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What are your top tips for facilitating a great sprint retrospective and why?

What are your top tips for facilitating a great sprint retrospective and why?

A sprint retrospective is a super way to bring the development team together and discover what has worked, what isn’t working, and where the team can invest time and effort to improve processes or systems or problem-solving capability.

It’s often the most fun scrum event to host for a scrum master and it can prove incredibly valuable for the team, especially if they host a sprint retrospective on a regular basis.

Tip 1 – Read the 1st half of the Agile Retrospectives book

Go and buy the book ‘Agile Retrospectives: Making good teams great’ by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen.

If you haven’t got this book already, stop what you’re doing right now and go buy the book.

I feel that strongly about the book. I would rather you were reading the content of that book than listening to me right now.

In that book, Esther and Diana invest approximately 40 pages on exactly how to run a sprint retrospective, but crucially, they provide you with a framework from which to run the retrospective.

It’s a 5-stage framework. I’m not going to go into much detail about it because I would prefer you to read the book and learn directly from the authors and creators of the framework.

Tip 2 – Read the 2nd half of the Agile Retrospectives book

I would advise you to read the other half of the book. I’m not joking, it really is such a great insight and step-by-step guide to running sprint retrospectives that I can’t recommend it enough.

The first 40 pages of the book is the framework whilst the rest of the book consist of exercises to put into practice within your sprint retrospectives to get the most out of the event for both yourself, as a scrum master, and for your team.

Including lots of different exercises in your retrospectives is incredibly important because if you run the same retrospective, over and over, your team are going to spot a pattern and are going to stop engaging.

As soon as they do that, it is really hard to bring them back and get them to re-engage. Not only for the current retrospective but also for future retrospectives. They will be bored, disengaged and you won’t create the value and generate the insights necessary for the team to improve.

You need to keep it fresh, you need to keep it engaging, and you need to make them interesting.

So, having a great array of exercises is incredibly valuable to running great sprint retrospectives and the book will provide you with more than enough to get started.

Tip 3 – Plan 2 Retrospectives

Plan two retrospectives instead of one.

The only things that you know ahead of time is that (1) you’re going to do an awesome job and your team are going to come away with a clear idea of how to improve, and (2) your original plan isn’t always going to work.

So, even though you are planning a single retrospective, plan out 2 separate exercises for each step in that 5-step framework because you don’t know which questions are going to resonate or which exercises are going to produce the outcome(s) you are seeking.

I will invariably have two different exercises for each step, one long version and one short version. I will have everything prepared upfront to ensure we can be as agile as possible in our retrospective.

It allows me to work with the team and if the exercises and questions are resonating, I can stay with that theme and work with the team to achieve the outcome(s) planned. But, if I feel like we are moving around in circles and not achieving our goals, I can quickly switch to version 2.

If the team are super engaged and are having the conversations that facilitate great outcomes, I can allow those to over run a touch because I have a shorter version of the next exercise that was planned and can simply roll with that to ensure we stay in our overall time box.

If we achieve the objective early in one exercise, great, I have a longer version for the next exercise that we can then spend a little extra time on and dig deeper into that subject matter to generate the best answer or idea that we are capable of.

I will always go into a retrospective with my alternative plans knowing that something is going to go wrong or unfold in a different way that I had planned. Having alternatives empowers me to carry on smoothly, regardless of what happens, and ensure the success of the sprint retrospective.

I would wholeheartedly recommend that whilst you are learning to host and facilitate retrospectives that you do the same.

Tip 4 – Take time to plan your retrospective

It’s important that you schedule time to plan your retrospective.

As scrum masters and agile coaches, we are busy. We do have a lot of things to work through and a great deal of things to achieve. That said, we are also supposed to invest time in planning meetings, workshops, and events.

It takes a lot of time, effort, and practice to craft a meeting in such a way that enables us to get the best out of our team. Rule of thumb for me is that you need to invest twice as long in the planning as you need for the delivery.

If you’ve got a 90-minute retrospective, expect to invest about 3 hours in planning and crafting that retrospective.

You’re assessing what structure you are going to use (see Tip 1), what exercises are going to go into your retrospective (see Tip 2), and how to create a flow throughout the event to keep people engaged and focused.

You also need to be thinking about what you need to have set up in advance. If you are in-person, what are the materials you need? If you are delivering remotely via zoom, what are the resources you need to have ready beforehand?

All of this stuff takes time.

If you don’t give yourself enough time to prepare, you’re going to be trying to achieve all of this in the retrospective and you won’t be able to facilitate or pay close attention to the answers and ideas that are being generated.

You won’t be able to lead the retrospective and help the team achieve their objective because you are simply going to be too busy trying to ‘generate’ the retrospective as you move along.

In essence, you will be winging it and that will come across to everyone in the room right away, causing you to lose respect, engagement and potentially even lead to the team not seeing the value in investing time and effort in a sprint retrospective when they have so much work to do.

Tip 5 – Enjoy the sprint retrospective.

My biggest tip for you is simply to enjoy the retrospective.

Don’t build retrospectives that you, personally, are not looking forward to because if you aren’t enjoying it or seeing value in it, that is going to come across to others quickly.

You’re not helping them if you aren’t having fun because that negativity is going to come out and it is going to lead to a negative experience for the whole team.

Maybe not deliberately, but your team will recognise that you are doing something that is hard and that you aren’t deriving any value from, and it is going to influence how they perceive the retrospective as well the value it adds in their own lives.

Sometimes, it will even make the team wonder if it is about them. If they are the reason why you are having a negative experience.

Craft a sprint retrospective that inspires you. Something that excites you to present and leads to you feeling curious as to the outcomes it will generate.

Tip 6 – Keep a record of the sprint retrospective.

After the retrospective, take some time out and reflect on what happened.

  • What did you intend to happen versus how everything unfolded?
  • What did you intend to achieve versus what was generated by the retrospective?
  • Which elements of the retrospective generated the most interest and engagement?
  • Where did things fall a bit short? Where did you lose them?
  • Why are there differences between what you anticipated or planned versus what was achieved or experienced?
  • How can you improve next time?
  • What would you do differently?

Make a note of all of these things and keep it with your plan so that you can reflect and learn as you move forward. It will also allow you to compare how your performance differs over time and where you are improving.

Keeping all of your sprint retrospectives filed also creates a repository for you to use in future, especially when you maybe don’t have enough time to plan a new retrospective for a team. It also keeps a handy record of where and how you can improve on your last similar retrospective.

So, there you go. 6 tips for you to help you in crafting and facilitating your next sprint retrospective.

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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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