The Perils of Retrospectives, and How to Avoid Them

The Perils of Retrospectives

In the Scrum methodology, retrospectives are a chance to stop and think about a project and re-examine the way the team works: its methodology, development tools or other factors that could enhance the team’s effectiveness.

On the other hand, a retrospective can also morph into a pointless hiatus during which the team vents, then returns to work without really solving any problems. How can you ensure that a retrospective will actually bring about change? Here are a few of the problems that I have encountered in retrospectives that I have led, with potential solutions and a suggested activity for each.

Endless Discussion

Sometimes, a particularly contentious issue is discussed endlessly, with supporting examples, anecdotes and testimony, for very little results.

The facilitator sets a maximum discussion time, for example five minutes. Every time a new issue is broached, a timer is started. When the timer rings, the discussion is closed. One option is to allow the discussion to go on by majority vote.

Suggested Activity: “Lean Coffee” (Topic Compilation).
Each team member writes down one or more topics for discussion on separate pieces of paper. Topics are posted on a board, grouped by theme. The team chooses the first theme for discussion, and discusses it for five minutes maximum. After five minutes, all discussion stops and team members can vote to pursue the discussion, or not. If the majority votes to continue, the discussion goes on for another five minutes; otherwise, the team chooses the next theme for discussion. (This meeting format was thought up by Jim Benson and Jeremy Lightsmith.)

Attention Grabbers

Some team members take more than their fair share of speaking time during the retrospective, while more reserved members stay in the background and listen, contributing little or nothing to the discussion. This means that the team is deprived of the quieter members’ point of view, which could be different from that of the attention grabbers.

Ensure that all members of the team are given a chance to speak, either by systematically going around the table, or by calling on the quieter members to speak first, before they can be influenced by groupthink. Or, organize activities where everyone’s contribution carries the same weight.

Suggested Activity: Auction (Action Selection).
Team members suggest any number of Actions they feel should be carried out. To set their priority, the team decides how many Actions it feels it can realistically carry out (usually two or three). Each team member receives ten ballots to vote for any Action, with the option of casting more than one ballot per Action. The team then tackles the two or three Actions that get the most votes.


Retrospectives can be long and boring if everyone just passively sits and listens. And the larger the group, the more persons will sit there with nothing to do.

Provide physical and intellectual stimulation to force team members to be active. Have them stand and hold small group discussions in order to push them into a more active discussion mode.

Suggested Activity: “Speed Dating” (Idea Generation).
Each team member chooses a topic that he or she wishes to discuss. The team then splits into pairs, with each pair discussing their two topics for five minutes each, attempting to come up with a solution. When the ten minutes are up, members pair up again with different partners to discuss both topics again for ten minutes. At the end of the activity, every team member should have paired up with every other member.


Retrospectives are a good time to discuss sources of irritation. It is natural, and desirable, to discuss what went wrong, since the goal is to improve things. On the other hand, it is all too easy for what went wrong to eclipse what went right, and for the team to emerge from the retrospective feeling discouraged or frustrated by all the negativity.

Set some time aside specifically for what went right. Talking about positive things is a chance to highlight team members’ accomplishments, underscore the team’s strengths, provide positive reinforcement and develop team spirit.

Suggested Activity: Recognition (Closing).
To end the retrospective on a positive note, members take turns saying something positive about another team member.

No Follow-Up

Once the retrospective is over, it is all too easy to go back to work and to carry on as before. By the time of the next retrospective, nothing has changed and the same problems are raised yet again.

It’s up to you to follow up. Add the Actions to the tasks of the next sprint, or at least in the backlog if time is short. Then, at the next retrospective, follow up on the Actions chosen at the previous retrospective. Or, you can organize an activity where you simply ask a question. Write down the answers, then ask it again a few sprints later. Compare both sets of answers to see if there has been any movement.

Suggested Activity: Follow-up on previous sprint (Opening).
Open the retrospective by getting the team to follow up on Actions chosen in previous retrospectives. This will allow the team to take stock of developments, accomplishments, and any impact on the team’s efficiency.


The activities suggested above make up a complete retrospective:

  • Opening: Follow-up on Previous Sprint.
  • Topic Compilation: Lean Coffee.
  • Idea Generation: Speed Dating.
  • Action Selection: Auction.
  • Closing: Recognition.

This kind of retrospective exercise keeps the team alert and stimulated, gets all team members to participate, and strengthens the team’s weak points while keeping meetings positive.

That being said, you also have to change things up; always following the same routine will make things predictable and boring. Each retrospective should be different from the previous one, even if only by one or two activities; you can keep the best ones in your back pocket for future use.

You will find more great ideas on retrospective activities at the excellent Retromat web site.

[Illustration ©Vladgrin/iStock.]