Tips for Action Items from Team Retrospectives

Define good action items in retrospectives (tips + examples)

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There is a lot of talk in retrospectives – but does the team derive good action items from the discussion in the retrospectives? The definition of good action items often decides whether retrospectives are perceived by the team as a “babble meeting” or value-adding time in the team's sprint.

Hence we would like to use this article to share 7 practical tips how you can generate meaningful measures from your retros that really bring your team forward. And which mistakes you should better avoid. 

Tip 1 for good action items in retrospectives: Quality over quantity

The goal of a retrospective is not for every team member to take at least one todo with them. Instead, the goal of a retro should be to develop a common understanding within the team of what the most central issues are for the team. 

As the quantity of action items increases, so does the risk that the action item will only be of interest to individuals, but are relatively insignificant for the team as a whole. In such cases, it is less likely that the team will take the time to monitor implementation and effectiveness together. Over time, the measures fall under the table and the feeling arises that the measures from retrospectives are not binding.

The better approach: In your retrospective, aim to identify the top 3 most pressing topics for which it is worth taking action and to formulate these action items in such a way that their implementation actually matters to the team.

Tip 2: In your retrospectives prioritize before defining action items

So how do you manage to increase the quality of action items?

A retrospective consists of different phases for a good reason. It is no coincidence that that deriving action items comes at the end. Nevertheless, teams are regularly tempted to define action items early on when clarifying feedback.

Defining action items too early in a retrospective can quickly become a problem. Because you do without the important step of first prioritizing the collected feedback and topics. Only after prioritization do you know which topics are most urgent for the team and can form a suitable top 3 priority list.

So our tip: Write down ideas for action items in the first half of the retro as a note WITHOUT defining a final measure. The definition of action items should only take place after the prioritization. A welcome side effect: The consistent rejection of discussions about action items in the first half of retro is also a great advantage for timeboxing.

Tip 3: Only define specific action items (see examples)

Perhaps you've heard that: "Well, let's hold on to it as an action item: "Everyone has to be nicer in discussions.”. Who is surprised that retrospectives are perceived as not adding value if one remains so vague and careless in the formulation of action items?

If a topic is really important enough that it has landed in the top 3 when it comes to prioritization, then you should also make the effort to formulate the measure SMART. By now, everyone knows SMART criteria and it should be the aim to apply those criteria also to the action items from retrospectives.

For some topics it can be difficult to formulate specific action items. So here are a few examples of Dos and Don'ts when formulating action items:

Don't:

Do instead:

Everyone makes sure to be nicer to each other.

In the next week: A check-out after each meeting to express appreciation and reflect on our discussion.

More empathy in video calls

Everyone turns on their cameras next week.

Better task descriptions

Set up a workshop next week to refresh our “Definition of Ready”.

Get to the point faster in the daily

Try timeboxing of 2 minutes per person in the Daily until the next retro

When formulating the action items, it is important to: 

  • The action items should not be overambitious. You see, for example, that the example is all about "setting up a workshop". So it remains completely open which decision will be made in this workshop. The time in retro should serve to identify the most important issues, not to resolve them immediately. Coordinating a follow-up appointment (we call it a “breakout session”) can also be a good measure – 10x better than a “better task description” in any case 😉
  • The action items can also be small experiments: Perhaps not everyone agrees whether the measure is bearing fruit. The following applies here: “The proof of the pudding is in the eating”. If there are no important reasons against it, the action item is formulated in such a way that a change is only tried for the next week or the next month.

Tip 4: Define goal and action separately (see examples)

Often the team quickly agrees what the common goal is. The ideas of how this goal should be achieved can of course still vary widely.

Therefore, it is often helpful to first agree on a common goal. Only when a clear goal has been defined should one begin to design possible action items.

In the later review of the action tiem, the goal helps as anchor to evaluate the effectiveness of an action item. Once a goal has been achieved, a measure can be completed. If the measure has been implemented but the goal has not yet been achieved, it might be useful to define a follow-up measure. If a goal has become obsolete due to new framework conditions, a measure can be discarded – regardless of whether it has already been implemented or not.

In a more structured way, the scheme for the action review could look like this:

 

Goal achieved

Goal not achieved

Action item still open

Discard action item

Keep on review for next retro

Action item done

Complete the action item

If necessary, plan follow-up actions

So what can a well-formulated goal for a measure look like? Here are a few suitable examples of measures and associated goals:

Action item

Goal

In the next week: A check-out after each meeting to express appreciation and reflect on our discussion.

Create a more pleasant working atmosphere in discussions

Everyone turns on their cameras next week.

Better involvement of all participants in video calls

Set up a workshop next week to refresh our “Definition of Ready”.

Fewer queries and fewer waiting times for the implementation of tasks.

Try timeboxing of 2 minutes per person in the Daily

Shorter dailies with balanced conversation parts.

Tip 5: Establish an action item review as a fixed agenda point in your retrospectives

If you are now making the effort to formulate specific action items and the associated goal, then you shouldn't miss the icing on the cake: Establishing a regular review of action items in your sprint cycle.

Personally, I am surprised that the review of action items is not (yet) a fixed agenda item for sprint retrospectives in the Scrum Guide. At least that would be my recommendation.

Depending on the frequency of your retrospectives, it can also make sense to address the review of measures in the team's daily / weekly.

Tip 6: Use timeboxing to create the necessary space in your retros for defining action items

The retrospective often draws a lot of energy and after 60 minutes of discussion, teams often find it difficult to pull themselves up again and muster the necessary energy to define good measures.

As a facilitator in a retrospective, you should therefore keep an eye on the timeboxing and after prioritizing / voting you should allow enough time to derive action items. 5 minutes at the end of a retro is not enough to take good action. Especially when team members are already in their heads at the next appointment.

My personal opinion: Avoid retro marathons of 90 minutes or more. I can't blame any team member for not having enough concentration to take good measures after such long meetings. Retros can add great value even in 30, 45 or 60 minutes. At the same time, in my experience, the measures are also better. 

Personally, I would always prefer to invest 45 minutes in a retro every two weeks than 90 minutes once a month. Of course, this also has to do with the team's sprint cycle. Maybe your team feels the same way. Ask them – and if you are unsure, give it a try 🙂

Tip 7: No backlog for action items

"Oh, we still had so many great ideas for action items that didn't make it into the top 3 – should I create a backlog for them?" – No.

Retrospectives always start by soliciting new feedback from the team, and for good reason. So if a topic is really important, it is automatically put back on the agenda of a retrospective via the feedback in the team. In our experience, keeping a separate backlog is counterproductive. In retro, you want to share your new ideas and feedback with the group. At a retro, nobody feels like looking at a long list of past ideas for measures that often have little to do with the team's current challenge. 

The basic principle: What is important to the team comes back on the agenda of a retrospective automatically through the team's feedback. Retrospectives do not need a backlog for potential action items.

Conclusion: good action items, good retrospectives

If you and your team master the art of deriving good action items from retrospectives, you will be surprised how much your team will appreciate the retros. 

In Echometer we ask teams about the “Return on Time Invest” after each retro and we can clearly see: Well-formulated action items significantly increase the team's satisfaction with retrospectives.

If you follow the tips above, you'll be half way there! So, good luck deriving great action items in your next retrospective!

 

Credits

Photo of "Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

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