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10 Simple & Important Agile Retrospective Ground Rules

Agile retrospectives are an essential part of any agile team. They give team members the opportunity to reflect on their work, identify opportunities for improvement, and set goals for the next sprint. However, for a retrospective to be effective, it's helpful to establish a few ground rules. They serve to guide the conversation and ensure everyone is heard. Below, I'll give you examples of ten ground rules for agile retrospectives. They can help you make the most of this valuable team development opportunity.

Which are the 10 ground rules for agile retrospectives?

  • Ground rule # 1 – Maintain a safe and open environment.
  • Ground rule # 2 – Respect for the opinions and perspectives of others.
  • Ground rule #3 – Encourage active participation of all team members.
  • Ground rule # 4 – Honesty and transparency about problems and challenges.
  • Ground rule #5 – Focus on actions and solutions instead of blaming.
  • Ground rule # 6 – Prioritize the team's goals.
  • Ground rule # 7 – Identify and document action items.
  • Ground rule #8 – Follow up actions from previous retrospectives.
  • Ground rule # 9 – Encourage the team to be prepared.
  • Ground rule #10 – Keep the session short and focused.

Agile Retrospective Ground Rules # 1

Maintaining a safe and open environment

If you only have time and capacity to implement one rule or guideline, then let it be that first one. The rest will almost take care of itself.

To maintain a safe and open environment, it is essential to foster a sense of inclusion. It is also important to ensure that everyone feels comfortable sharing their thoughts and feedback.
There is probably no question that psychological safety is more than just a trend or buzzword. But if you want to delve deeper into the topic or need some facts and figures, e.g. to convince someone else of the relevance of psychological safety, then definitely have a look at this article. There, the concept and its relevance are examined and explained in more detail.

Agile Retrospective Ground Rules # 2

Respect for the opinions and perspectives of others

This is another almost indispensable ground rule for agile retrospectives. It is important to listen actively and avoid interrupting others or rejecting or evaluating their ideas. One way to do this is to use techniques such as "paraphrasing" or "mirroring". This shows that you are actively listening and it encourages others to share their thoughts. It is also helpful to use "I" statements and not to make assumptions or jump to conclusions about others' ideas and statements.

Agile Retrospective Ground Rules # 3

Encouraging active participation of all team members

One way to do this is to use icebreakers or team-building activities at the beginning of the retrospective to make team members feel more comfortable and relaxed. You can find concrete methods and ideas for this in our blog article about check-ins.

It is also essential that the facilitator can encourage quieter team members to speak up and redirect the conversation if one person is dominating it. You can read more about how this works and what techniques are used in this article: Facilitating a Retrospective.

Agile Retrospective Ground Rules # 4

Honesty and transparency about problems and challenges

Team members should feel comfortable talking openly and honestly about any problems or obstacles encountered during the sprint. The team can use various techniques to identify the underlying causes of problems or challenges that have occurred and develop solutions to them. Discussing them together and recording an action item on them, if necessary, is nonetheless legitimate and often sufficient. You can find an overview of three different workshops in this related article: 3 retrospective ideas & team workshops with a surprise effect.

Agile Retrospective Ground Rulese # 5

Focus on actions and solutions instead of blame

In addition, it is important to create a blame-free environment where team members do not have to fear consequences for sharing their thoughts. Instead, they can focus on identifying and addressing the underlying issues. 

Agile Retrospective Ground Rules # 6

Prioritize the goals of the team

Prioritizing the team's goals requires a clear understanding of the team's sprint goals and aligning the retrospective with them. One method is to use "SMART" goals.
It is also important to establish a clear purpose for the retrospective and focus the dialogue on that. The team can also use approaches such as "SWOT analysis" to identify its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to ensure it is on the right track to achieve its goals.

Agile Retrospective Ground Rules # 7

Determine and document action items

A retrospective should not only have a goal, but also a clear agenda. One way to achieve this is to document and track all action items and improvements identified during the retrospective. Read more about this in our article on examples of good action items. In addition, it is important to assign responsibility for each action item to specific team members. The team can also use tools like Kanban boards to visually track the progress of each action item. By the way, this also works great in our tool Echometer. Try it out directly via this link: To the retro setup.

The Action Item Review step in Echometer.

Agile Retrospective Ground Rules # 8

Follow up on action items from previous retrospectives

To ensure that the action items from previous retrospectives are implemented, you should set a clear timeframe for implementation in the team and appoint specific team members to take responsibility for the individual items. In addition, it is critical that action items are reflected upon or discussed within the next retrospective. Remember, action items are not the same as tasks! The point is not to implement them. Their main goal is to help you iteratively learn something and then adjust something based on what you learn. If this sounds surprising or new, or you just want some inspiration on how to use action items well and effectively, feel free to check out this article.

Agile Retrospective Ground Rules # 9

Encourage the team to be prepared

Setting a clear goal for the retrospective and providing a template or guideline for what data or information is needed will motivate team members to be prepared. In addition, team members should ideally have done research and be prepared to support their assertions with specific examples or data. This makes the dialogue more productive and ensures that the team makes real progress.

Did you know that Echometer lets you send short surveys to your team before a retrospective? This ensures that everyone is prepared and you have much more time to reflect instead of collecting data. Why not try it out with the following retro?

Health Check Retro: The 5 Agile Values

The agile values and principles belong to the basics of a Scrum course. Only when you live up to them, you can reach higher agile maturity levels as a team. This health check helps you to reflect on the 5 agile Scrum values from a different perspective with your team - and to make them measurable. See below for an impression of the questions asked.

Note: This retrospective format asks for agreement with the given Health Check items on a scale.

Team Radar Tool Health Check Retrospective
  • Courage: We value people showing courage.
  • Respect: We value each other’s ideas, even when disagreeing.
  • Commitment: Every team member is committed to follow through on what they have promised.
  • Focus: We don’t allow ourselves to be distracted from reaching the sprint goal.
  • Openness: We are open to constructive feedback and grow from it.

Agile Retrospective Ground Rules # 10

Keep the meeting short and focused

To keep the retrospective short and focused, it is helpful to have a clear agenda and goal for the meeting and to stay on topic. It is also important to have a moderating person to keep the conversation on track and redirect the discussion if it veers off course. To set specific time limits for each agenda item, the team can also use techniques such as "Time Boxing". This is especially useful if you find that you often need longer for certain points or the whole retro than planned. Recently we also found out how long a retro should actually take and what too short or too long means in this context: Analysis of 30,000 retros.

Maybe you've heard of the acronym E.L.M.O.? It doesn't have much to do with the little red fellow from Sesame Street, but stands for: Enough, let's move on. At Echometer, we internally call this a "jelly fish" and any time someone on the team feels that a topic is getting too deep or too far out, we "throw a jelly fish". Why jelly fish? They are neutral, impersonal and there is definitely something fun about them.

Agile Retrospective Ground Rules: Conclusion

All in the spirit of keeping it short and focused: I hope these 10 basic rules for agile retrospectives will help you make the most of this valuable team development opportunity. Following these rules and applying the techniques and tools described above will make it even easier for your team to identify areas for improvement and set goals for the next sprint. This will help the team to continuously improve and evolve. We wish you a lot of fun doing so!

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Try the Spotify Health Check Retrospective!

First question: "😍 We love going to work, and have great fun working together."

Sounds interesting? Try the format in our retro tool:

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