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Retros are the most important agile activity

Retrospectives are the best thing you can do to improve. They’re the best way to learn about the team, the processes, and more. I think they’re the most important agile activity.

One of the principles of the agile manifesto is:

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.”

Reflect and adjust. Inspect and adapt. Retrospectives are an activity to help keep a team on the course of continuous improvement.

What does “regular intervals” mean? For me, the best time means at the end of every sprint / cycle of work. Other timescales can make sense too. At the end of a project. As we hit a milestone. At the end of a rough week. At the end of a really good week.

A retro should ideally happen at the end of a cycle. If that’s not possible, as soon as possible after the cycle. If there’s a gap between the retro and the cycle, it helps to spend a little more time jogging memories of what happened. I’ve found the Timeline activity helps with that.

The focus on “the team” is important too. The team being “the project team”: the group of people who worked together on the project. In most places I’ve worked this is not the same as “the company.” A company-wide retro can help reflect on more general things. A team-based retro can help reflect on more pointy and precise things.

The format

The “template” I use is:

  • Set the stage;
  • Gather data;
  • Generate insights;
  • Decide what to do;
  • Close the retro.

I often use the Retromat to find activities that fit well together.

Here’s a classic format that I’ve used quite a few times.

  • :) :| :(
    • Write one of the emoticons on a sticky.
  • What went well? What would we have done differently (knowing what we know now)?
    • Write one thing per sticky. Write at least one sticky for each question.
    • Look for patterns in the stickies.
  • What did I learn?
    • Based on the previous questions and the patterns that emerged.
    • Write it on a sticky.
  • SMART goal
    • Write on a sticky and take with you.
  • Star rating
    • Give the retro a star rating: 1 (the worst) to 5 (the best).

I also keep a GitHub repository of retrospective agendas.

Summary

Retros can help a team keep improving. They can bring the team together and help us inspect and adapt.