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Making Sprint Retrospectives Work

Alison Gitelson, @AlisonGitelson,

Is the team getting better each sprint they complete? Is everyone pulling his or her weight? Do your retrospectives really bring about improvement?

Scrum is an Agile framework designed to deliver quality results through teamwork and self-organization. It includes a deliberate time of reflection to review how the team is doing and to find ways to do better. This takes place during the sprint retrospective [1].

The value of the sprint retrospective

Sprint retrospectives are an essential component of developing an agile scrum team. Just going through the motions of “doing Scrum” doesn’t achieve the results that are expected from an Agile environment. For a team to be high performing there needs to be a culture of collaboration, accountability, introspection, trust and honesty. From sprint to sprint, this culture needs to be developed and team members need to learn skills such as clear communication and assertiveness without aggression. The retro, guided by the ScrumMaster, is where much of this can be developed whilst fulfilling the valuable requirement of reflecting on the sprint.

The role of the ScrumMaster

I hear ScrumMasters say things like “I’ve done everything to make my team…”. The ScrumMaster isn’t there to make the team better. He or she is there to facilitate the team becoming better [2]. Facilitate means [3] “to make easier: to help bring about”. A well-facilitated sprint retro will make it easier for the team to reflect and to make decisions that can lead to improvements in the next sprint. As the team develops the role of facilitating the retro may be rotated amongst team members.

Key elements for a worthwhile sprint retro

A quick internet search will elicit many articles on how to do a retro [4]. Most of them will focus on the self-inspection / reflection process. Let’s take a look at a few of the key elements that are needed to make a retro worthwhile and some facilitation tools and skills to help that to happen.

In order to have effective reflection, to be honest about where things could be better and how they could become better there needs to be:

  • a safe space
  • contribution from everyone
  • trust and honesty.

Creating a safe space

A space becomes safe when there is an agreed way of being in that space, which everyone helps to enforce. What does that way of being need to be? I find the simplest way is to ask.

A fun way to do this is to set up two flipcharts on easels in the room where the retro is going to be held. On one write “What would make me feel safe?” and on the other “What would make me feel respected? As people arrive ask them to use the supplied markers to fill in their answers.

Example of the outcome of a "safe space" exercise performed at the beginning of a workshop

Start your retro with a welcome and an initial check-in and then let everyone present stand at the easels and review both charts. Ask for clarification of anything that isn’t understood and ask whether anyone has something to add that is missing. Then ask if as a group you would all be able to “be” in a manner that would allow for the expressed needs to be met. Perhaps use a fist of five poll [5] to get everyone’s level of agreement. Ask those showing 4’s, 3’s or lower what their reservations might be and explore until the group has found the needs that will make everyone feel safe and respected being sure that this still allows for honest reflection and interaction.

Suggest that these are stuck up on the wall as reminders. And ask if it would be okay to use the same ones at each subsequent retro until someone feels a review is necessary. (You may wish to use the original posters or to redraw them without duplicates etc)

Following a simple structure for each retro also helps to make the space safe. Structure is like a pattern, it helps us feel secure as we know what to expect. A sensible structure is one that guides people into the place where honest reflection can take place and it guides the group to actionable decisions. Within the structure there is plenty of room for variety.

Here is my suggested structure:



Suggested Action

Check in

Have awareness of everyone in the room

Welcome everyone. A quick check-in activity

Agree “way of being”

Create a safe space

Remind everyone of the previously determined “way of being” for this group. And ask for their commitment.


Become present in the room (appropriate exercises also help develop high performance team culture)

A short applied improv game (see “Developing Trust”)

Reflection/self inspection

Determine what works well & what needs improvement

Brain storming & dialoguing (see “Engaging … everyone”)


Clarity of action & self responsibility for the next sprint

A short applied improv game (see “How to play the Mirror Game”)


Bring about an inclusive closure to the session

A quick appreciation circle

Developing trust

Developing trust in each other is a process. It starts with everyone following the agreed “way of being”. Playing applied improvisation games is one way to help it develop.

Applied improvisation [6] games are wonderful tools for facilitators. In and of themselves they are simple, fun tools. As you play (practice) with them they become powerful. Give yourself permission to have fun.

I don’t like to jump straight into a trust game but rather to play something else first that is helpful to the team and loosens everyone up. Here is one that is very popular. I know it as “1-2-3”. This game can have any or all of these outcomes:

  • Helping participants to become more present.
  • Increasing interaction and raising energy levels.
  • Practice listening and awareness skills.
  • Practice sharing responsibility and leadership for something simple. Extending people’s agility at leading and following.
  • Working the left, right and bridge parts of our brains in order to bring our full brain to our work.
  • Changing how we do something in real-time, while still producing the service/product.
  • Keeping ourselves and our partner in a good state while engaging in change.

You can see that these outcomes help the team to engage in the retro whilst also building team skills for the next sprint.

How to play 1-2-3

Overview: A pairs activity with 4 rounds. Participants count to 3 alternating between each other.

Time: ~10 minutes (including debriefing)

Number of participants: 2– ∞ in pairs

Game flow:

Ask the group to divide in pairs and face each other. Let them count to 3, each person contributing the next number. Demonstrate using a volunteer. It should look and sound like this:
A: 1
B: 2
A: 3
B: 1
B: 3 etc.

Have the participants do this for a while. Stop them and tell them to replace 1 with a clap. So instead of saying “one” they have to clap their hands.

A: clap
B: 2
A: 3
B: clap
A: 2
B: 3

Again, allow participants a brief time to go through the new action. Then, stop the participants and have them replace the number 2 with a gentle jump (or finger clicks if less athletic). Let them do it for a while and then for the last round let them replace 3 with a shimmy dance move. The last round would then look and sound like this:

A: clap
B: jump
A: shimmy
B: clap
A: jump
B: shimmy


Invite people to notice how their partner is doing and how they themselves are doing ­ and to take good care of both while doing this exercise. Tell people, “If your partner is stressed, slow down. If your partner is bored, speed up.”

After the four rounds help the group debrief by asking a few questions. One game can be used to achieve many different outcomes. The debriefing questions maybe different every single time you play the same game depending on the learning or behavior changes you are wanting to enable on that occasion. In addition be prepared to adjust your questions depending on the answers which will often lead you into new areas of exploration. Be aware, experiment and be adaptive and you can become a master craftsman.

Some ideas for questions could be:

  • What was interesting about the exercise?
  • What did it feel like counting like this?
  • What made it difficult? Or easy?
  • What ways did you find to make it easier for your partner?
  • Was there anything else you noticed?

You can play this game again and again with variations to embed new behaviors into the body. There is a video of a group playing a more complex variation here [7] If you build up a toolbox of a few different games and alternate between them, asking different questions each time, it keeps it interesting.

Include one game or activity in each retro to continue to build the team member’s skills in communication and assertiveness and to build a team culture of collaboration, accountability, introspection, trust and honesty.

Here is a game that helps to build trust. I know it as “Trust Walk”. It can be used to:

  • Develop trust and connection
  • Practice sharing leadership
  • Practice communication
  • Become aware of the needs of a partner
  • Become adaptable.

How to play “Trust Walk”

Overview: Working in pairs one person is lead around through pressure on their back whilst keeping their eyes closed.

Time: 10 - 15 minutes (including debriefing)

Number of participants: 2 – ∞ in pairs

Game flow:

Ask the group to divide into pairs.

First demonstrate with one person. Person closes their eyes and faces forward. You stand behind them with your hand on their upper back, in the middle at shoulder blade height. Press gently but firmly and tell them that means they walk straightforward. When you stop pushing (but keep your hand on the back) that signals stop. Slide your hand to the left side over the shoulder blade that means to turn to the right and vice versa for the right side.

Now invite the pairs to decide who will lead first. The other person closes their eyes and starts following the directions from “the leader”. After a couple of minutes stop everyone and invite them to share with their partner what they need from each other in order to either receive or give the lead better. Then let them try again for a few minutes.

Swap over and repeat.

Tips: Remind that there is no talking, only laughter allowed

Debrief questions (ideas only, adjust to match your purpose):

How did it feel to be lead? To lead?

Did discussing needs with your partner change anything?

What was interesting to you about the exercise?

Participants will often say something about trust and or communication. Once that happens you can explore further with more questions.

Engaging, and eliciting honest input, from everyone in the room

When the space feels safe to everyone and there is mutual trust and respect it becomes easier to elicit honest feedback and more people are willing to contribute. However even in such an environment some people will struggle to contribute. This maybe because they are more introverted or because they need time to think before they speak.

To encourage quieter people to participate sometimes break into small groups from two to four people. After allowing some discussion time let each group give feedback to the larger group. A useful way to ensure everyone participates fully and equally is to play a “Mirror Game”. This can be used to

  • Help people find their voice
  • Clarify thoughts
  • Reinforce intentions – breathe life into change
  • Practice listening
  • Experience being heard

How to play the Mirror Game

Overview: A pairs activity. One partner states something. The other person repeats it back to them and they swap over to repeat.

The “material” being stated can vary considerably depending on where this is being used.

Time: 5 – 10 minutes (includes debriefing)

Number of participants: 2 – ∞

Game flow:

Ask the group to divide into pairs.

Explain how the round will work: Person A tells person B what their answer is to the question / what their new action will be (or whatever topic). Person B repeats (mirrors) the message back to Person A and asks if they got it right. If they didn’t Person A says the missed part again.

Tell them how much time you will be giving them (30s to 2mins depending on the topic) and to use all of their time. Signal the start for Person A and again when the time is up and it is Person B’s chance to repeat.

Swap over so that Person B begins and repeat as above.

Debrief questions (ideas only, adjust to match your purpose):

What was that like?

How did it feel to speak your action/change commitment out loud?

What was it like to have your words repeated back to you?

What was it like to listen to the other person?

Was there anything else you noticed?

During the course of the sprint remind the team to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t and perhaps to make notes so that they can come to the retro already prepped.

As I mentioned in the beginning a quick internet search will return lots of methods for doing the self-inspection / reflection part of the retro [8]. I suggest you try out as many as interest you and the team, and alternate between them. This caters for the variety of personalities in the room and prevents boredom.

Sometimes a team hasn’t yet developed the courage to mention real issues which are either holding back performance directly or indirectly through lowering trust and collaboration within the team: what we might call “the elephant in the room”.

Many teams have as part of their “agreed way of being” the need for people to be honest. If that is the case with your team remind them of their agreement.

Some carefully crafted questions can help to elicit more honest answers. Here are a few suggestions:

  • What are the three things we could talk about that are uncomfortable?
  • What is a question that you wish someone else would ask?
  • What bugs you so much that you think of it on your way home? Or it wakes you up in the middle of the night?
  • What is it that we’ve been too nervous/polite/scared to raise?
  • What’s the something that’s missing from this discussion/team?

When the self-inspection/reflection process is finished there must be clarity on at least one area that the team will work on improving during the next sprint. Ensure that clear agreement has been reached. Ask:

  • Did we identify a real problem area that is worthy of improving upon?
  • Did we identify some new approaches / solutions that we believe will have value?
  • Are we clear on exactly what will be different (no wishy-washy generalities)?
  • Does everyone understand his or her part?
  • Have concerns been addressed?

The “Mirror Game” can be used here to quickly share in pairs what each person is committing to do differently during the next sprint.

Making your sprint retrospective work

Improving the depth and honesty of retrospectives is an iterative process. If you use the ideas given above, have fun and make small adjustments to suit your team you will unlock the power of good retrospectives.


1. Sprint Retrospective:

2. The Scrum Master Role:

3. Merriam Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary:

4. The Four Questions of a Retrospective:

5. Fist of Five Voting:

6. Applied Improvisation Network:

7. 1-2-3 game:

8. Retrospective WWW Activity:

Agile and Scrum Articles

Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives

Dialogue Sheets for Retrospectives and Beyond

Refactoring Your Development Process with Retrospectives

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This article was originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of Methods & Tools

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