Sprint Retros — are you getting all of the value?

Does your team do frequent retros? Are they useless, or does it feel like people aren’t giving them the energy they deserve? Let’s fix that.

Steedan Crowe
4 min readDec 26, 2023

I’m a huge fan of retros. If your teams aren’t doing sprint retros, they should. If you don’t do sprints or follow Agile, you should still do retros. If your team is perfect, you should still do retros. I can’t think of a situation where you wouldn’t want to get feedback on the processes and challenges your team goes through every day.

This post was originally published in my Substack Newsletter, Roadmap Weekly.

A black and white image of a conference room with people in business attire, either asleep or staring blankly, embodying extreme boredom.

I was first introduced to retros in an Agency I worked at. There, we called them after action reviews (AAR). My manager learned this process from his days in the military and introduced it to us. I’ve been a huge fan ever since that first AAR.

Side note: an AAR, as my manager explained, has 5 parts:

  1. What was supposed to happen?
  2. What actually happened?
  3. What went well?
  4. What didn’t go well?
  5. What should be changed for next time?

What is a retro?

Like an after action report, A retro is a scheduled meeting where you review a past unit of work, evaluate what went well, what didn’t, and how to improve. In Scrum, you would typically perform a retro at the end of your sprint, but a retro isn’t just a Scrum concept, as we already discussed and could happen at the end of a project or Quarterly as part of your planning/review process. Even after a security incident or production outage, it’s common to do a postmortem, which is the first step in a good retro.

The 7 steps to a good retro

  1. Postmortem — Recap what the team is reviewing. Talk about:
    • What the goal was.
    • What happened (stick to the facts).
  2. Explain the retro format (you can skip this if the team is comfortable with the format already).
  3. Have your team add cards in the different sections for the retro template (via a wall with sticky notes, a digital Miro board or similar). Give everyone time to contribute, and ensure everyone has added their feedback before continuing to the next step.
  4. Take the team through all the created cards, read each card aloud, and invite the poster to add more details if they need clarification. Some feedback from the rest of the group may happen at this stage, and that’s okay, but try to keep the team focused on getting through all the cards.
  5. Have the team vote on the improvement/action items they feel should be the top priority.
    • Have the team place coloured dots on the cards they want to vote for. Each person can place five dots.
  6. Review the action items as per the vote. I usually pick the top 3 per section. The discussion often continues here as people add more details or insights.
  7. Assign/have people volunteer to follow through with the top-voted items that require feedback or follow-up.

Who should attend the retro?

When scheduling the retro, you should include everyone involved in the work. Remember that this team retro aims to improve processes within your team; you shouldn’t include external teams and executives unless they were somehow involved in the day-to-day of your processes. If there are issues in the planning process before your team is involved, you can have a separate retrospective with stakeholders to look for improvement opportunities.

How to make your retros more impactful

If you’re not getting a lot out of your retros and have or are thinking of abandoning them, evaluate how you’re doing retros first and experiment with some of my suggestions. If done right, you will have more engagement from your team and elicit more honest feedback.

Here are a few things to try and consider if your retros haven’t been valuable and you’ve stopped or are considering stopping:

  • Do an icebreaker before the retro to get the team loosened up.
  • Do retros consistently, especially in the beginning or if significant changes have happened.
  • Change up the format if you’re not getting value.
  • Use different formats depending on your goal; different formats can elicit different responses and outcomes.
  • Go into the retro with the goal of being helpful; this is not a time to pass blame, and the focus should be on processes and not people.
  • Consider letting the team add to the retro anonymously.
  • Let people add to the retro in advance when things are fresh in their minds.
  • Give people a chance to vote on the top things to discuss from the retro.
  • Follow through on action items from the retro; people will stop being open and honest if nothing is ever improved.

Two of my favourite retro formats

Sailboat retro:

  • The sections for this retro are: The Island (what is our goal?), Wind (what’s pushing us forward), Anchors (what’s holding us back), Rocks (What risks do we face), and the sun (What is making us feel good).

The 4 Ls retro:

  • Liked, Learned, Lacked and Longed for retro. This format is a nice change from the typical: what went well, what didn’t. And with questions like these, you can see how your team might start to give different responses.

So, if you’re doubting the retro’s usefulness, try some of the above suggestions and follow the 7 steps to a good retro before you throw it away. Unfortunately, for many teams, this may be one of the few ways teams can provide feedback (a topic for another day), so it’s an important tool to keep in place.

And if you need help with ideas, check out this great site I found years ago. It has a vast catalogue of retros, icebreakers, and team-building exercises, funretrospectives.com. You will like how this site breaks the retros into activity groups and points out how each is good at helping.

This post was originally published in my Substack Newsletter, Roadmap Weekly.



Steedan Crowe

I’m Steedan, writer of RoadmapWeekly.com, a newsletter for people doing Product Management