Agile Retrospectives: Why Do Them?

Software development teams can do agile retrospectives to inspect and adapt the way of working. The agile manifesto proposes that teams reflects on how to become more effective. Sometimes teams struggle to figure out what an agile retrospective is? And they wonder why they should do them? Here’s an introduction to agile retrospectives, to help you to get started and design valuable agile retrospectives.

Agile Retrospectives

At the end of an iteration typically two meetings are held: the sprint review (or demo) that focuses on getting product feedback and discussing how to proceed, and the retrospective that focuses on the team and the processes that are used to deliver software. The goal of retrospectives is help teams to continuously improve their way of working.

An agile retrospective, or sprint retrospective as Scrum calls it, is a practice used by teams to reflect on their way of working, and to continuously become better in what they do.

All team members attend the retrospective meeting, where they “inspect” how the iteration (sprint) has been done, and decide what to improve and how to “adapt” their processes. The actions coming out of a retrospective are communicated and done in the next iteration. That makes retrospectives an effective way to do short cycled improvement.

The retrospective facilitator (often the scrum master) should have a toolbox of possible retrospective exercises, and be able to pick the most effective one. Some of the exercises that can be used in retrospectives are asking questions, state your feelings with 1 word, 5 times why (Root Causes) or asking why, solution focused/strengths, perfection game, and retrospective of retrospectives.

To assure that actions from a retrospective are done, you can bring them into the planning game and make them visible by putting them on the planning board. User stories can be used to plan and track bigger improvements, describing who, what and why. Every retrospective meeting starts by looking at the actions from the previous meeting, to see if they are finished (and to take action if not).

Retrospective Prime Directive

It’s crucial to have an open culture in an agile retrospective, where team members speak up. Norm Kerth defined the Prime Directive, its purpose is to assure that a retrospective is a positive and effective event:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

With the Prime Directive the retrospective becomes a effective team gathering where people learn from each other and find solutions to improve their way of working.

Why would you do retrospectives?

Insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results. So if you want to solve the problems that you are having, and deliver more value to your customers, you have to change the way you do your work. That is why agile promotes the usage of retrospectives: To help teams to solve problems and improve themselves!

What makes retrospectives different, and what’s the benefit of doing them? One retrospective benefit is that they give power to the team. Since the team members feel empowered, there will be little resistance to do the changes that need to be done.

Another benefit is that the actions that are agreed in a retrospective are done by the team members, there is no hand-over! The team analyses what happened, defines the actions, and team members do them. This is much more effective, and also faster and cheaper .

These benefits make retrospectives a better way to do improvements. And they make clear why retrospectives are one of the success factors for using scrum and getting benefits. You can use different retrospective exercises to get business value out of retrospectives. And retrospectives are also a great tool to establish and maintain stable teams, and help them to become agile and lean.

How can you start with retrospectives?

There are different ways to introduce retrospectives. You can train Scrum masters and learn them how to facilitate a retrospective. And then start doing them with your agile teams, and reflect (doing retrospectives can also be improved ). I started by doing agile retrospectives in “stealth mode”, not using the term retrospective but just calling it an evaluation. Whatever way you chose, be sure to keep on doing retrospectives. Even if things seem to going well, there are always ways to improve!

Do you want to know more about retrospectives? There’s the successful book Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives which helps you to get benefits out of doing retrospectives by giving you a toolbox of retrospective exercises.

(an earlier version of this article was published on

Trainer / Coach / Adviser / Author / Speaker | | | editor @InfoQ | agile workshops | people matter!

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