We have long since learned to look back to try to realize what we could have done better and how. With agile methodologies this practice gained many supporters and became common in lean and agile organizations.

The term “retrospective” is very much associated with Scrum but is used in many other methodologies. The concept is simple, join the team and review the events of the last few weeks, in a perspective of how it was done. Retrospective invites you to look at the “how” instead of “what”. It is not that the “what” is not important, in fact it is very important, but because this is not the time or the place to do it.

For example, the image bellow shows a beautiful roast of meat cooked in our home wood oven. It could be done in the conventional oven and it would still be a nice roast beef. But we wanted to improve, and we cooked in the wood oven, we chose the wood that best aroma leaves in the oven and worked on it until we knew the ideal time to remove the firewood and put the baking pan. Whether it was beef, pork or poultry, the important thing at the time of retrospective was to figure out how to improve the cooking process.

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When there is little experience, the tendency is to talk about improvements to the product, and that is not the purpose of a retrospective. What matters is that we are able to understand where we can improve our work process, where we can optimize the flow, how we relate within the team or even how the team relates to others. The results we have had in the period under observation are important because they guide us in identifying the necessary improvements or even what we cannot do ever again.

Why is it so important to make a retrospective?

We often have the notion that we could do better, at the moment immediately after an action, but soon there are so many other things happening that we don’t even have time to reflect on what happened. Stopping to reflect helps us think more “out of the box”, since we are no longer living the event. On the other hand, the opportunity to speak face to face, which the teams have in a retrospective, is an extremely powerful tool.

Despite all this, it is not simple to get results from a retrospective. Not everyone feels comfortable reflecting on processes, being more natural to talk about products. For this reason there are lots of techniques to help the teams to make a retrospective. There must always be a facilitator, who can be the Agile Coach, the Scrum Master or, in the absence of these, an element of the team.

The book “Agile Retrospectives, Making good teams great” by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen, is one of the books that can help ypu because it presents the retrospective in a structured way, providing many tools for each of the stages of the session. But there are many other sources of tools and techniques to facilitate a retrospective.

These techniques are particularly useful in teams with low maturity, both at the individual and group level, or when there are new members in team. But a team that knows itself well and that has realized the value a retrospective may have, does not need it. This doesn’t mean that sometimes you may use these techniques to break the routine or facilitate different perspectives.

Similarly, the place where the retrospective is held is important. It should not allow distractions or interruptions. It should be nice and comfortable leaving people more relaxed, and therefore more available for reflection. These criteria vary from team to team and if a team feels comfortable doing the retrospective outdoors, others may prefer to do so in a closed room or even during a lunch. Periodicity and schedule should not vary, to ensure the discipline that is fundamental when we want to improve continuously. Despite this, not doing the retrospective, one time or another should not be a problem, if that is the best for the team at that time.

A team will always want to make a retrospective if they find value in it. To do this, the facilitator must ensure that in addition to the retrospective focus on “how” rather than “what”, the team identifies something where the impact of an improvement action is greatest. That is, it is not necessary to want to solve all the problems identified, there are things that are not worth the effort, or because they do not depend on us, or because the result obtained would be insignificant. That is why we must focus on what we can change and what impact it will have on our future.

Equally important is to analyze the results of previous actions. Was the result the expected? Did we improve on what we intended? Are we satisfied or should we look for other solutions?

If the team is not able to answer these questions, it will never know if it is improving or not and, sooner or later, it will question the value of the retrospective and eventually consider it lost time.

To conclude, what should be the role of an Agile Coach, or Scrum Master?

It should be the facilitator of the retrospective. But it is not enough, it is vital that you get to know your team well to better orient the session, the place, the periodicity, the evaluation of results and a continuity that will guarantee the future of more retrospectives. Experience in facilitation, team development and collaboration as well as alignment with the organization’s vision are essential features that an Agile Coach must have in order to be successful with her team.

(picture: our wood oven)