Start Stop Continue Retrospective

Actionable retrospective ideas that you can launch today.

If you are part of an Agile team on the path to improving efficiency and creating a stimulating working environment, there are best practices in this article that will be of interest to you. 

Even if you’re at the start of your Agile journey, you’re likely aware of the importance of Agile ceremonies, and especially retrospective meetings. 

Among the many retro formats out there (and there really are many), the Start Stop Continue retrospective format is one of the most popular. When teams are first introduced to retrospectives, it’s the Start Stop Continue retrospective format that represents the most accessible entry point into integrating this vital meeting into your routine.

What Is the Start Stop Continue Retrospective?

The Stop Start Continue retrospective is a technique for reflection that improves team unity and allows you to easily check in with your team members as well as consider the process through which projects are getting completed. The exercise has three main goals that aim at identifying:

  • What deterred us in the last sprint? Let’s stop doing it.
  • What are we missing in the process? Let’s discuss ways we can start weaving in new, beneficial practices.
  • What helped us make progress in the last sprint? Let’s continue doing this and being more consistent about it.

You don’t need much time and effort for preparation, as all the materials you require in order to run a Start Stop Continue retro are none other than the usual suspects:

  • Colorful sticky notes
  • Sharpies or other markers
  • A meeting space
  • A whiteboard or other vertical surface

How to Run Your Start Stop Continue Retrospective

Step 1: Finding a Focus 

When you have picked the best time for everyone and gathered your materials, start the meeting by choosing a topic for the retrospective. There are no guidelines for the topic, you can start anywhere – teamwork relationships, project phases, or other points of friction that are important for the team to resolve at the time. For example, you can start with topics like: 

  • Sprint evaluation -- great if it was a particularly turbulent sprint
  • Planning -- how can we plan ahead and more iteratively? Are our plans customer-focused?
  • Strategy -- the big question here is: how do we tackle the next chunk of the marketing roadmap?
  • Team collaboration -- helpful if there is friction between team members
  • Project evaluation -- good alternative to the project post mortem, perfect for when a project has just wrapped

Because of the basic format, you can easily host a Start Stop Continue retrospective with a small team of two or three people as well as wrangle a larger group of ten or more members.

Step 2: Generating Ideas 

With a retro topic to help focus their efforts, team members begin by documenting team process practices they believe are related to this topic, either positively or negatively. 

Give everyone a separate color of sticky notes so that it’s clear who has written what. Ask your  team to write each of their contributions on a separate post-it to make facilitation easier. The goal of generating ideas individually is to begin the retrospective with a moment of self-reflection before launching into team discussions. Individuals aim to answer the following prompts:

  • What process practices do we already practice related to this topic?
  • What process practices related to this topic should we practice?
  • What could be other good ideas about this topic?

Keeping descriptions short and to the point, for example not more than 5-6 words on a post-it, means everyone can read the statements at a glance when they are added to the visual board. When everyone has written their notes, place them all on the board.

Step 3: Populating the Board

The board/table that you use should have three columns called Start, Stop, and Continue. This visualization will help you instantly understand how the team perceives most of the practices that are currently in place. 

Team members sort their post-it in the Start column if it describes a process practice they believe the team should start doing (that was not being done or not being done enough now). Typical examples of contributions to the Start column might include “automate reporting tools to save time” or “define our priorities better to improve productivity”.

In the Stop column go the sticky notes with practices that should be stopped because they describe a practice that is not productive or effective enough for the team. These might be “don’t spend more than 30 minutes on a daily standup that starts drifting away in long discussions”, or “remove non-essential meeting participants to free more time in their calendars”.

The Continue column should contain sticky notes with tasks that should be continued or enhanced because they are working well. Here the team can categorize practices like “record knowledge transfer sessions so that everyone has access to them at all times”, and “rotate the order of people presenting during daily standups to keep everyone engaged”.

Team members place their sticky notes in the corresponding column and if each member started out with their own color it makes it very easy to see who placed what where. Using separate colors for team members helps you see who has the most ideas and which are the sections on the board that most people have contributed ideas to. 

However, if your team is shy, you can use one color for all sticky notes to anonymize the contributions. Anonymity can improve the quality of the feedback given.

Step 4: Discuss Potential Action Items 

Before you start the team discussion to flesh out the existing ideas, group the duplicate and similar items into clusters. This will help you identify the overall number of items and their diversity. Also, you will see which ideas are most common among the team. 

The discussion is the most important part of the Start Stop Continue retrospective format. It is an opportunity to go through the contents of each column and determine their impact on the team as well as how to make them actionable. 

If team members disagree or need greater clarity on some of the items, now is the time to debate! Disagreeing in the forum of the retrospective meeting means you’ve discovered the heart of the matter and you have the right tool to resolve it. 

Step 5: Dot-voting to Prioritize 

Use the simple dot-voting method to determine which ideas should enter the team’s to-do list until the next retrospective. 

Teams often rely on dot voting to create focus around the most valuable or urgent ideas instead of bringing every idea for process improvement into their next sprint. 

To vote, every team member is allotted a certain amount of dots in order to express their preference (for example 5 dots each). 

Team members gather in front of the whiteboard and vote on the process improvements they would like to see happen. They can distribute them between multiple items or place all 5 dots on 1 action point, if they’re passionate about it. 

When everybody has placed their dots, the facilitator orders the action points according to the number of dots they received.

Step 6: Taking Action

To ensure the team takes action over the course of the next sprint, individuals volunteer to take responsibility for process improvements that were voted up during the prioritization step. 

By assigning owners to the process improvement actions, the team creates accountability around these items and treats them as tasks that require team resources to achieve.  

These action items are added into the sprint backlog and factored into the team’s capacity planning.

Throughout the sprint, changes to processes that were suggested during the retrospective will flow through the board from To Do to Completed as the team member responsible works on making them a reality inside the team.

What Are the Benefits for Your Team?

Apart from being an excellent starting point for your team and retrospective meetings, there are many short and long term benefits to integrating the Start Stop Continue retro format into your next opportunity for reflection. By practicing the Start Stop Continue format, you will: 

  • Help your team become more productive by streamlining your process and removing counterproductive practices
  • Create a deeper bond between team members through honest discussion and the clearing away of frustration related to friction between team members 
  • Encourage deeper collaboration by revealing how everyone feels about the current processes and working as a team to improve them 

Boost your team spirit and agility with the Start Stop Continue retrospective format and discover new frontiers to your collaboration capabilities as a team. 

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