What happens when you skip steps in your Agile Retrospective

Enrico Teotti Focus On Oct 09, 2020

And how these Miro and Google Slide template can help you

You might have heard that an Agile Retrospective has five steps, that's how they were intended in the 2007 seminal book “Agile Retrospectives: Making good teams great” by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen (link below).

In my experience, I see the majority of teams using one activity--ie. three columns or sailboat--and calling that a Retrospective.

In this post, we briefly look at the 5 steps and answer what happens when you skip them and what they enable. In the template you’ll see pointers to what activity we provided in the templates, open the templates and watch the videos for more explanation on the activities we picked (links below).

What happens when you don't follow the 5 steps?

Instead of rewriting Esther's and Diana's words, I've used excerpt from the books (with their permission).

Setting the stage

"Setting the stage helps people focus on the work at hand. It reiterates the goal for the time the team has together in the retrospective. And, it contributes to creating an atmosphere where people feel comfortable discussing issues."
- Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great

When you skip setting the stage:

  • It can be hard to assess the psychological safety and energy level in the group
  • You end up assuming the group knows the purpose of the session when perhaps there is a theme you want to explore.

Setting the stage allows us to:

  • Clarify if there is a theme (agreed with the team before the session). In the provided templates you can do that in a frame with a dedicated visual called Outcome Agenda Roles and Rules (OARRs)
  • Outline team norms for this session. In the template you can do that in the OARRs frame
  • Bring energy into the group to be present for the work to come
  • Reading “Kerth’s prime directive”--or simply pointing at it for more robust teams--allows the group to walk in the session focusing on context rather than blame. The directive is in the set the stage frame. Find out more about the directive in the link section below.
  • Understand the energy level in the room: in the template you can do a voting on the ESVP (Explorer, Shopper, Vacationer, Prisoner). If everybody is a prisoner, would it be beneficial to focus on why that is rather than going ahead with your plan?

Gathering data

"Gathering data creates a shared picture of what happened. Without a common picture, individuals tend to verify their own opinions and beliefs. Gathering data expands everyone’s perspective."
- Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great

When you skip gather data:

  • You most likely won’t get a shared picture of what happened, you assume everybody is on the same page.

Gathering data allows us to:

  • Pause, reflect and remember. I usually give 5 minutes of silent generation.
  • The FRIM activity in the template introduces axis with Frequency and Impact for the events we share.

Generate insights

"It’s easy for people to jump to solutions once problems emerge. First solutions may be correct, but often they’re not. The work of this phase is to consider additional possibilities, look at causes and effects, and think about them analytically. It’s also a time for the team to think together. These insights help the team see how to work more effectively—which is the ultimate goal of any retrospective."
- Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great

When you skip generating insights:

  • This is the most common mistake I’ve seen in the hundreds of retrospectives I’ve been invited to. Skipping insights and jumping from data to conclusions leads to premature convergence on anything but business as usual topics.
  • The ideas for action are coming from familiar thinking and linear cause-effect problem solving

Generate insights allows us to:

  • Think outside of the box about for example: how the next iteration can be the best one yet?
  • Foster divergent thinking on a theme, pattern, shift that the team decided before the retrospective or that emerged during
  • Looking for overarching patterns and shifts influencing our system
  • The ideas generated in this divergent phase will be used in the next step.

Decide what to do

"At this point, the team has a list of potential experiments and improvements. Now is the time to pick the top items (usually no more than one or two for an iteration) and plan what to do."
- Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great

When you skip deciding what to do:

  • The group walks away with the feeling that nothing was done
  • If you rush through it, you will generate action items that are not sustainable agreements and these are likely to be left incomplete or will likely need to be micromanaged to completion.

Deciding what to do allows us to:

  • Browse the idea emerged during the insights generation phase and decide which ones we want to tackle in the next iteration.
  • This is a time to ask ourselves: are our action items SMART (Specific Measurable Achievable Relevant Timebound) and FINE (Fast feedback, Inexpensive, No permission needed, Easy)? Make them actionable!
  • If we’re running out of time, it’s critical to ask the group if we think we have enough time to come up with a detailed experiment that has support or if it’s better to schedule a separate session with a clear purpose and outcome to determine what that action is.
  • In the templates I have the circles and soups to visualize and focus on what the team can control

Closing out

"All good things come to an end, even retrospectives. End the retrospective decisively: don’t let people (and their energy) dribble away. Decide how to document the experience and plan for follow-up."
- Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great

When you skip closing out:

  • At the very least, you miss feedback on how the retrospective went. You’ll never improve if you don’t get feedback.
  • You can’t do a final check on the clarity of the action items.

Closing out allows us to:

  • Get feedback on the retrospective. I’ve placed in the templates a ROTIPlusDelta to determine how the retrospective went and collect one change that would have increased your return on time invested and one thing you liked about the session.
  • This is a step where you add other activities like appreciations to end on a high note.

The templates and next steps

We’re sharing Google Slides and Miro templates that follow the 5 steps to enable you to have a powerful Agile Retrospective. Here are the links:

Adjust them as you see fit for your context. The facilitation of a retrospective is very important, if you’d like you can:


Do you follow the 5 steps in your retrospectives? What's good about them? What's getting in the way? What's something I said that made you shake your head in disapproval? What's something I wrote that made you nod in agreement?
Let us know on Twitter!

Further Readings

Learn with Enrico Teotti

Enrico is the author of Online Facilitation Praxis Camp.

Check out the full list of our upcoming training courses: Avanscoperta Workshops.

Enrico Teotti

Enrico is an agile coach and (visual) facilitator with a background in product management and software development starting in 2001.

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