Whiteboards.io enable you to work on a board where you can take a glance at the last Sprint and make virtual notes. Set deadlines by which various elements of the retrospective should be done and allow everyone to express their opinion. Your teammates will be able to do it at a convenient time and place without having to work late into the evening or way too early in the morning.
Once your colleagues have shared their feedback, analyze it, and draw conclusions. Present the learned lessons at just one joint meeting instead of several, or prepare a summary recording to share with others the same way you shared the board. Asynchronous retrospectives and asynchronous overviews might be an excellent solution for your international team.
Retrospective games for remote teams
Retros offer a special moment for teams to get together, slow down a little bit, and think deeply about the work. But they are also a great moment to bond with your team. Oh, and to have some fun together too.
To keep things fun, you can try some of the proposed retrospective games for your remote team:
- Agile Retrospectives Bingo
The Agile Retrospectives Bingo, created by Ben Linders, is a role-playing game (RPG) during which you can recognize and discuss unproductive behaviors in retro meetings. Each team member receives a bingo board where negative manners are described, for instance, “talking over people” or “asking leading questions”, and marks the options that took place in the last Sprint or another time frame. The game’s objective is to spot these negative aspects within your team and steer your colleagues in a more productive direction.
This game is ideal for teams that work together for a very long time and need diversity in how they run retrospectives. For teams inexperienced in this way of working, it is an excellent opportunity to spot and receive guidance on what behaviors are productive and unproductive.
- Oscar Academy Awards Retrospective
The retrospective inspired by Oscar Academy Awards is a fun way to bring motivation to your team and give every member recognition for what they do. It is a great game that can help you spot good qualities that, indeed, everyone has and encourage them to continue doing a good job. Play the game any time you think your colleagues need to celebrate wins and boost their morale.
- Agile Battleships
Play the virtual version of the childhood board game and bring the Battleships into your retro! Play the first round blinded by trying to sink your enemy’s warships with 30 shots. No result will be revealed until the players confirm their shots — now transfer this to your daily work when you only receive feedback at the end of the project. Not quite helpful, isn’t it?
In that case, try to play the second round of the game, where you will see whether your shot was successful after each shot. This exercise represents the importance of tight feedback loops and why you should voice your feedback sooner rather than later.
How to effectively run a retrospective with a remote team?
You can host a successful retrospective session in five simple steps:
1. Prepare the materials
For remote teams, start by creating a collaborative space where you will be able to gather with your colleagues and reflect on the past Sprint. You can use documentation tools like Confluence or Google Docs, but don’t forget about the interactive boards that the Whiteboards.io app offers. Paste there all the materials you want your team to have a look at and insert ready-to-use templates on your virtual board to start the retrospective right away.
2. Set the rules
Before starting the retrospective, remind your participants about a few rules you would like to follow during the event. Make sure everyone remembers that retrospectives are not supposed to be made personal, and the feedback shared shouldn’t also be taken personally. It is not a place to blame others or make them feel bad because of some hiccups or failures.
Everyone’s experience is extremely valid so listen to it with an open mind. Don’t make assumptions or get angry but focus on improvement. The feedback shared there might teach everyone a valuable lesson so take advantage of this opportunity.
3. Discuss what went well
Use the digital board to write down the positive aspects of the team’s performance by putting one idea per sticky note. Then analyze, group, and discuss them together with your teammates. Agree on the steps you would like to continue taking in the future.
4. Analyze what could go better
Have everyone write down what they think should be improved to make you more productive. Again, write one idea per sticky note and examine them with the entire team. Discuss each note and decide what to do (or not to do) next.
5. Prepare action points for the future
After the brainstorming session, consider action points your team should take to solve the problems. Discuss everyone’s ideas and assign owners to agreed actions. Set due dates if necessary.
Retrospective templates to choose from on Whiteboards
Whiteboards.io is a perfect online collaboration tool that can help you run your Agile events virtually, cooperate with your remote team, and reflect on past Sprints to discover what could work better in the future. Below, we present a short list of ready-to-use templates to assist you in your bi-weekly Sprint overview sessions. Choose the one that works best for you and your team and improve your processes in no time!
- Plus Delta
Analyze what went well and what needs immediate improvement with your team by looking at the work from the bird’s perspective. Ask each team member to write down their observations on sticky notes to highlight all negative and positive aspects of the last sprint.
Then, ask everyone to assign pluses next to stickies that mention things they liked in the last sprint, things that helped them boost their productivity, and things they would like to continue doing in the next Sprint. Finally, let all retro participants decide what misfired in the last two weeks and add deltas to things they should not be focusing on anymore.
This template will be perfect if you want to escape the monotonous retrospective sessions you have taken part in so far. Your teammates will be able to share their constructive criticism after the Sprint ends and thus force the team managers or project/product owners to reserve some room and time for improvements in the future.
- Temperature Reading Retrospective
A simple retrospective template for those who don’t want to spend hours discussing what went well and what didn’t during the last Sprint but still want to get to know their teammates’ opinions. Your colleagues will be able to express their emotions, appreciations, or hopes in the form of constructive feedback that you can also use to relieve the tensions in the team, if there are any.
Instead of focusing only on negative aspects of your work, which we tend to bring our attention to more, you can express your opinion while also voicing the best intentions. Appreciate what your colleagues do by giving them written kudos, sharing new information instead of keeping it just to yourself, or articulating your hopes and wishes for the retrospective itself or after the retrospective.
And even when you feel like some of the complaints should be addressed during retro, write them down while also adding recommendations. Such a procedure will create a space for generating fresh ideas and finding new solutions to problems that exist in your team.
- Timeline With Facts and Feelings (Retrospective)
Invite your team to a retrospective session during which you will be able to identify all positive and negative factors of cooperation between individuals. Ask your teammates to look back at the Sprint they have just completed and write down on virtual sticky notes all feelings, emotions, or feedback they would like to share and discuss.
This kind of event should be hosted in a friendly atmosphere where your team members can share their opinions and express their emotions as well. Conduct a respectful discussion during which you can find new ways to improve your future work and decide collaboratively what you would like to stop or continue doing in the upcoming Sprint.
- Learning Matrix Retrospective
Use the retrospective template not only to reflect on the last Sprint that you and your team have completed but also to take a look back at your last project or milestone. Find out what exactly your teammates liked or disliked in the process, and check how they get along with their peers.
Create an environment where everybody has an opportunity to thank others for their hard work but also provide suggestions for future improvements. Do it in a structured way by dividing feedback into thumbs up (things that worked well), thumbs down (things that need to be improved or skipped entirely), ideas (suggestions for the future), and recognition (some words of appreciation to colleagues).
- 4 L’s Retrospective
Provide people with time and space where they will be able to reminisce on their triumphs and failures from the last Sprint. Conduct a retro session where everyone can articulate what worked for them, what let them down, and what could be better.
The 4 L’s Retrospective template is a perfect method to highlight the positive and negative characteristics of the last Sprint without accusing other team members of failures. Each person will have a chance to write down what they liked, learned, lacked, and longed for. It is then up to the team manager to ensure the work and collaboration will improve during the next Sprint.
- Emotions Wheel
Take a closer look at the last Sprint, project, or milestone but analyze it from the perspective of emotions. Read through all available sections of the virtual wheel and dot mark the ones that speak most to you — either they’re positive or negative ones.
Allow all team members to voice their concerns or feedback by picking out the adjectives that describe their feelings best. Follow up to the discussion part where you can debate how certain events from the last Sprint affected their well-being, what turned out to be a letdown, or which needs were met.
Propose reasonable solutions and next steps to ensure everyone in the team will feel taken care of and comfortable sharing their opinions next time you execute this retro event.
- Mad, Sad, Glad Retrospective
Prepare a space where your team members can share what made them feel bothered, disappointed, or satisfied during the Sprint that just finished. Encourage everyone to identify issues that arose recently and propose solutions that could release the tensions in the team and increase team morale.
Ask everyone to mark what made them mad, sad, or glad during the Sprint and put it in appropriate places on the template. Discuss the results during an open but respectful conversation and work on the steps that could improve your teammates’ job satisfaction in the future.
- Quick Questions Retrospective
Organize a quick and fun retrospective event to ask your team what took place in the last Sprint and how they feel about it. Act as a moderator of the session and write down your first question; the person on your virtual right should provide the answer. Follow the pattern until your team has no more questions to ask.
Keep an eye on the watch or turn on the timer to ensure the session is short and productive and will not last for hours. Take the accumulated feedback or insights under the microscope to improve the next Sprint.
- Start, Stop, Continue
Host a productive retrospective event with your team to brainstorm and populate the whiteboard with notes regarding your last Sprint. Ask everyone to write down what they would like to start, stop, or continue doing in the future by considering things that happened just over the last two weeks.
Discuss specific examples or events that took place with your teammates and collaboratively decide if they bring any value to your everyday work. Make the session even more engaging by letting your team choose what the upcoming Sprint should look like.
- ROTI Feedback Meeting
Before your event ends, insert the Return On Time Invested template on your whiteboard to ask your teammates if they learned anything new or valuable and could rate their experience. Your event’s participants can choose between five options where they can give their votes and also share some feedback.
This short but informative form of a retrospective will open the doors to your team members’ minds and indicate where improvements are required. Thanks to this template, you will discover if your event was absolutely, mostly, somewhat, not really, or definitely not helpful.
- Retrospective Template
The simplest retrospective template you can find on Whiteboards.io. Gather with your team to recap milestones, projects, or the latest Sprint. Invite everyone to an open discussion and allow them to voice their opinions.
Ask your colleagues what was successful in the last couple of weeks, what failed, and what action points they can think of to improve future work. Once everybody agrees on the new structure, try to implement it and stick to the agreed-upon changes.
- Sailboat Retrospective
Consider using this exercise to find out what propels your work and team forward, what happened in the completed Sprint that made you feel good, what obstacles are holding you back, and what risks are along the way. Define them with your team on a Sailboat Retrospective template to reflect on the past, draw conclusions, and improve the future.
Spot potential threats that might be waiting for you by analyzing the last Sprint. Help your team always go in the improvement direction and identify what hurts and what helps your projects.
So that’s all we wanted to convey in this article.
We hope you found out what precisely a retrospective session is and how you can conduct one in five easy steps. We’ve also outlined the most common challenges that remote teams face when trying to reflect on their Sprints, projects, or milestones. Don’t worry, though; we’ve provided solutions to help you overcome some common issues.
Finally, we’ve also described a few retrospective games you can try with your team, as well as all templates available on Whiteboards.io!
Good luck with your retro!