What can you actually do to make effective retro a reality? The good news is, it’s not as difficult as you might think. We’ve broken it down into 5 elements to make it as easy as possible to massively improve your sprint retrospectives.
Retros have been around for ages, and for many of us it really feels that way. Too many teams have long since devolved into going through the motions of retros that rarely, if ever, spur genuine change or improvement.
Honestly, it’s a shame.
Because retros have a tremendous amount of value. When done right, they can go from a meeting everyone dreads to one they genuinely look forward to. By transforming into a place to clear the air, share ideas, track progress, and actually improve how your team functions, retros go from being a checkbox to a driver of real improvement.
Of course, all of that sounds great, but what can you actually do to make this kind of retro a reality? The good news is, it’s not as difficult as you might think. We’ve broken it down into 5 elements to make it as easy as possible to massively improve your sprint retrospectives.
While team managers can gain a lot from retros, the main focus of a retro can’t be for their benefit. Sure managers want to learn what the team is doing or pushing them to improve, but good retros are focused on bringing value to the team itself. This is why, in our experience, the best retros come from putting the participants themselves in charge.
The idea here is to avoid the kind of micromanagement that not only grinds retros to a halt but tends to create negative and counterproductive team dynamics. Working for a micromanager decreases morale and productivity in most team members, so it’s important to avoid this.
Team managers should use retros as an opportunity to lead by example. They’re a chance to step back and become someone who supports instead of controls the team. In practice, this means letting participants choose what they discuss at each retro, empowering them to track their progress on action items, and enabling all of them to comfortably participate. Of course getting that kind of participation requires some work.
Getting everyone to actually participate in a retro can feel impossible at times. Louder team members can easily dominate meetings, so only their opinions ever get heard. This is why allowing retro participants to submit topics anonymously adds so much to the meeting.
From a managerial perspective, instead of seeing the same team dynamics you always see (who’s loud and opinionated and who never says a word) you can get a real sense of what’s going on in your team.
After all, if you’re relying solely on the topics and dynamics your team produces in open face-to-face discussions, you’re just not getting reliable data about what’s going on. Combining open discussions with anonymous topic suggestions and feedback is a better way to get a holistic view of your team. Another way to take this to the next level is by adding dedicated one-on-one meetings with team members to hear from them individually about what’s working and what isn’t.
If you’re holding retros but not using them to gather data, you’re missing out on a key benefit. These meetings are a chance to gather sentiment data to understand morale, identify conflicts, bottlenecks, and emerging ideas.
The real question though is what data to collect. Unfortunately, too often managers end up collecting the wrong metrics and, even worse, turning them into a weapon against the teams they’re managing.
In other cases, managers will take a single metric and turn it into the end-all-be-all way to measure team performance. But relying too much on one metric inevitably skews behavior, creating a world of negative unintended side effects. For example, define performance as producing as much of a thing as possible and the quality of each one will likely decrease as a result.
So instead of not measuring at all or using a single metric, the best approach is to use retros to gather a variety of metrics at once. To take one example, here at ScatterSpoke, we’re huge fans of using DORA metrics for tracking engineer productivity. The way these 4 metrics interact ensures engineers aren’t incentivized to do things that are good for “productivity” while actually being bad for their ultimate stakeholders.
So whatever kind of team you’re managing, search for a set of interrelated metrics to track and pay close attention to the kinds of incentives they’re creating for your team members.
Ultimately, you can do every other thing on this list perfectly and run outstanding retros which generate long lists of great ideas for improving how your team operates.
If those ideas aren’t followed up on, they’re worse than useless. That’s because teams which see themselves generate great ideas that consistently get abandoned are going to gradually become demoralized and wonder what the point of generating these ideas even was. We’ve all seen this happen in regular meetings, where time and effort gets thrown into generating ideas and proposals which everyone immediately forgets about once they leave the room.
The question then is how to best ensure you actually follow up on those ideas. Ideally, this function should be built into your retrospective tool, tracking progress at each retro so you can clearly see what’s blocked, what’s translating into real team improvement, and what’s just not working.
In the end, the answer to the question of how to improve sprint retrospectives is to use a better tool. This is because a tool like ScatterSpoke enables you to easily do all the other things on this list.
However, considering how much retros fit in with all the other work you’re doing, integration with other tools is just as important as the actual retro tool you use. For example, ensuring your action items get followed up on is far easier when you can easily push them to your Trello or Jira board.
Interested in getting all of the benefits of better retros at the organizational level? ScatterSpoke allows you to scale your retros, linking data across multiple teams for a transformative top-down view of what’s really going on. Contact us if you’d like to learn more or have specific questions. Or you can go ahead and request a demo.
Most engineering managers instinctively think of productivity as complex processes like workflows, solutions, and deliverables expressed in purely quantitative terms. The result is a dynamic that’s usually counterproductive. But there is another way.
Often that dynamic plays out in metrics and misguided attempts at fostering engineer productivity, usually by measuring the wrong things and offering the wrong incentives. Fortunately, there are better ways to use metrics to genuinely empower engineers to accomplish more.