I’m going to take a quick break from direct software development topics for this post. Today I want to take some time to talk about something more related to Agile: retros. After some recent retros with my team they’ve been on my mind recently, so I want to share my thoughts with you.

What is a Retro?

If you’re reading this post then you most likely already have an idea of what a retro is because your team regularly has them. But to summarize, a retro is a team ritual that allows the members to look back (and ahead) at a chunk of time (usually a sprint or some form of iteration). They can take many forms, but generally team members have a chance to celebrate positives and call out concerns that need addressing. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Not exactly. I want to challenge you to think about retros in a more meaningful way so that your team can make the most of them.

Team Building

Let’s talk about how retros build strong teams. I mentioned earlier how retros are more than a structured way of looking back (or ahead). I truly believe that by investing in retros struggling teams can become more cohesive or awesome teams can grow to be even more awesome. So here’s my single sentence philosophy on retros:

Retros are a unique chance for the entire team to take a pause from day-to-day tasks so they can come together to celebrate success, acknowledge concerns, and grow together

So what exactly do I mean by this? Well let’s break it down into a few parts:

  1. The entire team comes together - Some teams I’ve been on have treated retros as only an engineering activity. I wholly support the idea of engineers having their own retros on large teams so they can get more into technical details. But this shouldn’t be the only retro. In order for the entire team to come together, everyone needs to be included and welcome. This also means avoiding scheduling conflicts. Retros should be at set times each week and only moved to accommodate the needs of the team. If they’re always at a set time, then you know not to schedule any other meetings during that block of time.
  2. Taking a pause - Work, Life, and everything in between can be stressful. Retros should be a time to ease some of that stress and tension. I’ll get into this more later about avoiding distractions, but the main point here is to not focus on what you were doing before or what you have coming after. The team and the retro are the focus.
  3. Growing together - Retros present a unique opportunity for your team to find its strengths and weaknesses. Every team has some of both, I don’t think any team is hopeless or even perfect. Any appreciation or suggestion for even the smallest changes can incite growth. If your team can identify things it does well during retros then people can find ways to get even better at these things. And by addressing the small weaknesses you can take the first steps towards bigger issues by showing that the team is capable of improving.

Improving Retros

Originally I was going to include a section about practices to avoid in a retro, but I realized that was a bit too negative and didn’t feel right for the message I’m trying to convey here. Instead I want to include a few guidelines for making retros better for everyone.

  • Discuss the Positives - Earlier I used the word “celebrate” and I mean it. Seriously, it can make a huge difference to morale by celebrating even the smallest wins. I also think it’s worth calling out appreciation for practices your team already follows; if you enjoy an aspect of the team culture then make sure everyone knows it so that it can continue.
  • Avoid Direct Criticism - This should go without saying, but you should never be purposefully publicly shaming. Especially not in a retro. If you need to provide critical feedback to a teammate this should be done in a private one-on-one with the person. This kind of behavior can really hurt your team’s willingness to participate in retros.
  • Identify Problems (but don’t solve them) - You won’t solve every problem on your team, retros are great for identifying problems but unless there’s a quick solution the actual solving should be addressed directly in a more focused meeting so that it can receive the attention it needs. These kinds of things make great actions items that can be addressed between retros.
  • Have Tough Discussions - This goes together with the last one, the team needs to hear out all of the concerns. If someone has the courage to bring up a concern, then that should be rewarded by hearing them out.
  • Be Focused, Be Present - The whole team needs to be present for the retro to be effective, so if need be, leave your phone in your pocket or at your desk. Distractions can really limit involvement. If you want people to pay attention to what you have to say, then you should do the same for them.
  • Mix It Up - If your team does retros the same way every single time, then it’s going to get boring. If no one on the team has suggested a new format in awhile, then it’s probably time to mix it up. Do a quick search for “different retro formats” and you’ll definitely come up with some inspiration.
  • Get Everyone Involved - Some people love talking in front of everyone and some don’t. The format of the retro should be inclusive to how everyone best feels providing input. Providing anonymous input is one way of accomplishing this because it avoids putting teammates on the spot unless they want to be.
  • Check Egos at the Door - Everyone on the team has work to do. Don’t fuss about having “more important things to do.” At the time of the retro, it is the most important thing.
  • Maintain Accountability - One way of doing this is by tracking action items that come out of retros. This can be a Kanban board your team maintains for retro items or any form of to do list. It also helps when teammates take ownership of action items and report back on them at the next retro or standup.

I could keep going with this list, but the main point I want to drive home is that retros should be a place for building psychological safety and relationships on the team. And don’t forget to have fun with it!

Thanks for Reading!

I know this post was a little unusual, but I had a lot of things on my mind that I really wanted to put out there. This post will hopefully help you and your team make retros a little better. I know not everyone will completely agree with what I have said here, but the important thing is that you take a moment to reflect yourself and find something useful. Regardless, I appreciate you taking the time to read my thoughts. Until I get around to adding a comments section, I’d really like to hear what people have to say on this topic, so please feel free to Contact Me. I hope to write more around the topics of building healthy teams because I’m finding out that it’s a bit of a passion of mine, so maybe there will be more posts like this. Anyway, thank you for reading!