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What are the key elements of a great sprint retrospective?

The purpose of a retrospective is to facilitate an event that gives you a concrete element that your team can take to be better.

The key is that the improvement is around process and not product.

Inexperienced scrum masters often focus on keys to improved product development but you should be using the sprint reviews for that purpose. The retrospective is focused on how the team can improve.

A great retrospective is going to focus on how the team can improve through better processes, by identifying opportunities for skills development and continuous learning, and by evaluating how the team are working as a cohesive unit.

Are they communicating effectively? Are they collaborating effectively? Do we need to focus on pairing to develop cross-functional skills? Do we need to experiment with certain policies to remove impediments to progress during the sprint cycles?

So, at its core, a great retrospective is where the team walk away with a concrete idea of how they can improve that everybody in the team is onboard with.

Ideally, unanimous agreement that doing this one thing will make us better, and that the team have the energy and commitment to taking it forward.

Personally, I am a big fan of Diana Larson and Esther Derby’s book, ‘Agile Retrospectives: Making good teams great.’

The 5 stages framework featured in their book is a solid foundation for facilitating a great sprint retrospective and I would highly recommend that you follow that framework.

Setting the Scene

The framework kicks off with setting the scene. Bringing people together into the meeting room and fostering conversation. It’s been demonstrated that when people have conversations at the beginning of a meeting, they are likely to contribute and engage throughout the event.

So we’re going to be focused on getting that kind of engagement. We’re going to set the scene by asking questions around the previous sprint. We’re going to be asking questions that allow the team to provide feedback on how they personally believe the previous sprint when.

In some cases, it might be as simple as asking people to describe the sprint in terms of a weather forecast. Did it feel sunny and bright or were there scattered thundershowers?

In the more digital retrospectives, I like to ask people to comment using emojis. It’s a quick and simple way to gather a feel for how the team are feeling about the sprint that has just been completed and to get a feel for what could be addressed in the retrospective.

There’s no right or wrong answers at this stage, we’re simply looking to get feedback on how the team are feeling about the sprint and how they perceive the team is working together.

Gathering Data

The second stage is gathering data.

As a scrum master or facilitator of the sprint retrospective, you’ve likely got a large amount of data. Data that pertains to the sprint itself and the work completed during that sprint that you want to bring into the retrospective.

That’s great. Bring it into the sprint retrospective but remember that the thing which is most relevant to the sprint retrospective is what lives inside people’s heads. What they think, feel, and consider important relating to the sprint or retrospective focus.

So, we run lots of different exercises that focus on divergent thinking and getting people to open up and share information with the team. It could be a general idea of what is coming out or it could be as focused as a particular topic you want to cover in the retrospective.

It could be as broad as asking what’s happened over the past few weeks or months.

Get all the data out and onto a wall so people can see it. For digital retrospectives you would be using a tool that empowers everyone in the retrospective to see the data as it is being gathered.

This enables us to move onto stage 3, which is generating insights.

Generating Insights

It’s important to stand back and not get bogged down in the detail just yet. What are the patterns we are observing and what are the trends that we can see?

We’re exploring what is happening and where, and we are examining why it is interesting to us as a team.

Have those conversations and really dig deep for the insights. Where are the areas that we could improve?

This will naturally lead into conversations about how we can improve as a team.

Decide what to do.

Stage 4 is making decisions around what to do.

This is about drilling into one or maybe two topics with the objective of understanding what the options and opportunities are for the team.

You’re going to be focusing conversations around which of the opportunities or options that team are going to take. What are they actually going to do, given the insights generated in stage 3.

Many inexperienced scrum masters will focus on what the biggest item on the list might be or something which they might consider to be the most impactful.

I would advise you not to go there.

I would recommend that you focus on what most interests the team. There may be competing elements that are considered the most impactful or the most urgent but your job is not to focus on those elements, instead, you are focused on what the team find most interesting.

At this stage, I often bring in an Impact/Interest matrix to help capture where options and opportunities fall in relation to how interested the team is in resolving those issues versus which may have the highest impact.

Our goal is to identify the topic or action that has the highest interest and highest impact.

A high-performing, high velocity scrum team have a great deal of pressure to perform in each of the sprint cycles. If the topic you have selected has a high impact but has very little interest from the team to resolve, the chances are you are not going to achieve your retrospective goal by pursuing the high-impact item.

Instead, you want the team to focus on the topic or action that has the highest degree of interest and commitment from the team to resolve or address. If there is high interest and high value in the objective, you are far more likely to see the action taken and the problem resolved.

Close out the retrospective

Stage 5 is closing out the retrospective and it’s an often-neglected element of retrospectives for inexperienced scrum masters or facilitators.

In my experience, closing out the retrospective by actively asking the team for feedback on how the retrospective went and what they found useful is incredibly important.

It gives the team and opportunity to experience feedback in action, especially when you take the feedback and craft future retrospectives based on the feedback you receive.

I remember hosting a retrospective for a group of logic driven, left brain thinking individuals where I crafted the entire retrospective to suit how I thought would best serve their thinking and lines of reasoning.

After the retrospective, I received feedback that the group would love to do something more fun and creative. Something that was more artistic and out of their comfort zones.

So, for the next retrospective I asked the team to create a movie poster that demonstrated how they felt the sprint had gone.

The team weren’t great artists but what was fascinating is how the creative element brought out new ways of thinking and articulating how the sprint went.

We achieved far greater insights into sprints, opportunities, threats, etc. throughout that retrospective than we had ever achieved as a team before.

It turned out that the team were able to express themselves far more creatively and think far more creatively about the opportunities and options available to them because we had engaged their right brain and creative sphere.

Don’t neglect this element of the retrospective. If you fear the feedback, you are probably most in need of that feedback, so take the time to close out the retrospective by actively asking for feedback from the team.

If you like the idea of becoming a and facilitating your own retrospectives, visit our Certified course page.

If you are a scrum master and want to level up your skills, visit our Advanced Certified course page.

If you are an experienced and want to validate and certify your skills, visit our Certified Scrum Professional course page.

If you like the idea of mentored and coach-driven skills development, visit our Academy course page.

If you feel that coaching is a skill you want to develop, visit our on-demand Introduction to Coaching course page.

For more information on John McFadyen, visit

author avatar
John McFadyen Managing Partner
John McFadyen is an Executive and Enterprise Agile Coach with proven experience working on some of the UK and Europe’s largest, most complex Agile Transformations. As a Certified Scrum Trainer, John brings a wealth of experience as an Agile coach, Agile practitioner and software developer into each of the four core courses he provides. The war stories, the insights into successful Agile transformations and everything he has learned from coaching high-performance Agile teams combine to provide course delegates with a unique, compelling training experience that transforms as much as it empowers.

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