Five ways to get value from your retrospective


Posted by: Matthew MacDonald-Wallace

How do your retrospectives leave you feeling? Refreshed, or just wondering why nothing seems to move forward? This post outlines five of the most useful activities that we suggest to our clients to help them get value from their retrospectives.

1. Establish Trust

If you do not have the trust of your team, then a retrospective will never provide value.

At the start of your retrospective, hand out paper and pens that are identical to the entire team – this is important as it ensures anonymity. Ask everyone to score how safe they feel about being honest in the current retrospective on a scale of 0 – 9 (after all, we’re software engineers, cardinality is important!), then get them to fold the paper and put it into a closed box.

Making sure that the poll remains anonymous, take the papers out and quickly tot up the total to work out how honest people feel they can be.

If there is a clear issue with honesty within the team, ask the members of the team if they would be willing to talk about any trust issues on a one-to-one basis outside the retrospective process.

Continue with your retrospective, ensuring that you take the trust level in the room into account when writing up your notes.

DO NOT DISCLOSE THE NUMBERS THAT WERE WRITTEN DOWN, NOR THE FINAL TOTAL.You need to be trusted by the team in order for this to work in future.

2. If the last sprint was a … then it would be …

Help your team think about their work in a completely different light by asking questions that encourage comparisons with films, songs, tv programmes, books, cars, or any other category that you can think of.

Make sure that you keep the category to one that will be inclusive for your team – for example, “If the last sprint was a football team, then it would be…” immediately alienates anyone who doesn’t like football.

We’ve had some great answers to this, including one participant who started lamenting the fact that the project management went so well, only for someone to destroy the entire product at the end of the sprint, just like the Death Star in Star Wars!

3. Stop, Start, Continue

A favourite of pretty much every Agile coach around the globe, “Stop, Start, Continue” is a great way to find out what your team enjoys, or what they would rather stop doing.

Create a grid on a whiteboard with three columns headed “Start”, “Stop”, and “Continue”, then hand out the pens and the post-it notes and ask the team to start filling the columns with their thoughts.

Make it clear that this could be about the work they have undertaken, the way in which they are working, or even how they communicate with other departments – there are no wrong answers, this is just the starting point for a discussion.

After ten minutes, invite the team to vote on the top three things they want to discuss by marking those post-it notes with their pen. Group the post-it’s by the number of votes, then set aside at least 10 minutes for each subject.

Convert the output of the discussion into action points, and make sure they are tracked and implemented.

4. What do they think of us?

How you interact with other teams is vital to your success. This exercise helps you think about how other teams might consider your team.

Inform your team that the notes from this session will be shared anonymously with the other teams.

Ask the team to write down all the other teams that they interact with on a daily basis, and put them up on the whiteboard.

Group the notes so that you have a list of the most common teams you all interact with and then go through each team in turn, asking those in the retrospective to write down what they feel the other team thinks about your team and their interactions.

Find a way to group the notes around each of the other teams, and then run a “Start, Stop, Continue”, or “If our interactions with team … were a … then they would be…” exercise and collate all the results.

Take time to talk to the other teams and provide them with the feeling within your team – where did you agree? Where did your team get the relationship wrong? Was the feedback received positively?

Ask permission from the other teams to feed back their responses to your team. This may be a painful process however, it will help encourage better communication and honesty in future.

5. Hi! I’m new here!

Does everyone in your team understand what the others do? Do they understand their own roles? How do new starters know who to approach for help on a particular issue?

When starting this exercise, make it clear that you are focusing on the role within the team, not the individual.

Pretend that it is your first day at the company, and interview each member of the team for a maximum of two minutes on what their role is.  Whilst you are doing this, the rest of the team will write down their comments on their view of the role.

Create a grid on the whiteboard with the roles across the top, then ask the team to stick their comments to the board in the appropriate column.

A picture depicting how the whiteboard might be arranged during the "Hi, I'm new here" exercise




An idea of what the whiteboard might look like


 Set a time limit of 5 minutes per role, and discuss the responses. Where is there overlap between roles? Are there particular roles that are completely misunderstood? Is there a duplication of effort, or even gaps in the skills that the team needs?

Feedback is important

Take ten minutes at the end of each retrospective to talk through with the team how they feel about what they’ve just done. Upload a summary of the notes to a wiki, and ask the team to comment on the document confirming or disputing its content. that they agree

Make it clear to the team that you are happy to discuss issues raised during the retrospective on a one-to-one basis if required – some of these exercises can be mentally exhausting and will need a degree of after-care in some situations.

Honesty is key

We started this article talking about honesty, and we’d like to end with it as well.

Addressing issues of trust and honesty within your team is vital in order for your retrospectives to provide value.

Building trust within teams is a subject that many others have written about however, we have found that conversations (often with a trained mediator) are frequently the best way to resolve any seriously difficult issues.

Above all, retrospectives should be honest, open, and frank discussions about the current state of your team culture and the work they carry out.

Getting value from your retrospectives

Retrospectives are one of the most important parts of the Agile development process, as they enable you to see where you have come from and how to improve.

We see a large number of clients focusing on what they did and not how they did it, meaning that they never address the cultural issues that are preventing their teams from performing the best they can..

If you would like further help on your retrospectives, our team are more than happy to facilitate or provide advice.


Matthew Macdonald-Wallace has spent most of his career encouraging collaborative working across all kinds of industries.  He co-founded Mockingbird Consulting at the start of the year with the joint aims of encouraging the next generation of engineers and helping organisations with their digital journeys. More details on the work of Mockingbird Consulting (including their innovative "Internet of Threes" approach to adopting the Internet of Things) can be found at