Portrait of serious dark haired Asian woman keeps finger on chin looks mysteriously at camera considers something dressed in blue jumper isolated over brown background. Let me think about it

What is a retrospective? Everything you need to know

Table of Contents

Definition Retrospective

The term "retrospective" means looking back. In the work context, this usually means an “agile retrospective”. An agile retrospective is a workshop format for reflection and improvement of cooperation. The role and implementation of an agile retrospective was particularly emphasized by the Scrum Guide Are defined.

Even before retrospectives were used in the world of work, the term Retrospective already in the art world used for exhibitions that look back at an artist's work.

The big difference to retrospectives in the art world is that retrospectives in the work context also deal with how to develop the work in the future instead of just looking back.

Retrospective Examples

The simplest format for a retrospective is to simply ask:

  • What went well?
  • What went wrong?
  • What can we try in the future?

Since the questions are designed to stimulate reflection, more and more retrospective methods have emerged over time. For example, the sailing boat, starfish or keep-stop-start retrospective came about.

We have summarized a comprehensive overview of the best-known as well as unusual, creative retrospectives here: 32 retrospective methods

Procedure and Phases of a Retrospective

The agenda and phases of a retrospective take place (regardless of the format) according to a proven pattern:

  • Check in
  • Data gathering
  • Prioritize
  • Insides and Action Items
  • Completion or check-out

Each of these steps can be customized and designed individually. However, it is always important take the Double Diamond concept when designing the retrospective into account.

Retrospective in Scrum

Many teams that have established retrospectives use the Scrum framework for organizing their cooperation.

In Scrum, work is organized into iterative sprint cycles. The retrospective is an integral part of these Scrum cycles.

With retrospectives, Scrum ensures that teams reflect on their collaboration weekly or at least monthly, depending on the length of the sprint.

Sprint retrospective im Scrum cycle

Retrospectives and Scrum belong together. But also other working methods like OKRs or Kanban use retrospectives:

  • Kanban Retrospective – In Kanban you don't work in cycles, but you have regular retrospectives (also sometimes referred to as Service Delivery Reviews ) in which one reflects the flow of work and collaboration.
  • OKR retrospective – Teams using OKRs for goal setting reflect at the end of each cycle on how well the goals were set, how measuring them helped the team, and how the goal setting and tracking could be improved in the next OKR cycle.

What Makes a Good Retrospective?

A good retrospective allows all team members to openly share their impressions. If the feedback is shared openly, it must of course also be possible to discuss it openly and purposefully in the second step.

In order to create this atmosphere of discussion and openness, there is the so-called “Prime Directive”, which should ideally be explained again to all participants at the beginning of the retrospective:

Regardless of what we find out, we must assume that everyone did the best they could, given their knowledge, skills and abilities, the resources available and the situation at hand.

Norman L. Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews

Accordingly, good retrospectives are always characterized by relatively balanced parts of the conversation. 

Especially with inexperienced teams a good retro facilitation is essential. 

Very exciting in this context: We have analyzed over 30,000 retrospectives and published our findings from this analysis in our blog: The big analysis of 30,000 retrospectives

Check out our eBook for more tips and tricks:

eBook: 20+ Facilitation Tips for Great Retrospectives

How Long Does a Retrospective Take?

A retrospective usually lasts 60 – 90 minutes. We don't recommend going much beyond 90 minutes as attention spans decrease over time and team members get tired.

However, retrospectives can also be shorter than 60 minutes. Here our tips for short retrospectives.

Can retrospectives be held remotely?

Of course, with the right remote retro tool (like Echometer) retrospectives can be carried out both on-site, completely remotely and in hybrid setups.

Retrospectives are a key for remote teams in particular for remote team building

What Is a Retrospective Not?

Retrospectives are often confused in the vernacular with Sprint reviews or Lessons learned workshops. Therefore, in these articles we have worked out what a retrospective is not and where the differences lie:

Of course, there are also some retrospective anti-patterns that underline what a retrospective should NOT be.

Conclusion: Retrospectives are a central meeting routine of agile teams

Teams that want to continuously develop themselves and their collaboration use retrospectives. For these agile teams, retrospectives are a central meeting format in which they reflect on their collaboration, reflect on their actions and derive new actions.

So if your team isn't already using retrospectives for continuous development, now is a good time to get started!

Most Agile Coaches and Scrum Masters run in circles...

...fixing superficial symptoms. Time to use psychology to foster sustainable mindset change.

"We could be so much faster and better at delivery!"

"I would love to have an Agile Coaching Genius, who simply tells us how to deliver better.”

"Why does it sometimes take me hours to prepare a simple retro?"

"Many team members are afraid to speak up!"

"We discover too many unexpected issues & bugs at a late stage!"

"Why does it sometimes take me hours to prepare a simple retrospective?"

Share this article in your network

Echometer is the easiest way to improve the team's delivery - for busy team leads

The tool combines agile health checks, action item tracking and interactive, psychology-based retrospectives on autopilot.

Articles you may also be interested in

Echometer Newsletter

Don't miss updates on Echometer & get inspiration for agile working