Agile Retrospectives Time Management

Enrico Teotti Focus On Nov 17, 2020

There is a general misconception that an Agile Retrospective has to be 1-hour long and that it has to be once per iteration. I think these are factors for a shortchanged Agile Retrospective.

Some people believe that the iteration retrospective format is standard and should not change. In my experience, this leads to familiar thinking, business-as-usual discussions and what seems more like a status meeting rather than an Agile Retrospective.

In this post, I describe how I manage time in my Agile Retrospectives while following steps to reflect and adjust on how to work more effectively.

Time management during an Agile Retrospective

Are your retrospectives going overtime today? Why is that happening? How do you communicate to the group that time is running out?

I think it goes without saying that you can’t go overtime and ignore people’s schedules and commitments. Even if you think it’s for the greater good, you must check with them before just extending the session.

When starting late--let’s say we were scheduled to start at 3pm and we have all the people at 3.10--after welcome and introductions I would ask:

Given we started 10 minutes late, do we all have a hard stop at 4? Is it ok ending at 4.10?

What if just one person can’t? Is that person part of the team and important to the conversation? I’d argue that if that person isn’t getting something out of the retrospective or contributing to it, then that person should not be there in the first place.

How is time spent during your Agile Retrospective?

How much time did you spend in your retrospective today? What happened during that time? What challenges did you see in managing time? What are some highlights of your time management experience?

The most common facilitative technique I see in Retrospectives is open conversation. It’s a technique where people talk when they feel like it. This can work for a small amount of time and in teams that jelly well but in my experience I’ve seen more often that some people in the team like to talk a lot more than others and they tend to overtake the stage.

Sometimes multiple people like to talk a lot (often to each other, in a 1:1 fashion) and forget that an Agile Retrospective is a moment for the whole team.

It can be difficult--but necessary--to pause the person(s) while both acknowledging that point of view.

Most teams might arrive pretty early to agree on time-boxing how long one can monologue for. That’s a first step that can backfire if the time-boxed monologue sounds like a rambling to the rest of the group and we move on to something else.

It’s important to not ignore contributions. It’s important to acknowledge them and summarize their point (perhaps in writing).

It’s also important to balance it with more (perhaps diverse) points of views from the team (or even from the same individual).

Open conversations are good but knowing when to switch to other facilitation formats is important. Go to silent activities, breakouts, fishbowls. If you’d like to find more about those facilitative techniques, I recommend reading Sam Kaner’s book (references below).

By the way, with whose authority are you pausing that person? Or switching facilitation technique? What’s your mandate? Make sure team dynamics are clear before the Agile Retrospective.

Do you change facilitative techniques based on your group needs during your retrospective? What’s your mandate? What does the team say about time spent in the Agile Retrospective?

We need more time

Some groups in some contexts just need more time. Usually I’ve seen this in environments where groups do not have any dialogue during their iteration and the Agile Retrospective is the only time they can have one. The action item can be to extend the next Agile Retrospective and perhaps add check-ins during the iteration.

Having said that, the group must always be guided through data gathering, insight generation and finally a definition of a wise action as a next step. If you skip one of those steps additional time will go to waste.

When the team is not a team

Other times people in the Agile Retrospective aren’t a team (meaning they don’t work on the same stuff) so their data and their insights are all over the place. Trying to find convergence here is hard and it can help to start the Agile Retrospective by focusing on a theme.

So far we reflected on time management during an Agile Retrospective but it actually starts when you’re preparing it.

Time management when preparing an Agile Retrospective

Assembling a string of activities that suits your group and context helps thinking about how much time you want the group on each step. You can read a short article I wrote about What happens before an agile retrospective. Once you know your design breakdown, check with the team’s schedule.

How much time did you spend planning your retrospective today? Did that help with time management? Could you influence the team schedule to create a space with enough time for them to reflect and create wise actions?

Tweak your time breakdown if you need

If you have prepared an Agile Retrospective design (a plan), how much do you stick with it?

Sometimes even when you’ve planned everything properly, the group needs to spend more time in one step based on the context and the situation. This is something that can emerge during the Agile Retrospective, when time is running out I don’t force the plan on the group but I gently remind them about it:

  • “I’d love to continue this discussion, we have x minutes left, do we think we can get to a good next step by then?”. This is what I usually do for topics where the group is misaligned.
  • “Given we have x minutes left, what’s the first step we can take to make this better?”. I use this prompt for topics where there’s more alignment within the group.

I shift my plan to meet the group and honor an Agile Retrospective purpose.

In some cases some groups need a nudge rather than a reminder. Ultimately in an Agile Retrospective we go through an adaptive action cycle to look at what we see and how we feel about it, we reflect on it (this is key) so we can decide what to do.

We can fit this Adaptive Action cycle in as little as 5 minutes and as long as we need. This is important because we can run shorter Agile Retrospectives throughout the week if the group needs it. You might not even call them Retrospectives, find your own name for it!

What happens when you remind the group about time? What happens when you tweak your plan during your Agile Retrospective? How is that tweaking helping or hindering the session’s time management?

Reference time breakdown

Retrospective Facilitation is more like an art than a science. The following is to give a reference not a recipe or best practice of how I break down time in the 5 steps Agile Retrospective framework.

As a reference, for a team of 5/6 looking at a 1 or 2 weeks timespan, you can look at the following break up of the 5 steps for 1h 15m (for each session):

  1. 10 minutes - Set the stage
  2. 10 minutes (5 silent + 5 for questions) - Gather data
  3. 15 minutes - Generate Insights
  4. 15 minutes - Decide what to do
  5. 10 minutes - Close out

You might have noticed a total of 60 minutes because I leave some 15 minutes for padding between activities. I noticed that a 1-hour Retrospective can feel rushed so I rather book extra time and give it back if we end early.

If you always end early because your team says: “all is going well and we don’t need to talk about anything”, read this blog post about how I tackle that.


Start with the hours-ish and get feedback (perhaps anonymously) at the end to let emerge if time was too little or too much. Adjust it based on the context.

I am gonna repeat myself but the group must always be guided through the “what, so what, now what” cycle to have some wise action as a next step at the end of the Agile Retrospective or additional time will be wasted (and they’ll know it).

Do not apply rules like “Retrospective has to be 1 hour” or misconceptions like “people lose focus after that”. Of course you need to plan breaks and interactions, physical movement (yes, even when online) to positively influence people’s engagement.

What have you read from this post that made you shake your head in disagreement? What made you nod in approval? What challenges do you face with your Agile Retrospective time management? Let us know!

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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