Focusing Agile Retrospectives

The most common agile retrospective focus is on the sprint (or iteration) that was just completed. For most agile teams, this is the past two weeks. We have many more options for retrospectives than simply looking back on the last sprint. We can look at a specific topic, an event, use a future focus, or look at a much longer timeline. Regardless of the focus, we are aiming to learn, generate ideas, and (ideally) agree on actions to take moving forward to improve to sustain.

This article is part of the series on retrospectives. Agile Retrospective Resources contains links to all the articles as well as many other resources from other sites (and books). 

What will your retrospective focus on?

What will your retrospective focus on?

Focus on the last 2 weeks

This is the most common focus for agile, scrum, and development teams – focusing on the timebox of the last sprint (some teams have sprints of other duration’s — e.g. 1 week). [To learn more about retrospectives, see a baseline retrospective format.] Arguably, the focus here could be on the ‘event’ of the ‘end of the sprint’ (vs. the time span), but I’m always interested in what happened throughout the two weeks, in case there are items the team does not consider ‘in the sprint’ that they worked on.

Focusing agile retrospectives on a longer duration or a reoccurring event

Very specific I know! This longer time span could be a few months or even a longer. You may connect it to an event, such as the release of a product or version of software. This span of time would be longer than one sprint. When teams take a bigger view of what is happening, they often see patterns and possible actions that may not have been clear by looking at a single sprint. This focus provides variation to typical agile team retrospectives.

My assumption here is that the team is doing the retrospective. We need the people involved in the retrospective to be able to take action in the next time span. For example, if a version of software was just released, can the team come up with actions that they believe would be valuable during the next release process. I’m also assuming there is another event to take action on (e.g. a release).

You will also want to consider if you are focused on the last 12 weeks, 6 sprints, or a product release. You would want to decide if there is a difference between each of those. You might bring that up as a question in the retrospective and see if the team thinks there is a difference — and what that is. You may also be interested in Why Project Retrospectives Are Challenging, if you are looking at retrospectives that cover longer duration.

Focusing agile retrospectives on a specific topic

This is another great way to break things up in retrospectives. Sometimes there are issues that require focusing only on them, to really dig deep and look for new ideas to solve it. These issues may be ones that are not tackled in sprint retrospectives given they seem big or unsolvable. Examples of these might be the team may focusing on themselves and working to improve the team and relationship or they might choose a specific technical challenge that keeps getting pushed aside (e.g. how to start using automated tests or continuous integration). The options are limitless — assuming they are issues the team actually wants to focus on.

Focusing agile retrospectives by using the future

I would not quite say “you want to focus on the future,” but you can gain focus by considering the future. We can use the future as a tool to consider what we want to take action on today. There are a number of retrospective frameworks you can use, here are a few:

What ideas do you have based on the past or looking to the future -- for action you can take in the present?

What ideas do you have based on the past or looking to the future — for action you can take in the present?

  • Look out a year or so and imagine you are presenting at an upcoming peer conference or a company event. Your topic is your current team or product. What is the title for your submission and what are three learning outcomes.
  • Ask future focused questions like: “If we continue to address (or not address) this issue as we are today, in six months, what will be true?” “Will we be where we need to be?” “Are we okay with that?”
  • Consider a goal that the team has (this works well for an organization or an individual as well). Think about that goal and getting there. I sometimes ask “what can we do today that will incrementally move us towards that goal?” Remember the question is intended to find ideas to move forward towards a goal — not to magically achieve the goal. Sometimes people start to think they need an idea that will get them to the end point immediately (e.g.  all tests are automated or everyone is cross trained). Many issues can take time, so the focus needs to be on incremental forward progress.
    We are often stymied by forward movement when the goal seems too large, so we need to look at splitting actions or strategies into smaller chunks (like story splitting). Another way to go here it to ask, “is there anything we could to do to move forward that has almost no downsides?” This might sound a bit silly, but there are almost always things we can do that will help us in the future that have upsides and little downside. Cross training is one example, is there a downside to teaching or learning about the technology, products, or services at your organization? Usually this issue I hear is that “we don’t have time to cross train!” There are always ways to do more cross training and cross training is always going to be incremental!

Choose a focus

Whatever focus you choose for the next retrospective you have (try asking the team for input), remember to change it up. Always using the same focus leads to boring retrospectives. We all need to be able to look at things differently to tap into new ideas and perspectives. So whether the team is looking to the past or using the future, remember that we are looking for actions that we can apply now, in the present!


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Jake Calabrese

Jake Calabrese is a coach, trainer, and coach-consultant working to help organizations meet the promise of agile by going beyond agile practices to address culture challenges and help teams and leaders reach and maintain high performance. He has unique expertise as an Organization & Relationship Systems Certified Coach (ORSCC), a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), Certified Enterprise Coach (CEC), and Professional Certified Coach (PCC), and as a trainer and coach for Agile Companies (helping non-software organizations use agile). Jake created the AgileSafari cartoon series to introduce humor into the more challenging issues we have to tackle. Jake uses ideas from various areas of thinking such as: Lean, professional coaching, neuroscience, psychology, facilitation, brain-based training, improvisation, agile, kanban, and scrum. Jake regularly speaks at local and national conferences including Mile High Agile, Scrum Gathering, and Agile Alliance Agile20xx conferences.

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