How to Make Sprint Retrospectives More Actionable

Janey Zitomer
June 15, 2020

Most developers didn’t get into coding for their love of sprint retrospectives. But just like with any necessary process, management can — and should — be consistently reworking retros to appeal to all stakeholders.  

At software company Square Root, that means making sure this month’s meeting is set up differently than last’s. At e-commerce marketing platform RetailMeNot, that means working from a set of action items that allow team members to be as vulnerable as possible. 

While vulnerability takes time and patience to cultivate, it can make otherwise cookie-cutter retrospectives deeply beneficial –– in other words, actionable. 

“We enter our retros with the belief that no matter what transpired during the sprint, every member of the team leveraged all their applicable skills to contribute the best work they could, given the information available,” RetailMeNot Program Manager Michael Denton said. 

But what if empathy isn’t enough to get team members on the same page? 

Square Root Product Manager Ryan Andrews recommends addressing the issue in question as a scientist would an experiment: with a strong hypothesis and a set expiration date.  

 

Square Root
Square Root

After each sprint, the Square Root team discusses what went well and what didn’t work. Product Manager Ryan Andrews said that, in these retros, it’s the constructive feedback that’s most useful. And that feedback can and does look different for each “herd,” or group of developers. 
 

How do you structure retrospectives to ensure they’re productive and action-oriented?

If all your team’s retrospectives are the same, you’re doing it wrong. At Square Root, we empower each herd to format and carry out retrospectives in a way that works for them. Over time, our herds tune the best activities, cadence and style to facilitate meaningful, actionable conversations that provide real value for each of our team members.

While herds vary their retro styles, all herds have action items in one form or another. Those action items include a list of to-do items or changes that are built as the team discusses communication, process and effectiveness after each sprint. Action items are to be carried out during the next sprint and reviewed at the herd’s following retro.

Additionally, we have a member of our culture team at every retrospective. Their perspective lends a helpful, neutral voice to intra-herd conversation and debates. It also allows the culture team to keep a helpful pulse on the mindset, struggles and makeup of each herd and each radical. Having the “tamers of chaos,” as we call them, involved is the final ingredient in making our retros productive, reflective, inclusive and action-oriented.

 

How do you decide as a team what the action items should be at the end of a meeting? 

Our retrospectives usually feature sections on what went well and what could have gone better. The “could have gone better” conversations are often what produce the most action items. Naturally, we want to take action in areas that could use some improvement.

Retro action items typically focus on improving process, teamwork, communication and relationships. But every herd is empowered to take action items on whatever they see fit.

With an emphasis on experimentation throughout Square Root, teams rarely strongly disagree on action items. The best way to settle any debate is to test the hypothesis in question. If the herd can’t come to a decision on a particular action, they experiment. It’s important that no process change or team adjustments be permanent. 

 

Insightful retrospectives without action and without follow up would be meaningless.’’  

How do you decide which team members will handle various action items? What processes are in place to make sure they get done?

This is ultimately up to each herd. We assign action items to an individual or explicitly state how the whole herd will carry them out. At all meetings, not just retrospectives, it is important to understand who is taking action and why. 

Naturally, retrospectives themselves are the perfect place for reviewing previously discussed action items. A herd is free to schedule a separate session for any major action items, but retros usually do the trick. And, if for some reason an action item was not completed, the herd finds themselves in the perfect setting for discussing what went wrong and how it could have gone better.

One of Square Root’s core values is “think big, do bigger.” This value emphasizes the pursuit of ideas that have a big impact. Insightful retrospectives without action and without follow up would be meaningless. Our culture is built for taking action and we always strive to make an impact. 

 

RetailMeNot
RetailMeNot

Program Manager Michael Denton’s favorite part of any retrospective is its closing. He says the closing presents the perfect opportunity to praise the squad and its individuals for the work that went into the previous sprint. At RetailMeNot, Denton often uses the Retro Dart methodology or a “kudos wall” to facilitate this portion of the retrospective. He also often recommends creating an Agile team working agreement.

 

How do you structure sprint retrospectives to ensure they’re productive and action-oriented?

“Making Good Teams Great” by Diana Larsen and Esther Derby is a necessary read for anyone interested in improving their scrum ceremonies and, by extension, their team’s productivity and efficacy. At RetailMeNot, we adhere closely to the prescribed process: set the stage, gather the data, generate insights, decide what to do and close.

That said, I have also seen great success when the squad is invited to be vulnerable with the explicit intention of improving individually and as a working team. To elicit that vulnerability, I’ve altered the classic retro phases to draw directly from RetailMeNot’s core values of transparency and teamwork. The updated phases are as follows: assume positive intent; use shared data; make plans actionable, achievable and distributed; and acknowledge the human elements.

We work hard to cultivate empathetic trust. We enter our retros with the belief that no matter what transpired during the sprint, every member of the team leveraged all their applicable skills to contribute the best work they could, given the information available. This mindset ensures all opportunities for improvement derive from a place of mutual respect and admiration. 

When documenting data points from the most recent sprint, all squad members must both understand and agree to include the evaluations and assessments, whether they be appreciations or criticisms. In the safe space, each team member should be comfortable asking for additional clarification and investigating the root cause. 

 

We work hard to cultivate empathetic trust.’’ 

How do you decide as a team on what the action items should be at the end of a meeting?

Most of the (healthy) disagreement on problem severity happens in the “use shared data” phase of the retrospective process. Similarly, when the team collaborates to “make plans actionable, achievable and distributed,” owners should be identified. 

That said, when you can’t easily and quickly identify the solution in the ceremony, it’s necessary to spin up spike or investigation tickets to protect future bandwidth and solve the issue at hand. 

 

How do you decide which team member will handle various action items? What processes are in place to make sure they get done?

Document every retrospective outcome. The living legacy of lessons learned is one of the most valuable artifacts for all successful scrum teams. On the teams I’m fortunate enough to work with, we ticket every action item that arises. We assign as many as possible in the retro itself. 

If the owner is not obvious, we ask for a volunteer or leave the ticket unassigned and allow squad members to pull it in as time allows. I also encourage teams to maintain a decision log, ticket all work no matter how small and keep the Agile team working agreement updated. As the team grows, both in size and maturity, the rules of engagement will likely change. 

 

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