The Art of the Agile Retrospective



I’ve been asked to do a lot of Agile retrospectives around Microsoft over the years. 

I don’t know how it started, but it started several years ago when somebody recommended that I lead a retrospective for their team, and then it caught fire from there.  

In this post, I’ll share a simple recipe you can use as a baseline to help shape your Agile retrospectives for building high-performance teams.

How Teams Go from Good to Great

Agile retrospectives are a powerful way to help teams go from good to great, and to help less than good teams, get better fast.  

The value of a retrospective is the learning and insight that you can carry forward. 

A retrospective is a look back with an open mind on the collective learning around what to start doing, stop doing, and continue doing.

With that in mind, the true value is in the actual change in the people, process, or technology that supports your ability to flow value.

What Goes Wrong in Retrospectives

To drive a great Agile retrospective, it helps to know what gets in the way or what goes wrong:

  1. Lack of clarity on outcomes
  2. Lack of focus during the retrospective
  3. Too much debate and not enough dialogue.

Below is a recipe that you can use that should help you get started or improve your retrospectives.  Nothing is set in stone, but it helps to see some things that have worked time and again (the timeless truths.) 

Be sure to adapt as you see fit, but at the end of the day, remember that establishing is important, and that your best outcome is a short list of what to start doing, stop doing, and continue doing – that you actually implement.

Keys to a Great Retrospective

  • Set and agenda with a timebox (and allow plenty of time to really dive into the issues)
  • Ask what went well
  • Ask what could be improved


  1. List of highlights and wins
  2. Inefficiencies and improvement opportunities
  3. Contextualized best practices


  1. Agenda
  2. Celebrate accomplishments
  3. Brainstorm what went well
  4. Identify what needs improvement
  5. Talk about the details
  6. Identify 3 actionable things to carry forward, with dates and owners (accountability)
  7. Scrum Master sends out summary

Switching Perspectives

I’ve found two Edward de Bono techniques help deal with conflict during hot topics are:

  • PMI (Plus Points, Minus Points, and Interesting Points) – What’s the upside? what’s the downside? and what’s interesting about this?
  • Six Thinking Hats – A way to switch hats to switch perspective to see multiple angles on the same topic.

I find these techniques help keep an open and curious mind.  Especially if you use them in a question-driven way and keep it simple.  Rather than have people arguing different sides at the same time, have them argue the same side at the same time, and then switch perspectives (or “hats.”)

Six Thinking Hats (A Simple Approach)

Hat Idea Question
White Hat the facts and figures What are the facts and figures?
Red Hat the emotional view What’s your gut reaction?  How do you feel about this?
Black Hat the “Devil’s advocate” Why can’t we do this?  What prevents us?  What’s the downside?
Yellow Hat the positive side How can we do this?
Green Hat the creative side What are additional opportunities?
Blue Hat the organizing view How should we think about this? (what are the metaphors or mental models)

Dialogue, Debate, and Discuss

Sometimes, the best way to help people stay open and

  • Dialogue – listening with an open spirit.
  • Debate – listening to win an argument — a verbal “fight.”
  • Discuss – listening to break apart an issue and pushing a winning idea.

How to Shift to Dialogue:

  1. How might that be true?
  2. What is it you see that I don’t?
  3. How do you see this differently and why?

Highlights / Wins

  1. Highlight 1 …
  2. Highlight 2 …
  3. Highlight 3 …

Affinity Exercise

You can skip doing an affinity diagram exercise, if folks are comfortable with each other and there’s no recent new members.  Otherwise, it’s overhead, but it helps for the following:

  1. Get people to open up
  2. Get more people contributing
  3. Give people time to think since new members bring up more issues

There are other tricks of the trade, but if you focus on a clear agenda, compelling outcomes, and manage the conflict while driving an open dialogue, you’ll be in good shape.

May the power of Agile retrospectives serve you well.

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