A Sprint Retrospective – The Ideal way to Start Agile

Is the Certified Scrum Master class I attended about 03 years back – Pete Deemer, the Guru who led Yahoo’s adoption of Scrum in multiple locations, said “Even if you did not do anything else but only Sprint Retrospective, you will see tremendous improvements in your process or way of working.” That is, even if you were not doing any of Sprint Planning, Sprint Backlogging, Product Backlogging, Sprint Reviewing or even Daily Stand Upping, you would be doing very well, by doing just one practice – Regular Sprint Retospecting. That is definitely a tall claim. And from my experience in the last 03 years, a true one too.

Let us look at the basics first. What is a Sprint Retrospective? Rather, what is a Retrospective? As per Wikipedia, Retrospective (from Latin retrospectare, “look back”) generally means to take a look back at events that already have taken place. For example, the term is used in medicine, describing a look back at a patient’s medical history or lifestyle. It is particularly useful to look at the medicine analogy here. Retrospective, in medicine, means looking back at medical history.  In Software Development, a retrospective means looking back at project history. This is typically, with a team and depending on the context it could include project managers, senior managers, directors, VP’s, whole team, testers, developers, business analysts in any combination. Extending the analogy with medicine further->typically, you will look at the medical history only if something has gone wrong or when the person has died [and you are doing an autopsy]. Unfortunately, most retrospectives in Software Development are also held, when something has gone wrong or at the end of a project. Agile Software Development uses retrospectives, like regular diagnosis [and not just when something bad happens]. After every iteration or sprint, the team gets together to discuss what was successful about the project or time period covered by that retrospective, what could be improved, and how to incorporate the successes and improvements in future iterations or projects.

Agile and Scrum are adaptive processes.Retrospectives and Daily Stand Ups are too practices which enable inspection as well as introspection – both necessary for adaptivity. Even if the team did not do a product backlog or sprint backlog or burndown chart and the team just did regular Sprint Retrospective, what will it unearth? One of the first things, they would probably identify is that we never knew where we are and what everyone is doing or where someone is stuck. They will come up with burndown charts [or some variant/ substitute] as well as more regular meetings [daily stand ups]. More features like sprint planning, sprint reviews, product backlogs etc. could come up. Some things like no change during the sprint could never come up. Hence, the team could come up with their own version of Agile – something that fits them the best.

The above paragraph assumes some critical things:

  • The team is empowered and capable to drive a retrospective as well as implement the action plans that are highlighted for the next iterations. Significant management as well as team buy-in for being process leaders rather than process followers is hence, required.
  • Given the nature of retrospectives, they can degrade from looking back to blame games quickly. Hence, good facilitation and guidance during a retrospective is required.

Some retrospectives can be more productive than others. We will take a look at more on retrospectives in the future articles. You might also be interested in the Start, Stop, Continue Technique of Agile Retrospectives.

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