Leading an Effective Retrospective

“If you change nothing, nothing will change” – Tony Robbins

The ability to self-reflect is powerful, but the capacity to act on those observations is a potent lever that can take your team to the next level. Continuous improvement is at the heart of all agile methodologies, nestled in as the 12th agile principle – “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” One of the most prevalent agile methodologies -Scrum, imbeds this with a dedicated ceremony (though not limited to) called the Sprint Retrospective. While finding out what a retrospective is, is just a Google away, discovering how to lead an effective one requires a more advanced search.

This article provides tips and thoughts for your consideration when leading a retrospective. However, it will always be up to you (and your team) to bring context, guts, and humbleness to practice continuous improvement.

Consideration 1: Establish Rules of Engagement

Self-awareness at a team level travels down a precarious path. Without proper care, conflict can erupt and decimate your goal of achieving continuous improvement. Similarly, indirectness and ruinous empathy can mask problems allowing small issues to swell. You can avoid this trap by helping your team form rules on engagement. I bring 3 rules to every team I facilitate for:

  • Be specific – cryptic feedback is not actionable or helpful.
  • Reflections and feedback must focus on actions and events; not the people involved. Being direct is not an excuse for being a jerk.
  • We are committed to improve and will act on the items discussed – this is not a therapy session.

Beyond this, I ask teams to contribute additional rules, so it is clear they control and own the retrospective. This promotes buy-in and generates greater enthusiasm around next steps.

“Your team’s geographical distribution will be your most prominent limiting factor.”

Consideration 2: Choose Your Structure

There are many ways to drive a retrospective. You will need to determine how to elicit feedback. One effective way is to ask the team to provide things they should start, stop, and continue doing. Other options available to your team include agile games like sailboat or fishbone diagrams to identify root challenges and solutions. Beyond this hurdle you will want to consider the following:

  • Is the team co-located or remote?
  • Are there dominant voices?
  • How do you end up with something actionable?

Your team’s geographical distribution will be your most prominent limiting factor. Colocated teams can benefit from movement. Heighten engagement with whiteboard sessions or by setting up a space in a way that gets people moving around the room to provide their suggestions. Remote teams can leverage virtual whiteboards like “fun retro” but will miss out on movement. Remote teams can also benefit from the use of video, which helps preserve the fidelity of non-verbal communication.

Regardless of your team’s distribution, you want to ensure all team members feel valued and welcome to participate. Make sure to include everyone’s observations and not just the loudest. Fortunately, this goal is almost always attainable. One method at your disposal is to have team members contribute one at a time. This affords everyone the spotlight while providing the team with context to build on what’s shared. Another option, if you want a more free-flowing dialogue is to ask those that have been quiet, if they have anything to add. If you pursue this route, distribute questions so no one feels singled out.

Once the team’s input is shared comes the tough part. It is time to take action. A retrospective is only valuable if a team finds ways to explore and adapt as a result. Fortunately, the Pareto Principle indicates most of the impact your team can achieve will come from just a critical subset of their observations. There are plenty of voting methods available (recommend “dot-mocrocy“), but teams must focus on a manageable subset of action items. I recommend teams only advance the top 1 or 2 items (depending on vote distribution), so a clear and focused commitment can be made.

Consideration 3: Prepare Yourself; Mentally and Emotionally

Whether you are a ScrumMaster or integrating retrospectives in another methodology you are a leader. As the team talks about obstacles it often puts your failings on display. Listen actively, and be prepared to improve personally. Particularly in the early stages of a team, many of the challenges faced may be attributed directly to you. Find the delta’s between the environment you want to foster and the one before you. Tweak when appropriate, and educate others about processes, intent, and boundaries if there is misunderstanding or poor execution.

What makes this exhausting, is that it is not a one-time event. Continuous improvement requires a cycle of wash, rinse, and repeat. Find a cadence that works as an appropriate feedback loop. For agile methodologies, it would be at the end of each sprint or iteration. For those implementing retros outside of the agile framework; consider your circumstances but I recommend doing so monthly. This allows for both regularity and simplicity.


There are countless ways to achieve continuous improvement. Empowering your team to reflect and act on their processes via a retrospective is a powerful path. The people closest to the work generally have the best insights on how to make it better. You have options in how to lead a retrospective, but always make it clear that the team owns the meeting and its outcome. When you give people the ability to make their lives better, they usually do.

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