8 Steps to Facilitating a Captivating Retrospective

8 Steps to Facilitating a Captivating Retrospective

The retrospective has always been the red-headed stepchild of the Agile world. It is often treated as an afterthought—or even skipped over entirely for many teams—and this is a tragedy because the retrospective can be one of your most powerful tools for building a high-functioning team.

Retrospectives are beneficial because they make sure the team is aligned on overall vision and goals, keeps all the team members informed, and raises awareness of what a good or bad sprint should be. Today we are going to go over how to facilitate a captivating retro, helping you to keep people engaged and giving you honest answers to any questions you may have.

1. Have an Icebreaker

An often-overlooked part of a meeting, the ice breaker is critical to getting people engaged. The objective of an icebreaker is to get everyone to talk at least once. If somebody speaks once in a meeting, they are significantly more likely to speak again.

Getting the ice broken early will get you the participation you need to run a successful retrospective. On my team, we have one person go up to the board and draw a picture. As the person draws the picture, the rest of the team heckles as much as they can. It gets the team laughing and bonding over a shared experience. Of course, everyone knows it is all in good humor, so make sure you have a close team before trying that one.

Other examples of easy icebreakers include:

  • What are you doing this weekend?/What did you do last weekend?
  • What is your favorite…. ? (color, animal, vacation spot, etc.—be sure to change it up)
  • What did you think about…. ? (insert movie, tv show, school play, local street performer)
  • Play a short game (Pictionary, taboo, charades)

The idea here is to start people talking and get them in a lighthearted mood. The more comfortable they are at the start, the more honest feedback you are going to get during the retro.

2. Go In With a Focus

Not all retrospectives are created equal. You can and should tailor the meeting based on an underlying motive. Do you have a new team or are trying to change a workflow? Focus on process. Are members of your team starting to stray from guidelines or going off on their own? Focus on team goals and vision. Is the team consistently missing the sprint goal? Focus on what you can do to adjust commitments or improve performance.

Going in with a focus will help naturally guide the flow of the meeting. Facilitating a focused retrospective will keep the participants thinking about relevant details and ultimately will bring out the answers and opinions you are looking for. By focusing on process, goals, and vision, or adjusting commitments, you will be able to choose the appropriate talking points in your theme.

3. Have a Theme

Anyone can have a single successful retrospective. But staying productive sprint after sprint after sprint takes skill. Building a positive stigma around the retrospective will get your team members excited about participating and contributing time and time again. One of the best ways to keep the retro fun and fresh is to vary the theme. The theme refers to the categories your team will be speaking to. Using our examples on different focus areas, we can see some applicable themes:

Focus on process changes

  • Start: Different things to start in the next sprint to make things easier
  • Stop: What did not work this sprint that the team should stop going forward
  • Continue: What went well that the team should continue doing

Focus on goals and vision

  • Start by writing the overall team goals on the board
  • Enablers: What makes it easy for the team to achieve its goals
  • Disablers: What inhibits the team on a day to day basis from achieving their goals
  • Blockers: What are the temporary distractions that have been causing problems lately
  • Ideas: What are some new things the team can try in order to achieve their goals more easily

Focus on adjusting commitments and improving performance

  • Mad: What were avoidable things that inhibited the sprint
  • Sad: What were unavoidable things that inhibited the sprint
  • Glad: What things helped progress the team toward hitting the sprint goal

The theme allows you to get as creative as you like. The points above are just guidelines. When I run a retrospective, I disguise the points as elements in the drawing from the icebreaker.

For example, I recently ran a rodeo-themed retrospective focused on improving performance. I had someone draw a cowboy riding a bull, with clowns and barrels to one side, and airhorns and red flags on the other side. The cowboy riding the bull represented the team and the sprint, the clowns and barrels represented things that helped progress the team toward the sprint goal, and the airhorns and red flags represented things that inhibited the sprint. When members on the team had something to share, they would say “I have a red flag…” and we would write it on the board next to the image.

4. Get Specific

As a facilitator, one of your most important objectives is to get actionable items written up on the board. To do this, you must get specifics out of the participants. Saying “We were blocked on two stories” is not specific enough to make an action item from. In this example, you as the facilitator would follow up with questions like “Were we able to get them unblocked?”, “What caused them to be blocked?”, and “Do we know how to avoid this next time?” The answers to these questions all can be put on the board.

  • Were we able to get them unblocked? — “Yes, John fixed the issue and showed me what was wrong” — put that under glad
  • What caused them to be blocked ?— “A test environment went down because of a hotfix put in place” — put that under mad
  • Do we know how to avoid this next time? — “Yes, we were taught how to test these kinds of changes locally, so we don’t have to hotfix test environments” — put that under glad

So, you see how the vague “We were blocked on two stories” can be turned into two things to be happy about, and an actionable item to prevent something next time.

5. Fill In the Gaps

If you start to notice one column getting significantly more feedback than others, don’t be afraid to set the focus on something else. If nobody has any disablers, take a few minutes and work with them to get items in there. Sometimes people just need one example to get the ball rolling. If you as the facilitator can think of something that will fill in the gaps on the board, do it!

Drive the conversation to a balanced board as best you can. As we just learned from step four, you can ask leading questions to get information to fill out a column. Try to steer them to think about things in a different light. Rephrase what it means to be a disabler, an enabler, or to be mad about something.

Call on specific people that haven’t spoken in a while. There’s always one in every crowd that refuses to speak no matter what. Call on them. Make sure their voice is heard. Keep track in your mind of who has recently given some feedback to put on the board and who hasn’t. Maintain the balance by calling on the people who haven’t offered anything in a while.

In addition to keeping the board balanced, you want to keep the feedback from around the room balanced. Don’t let one person drive all the content. You are running the retrospective for a team, not for an individual.

6. Vote for Important Items

Once you have all your bullet points from the team up on the board, it’s time to move on to dot voting. Dot voting is where everybody on the team gets three votes to choose what they think are the most important items on the board. A person can vote for three different things, or they can vote for the same thing two or three times. You can conduct dot voting several different ways depending on how your team best operates.

For the retrospectives on my team, we go around the room and each person says where they want to put their votes. If you would rather have it more “secret ballot” style, the team can write their votes down on a piece of paper and the facilitator can tally them up that way. A third option is to have the team all come up to the board at once and put sticky notes next to the item they are voting for. This can be a fun way to re-energize the team for the last part of the meeting.

7. Create Action Items

When voting is complete, take the three items on the board with the most votes and turn them into action items. If you were specific enough when writing everything down, this step should be easy. You know what the team views as the most important things to work on or address, and it should already be in an actionable format.

After the action items are defined, assign it to someone on the team. This person is accountable for the action item to get completed. They do not necessarily have to carry out the associated task, but they are responsible for making sure it gets done. For example, if the board says “User stories do not have clear user acceptance criteria,” then the action item can be “Add specific UAC to user stories to prevent ambiguity.” The action item does not have to be assigned to the BA or whoever does your story writing, however. It can be assigned to anyone. If a QA is assigned this action item, they are responsible for making sure the BA adds specific UAC to the stories. So the QA can go into the stories, identify any that need more work, and send them back to the BA.

At the start of the next retrospective, the team should go over the action items from the previous sprint and discuss the outcomes. If an action item did not get completed, it can carry over to the next sprint in addition to your three new ones.

8. Document Everything

Documenting everything is a big part of the retrospective. It allows you to see trends over time about troubles the team is going through, or things the team thinks they do particularly well. If you are trying to define a new process, it’s a great tool to go back and see what you have already tried and what the team thought about it. It is also a great way to track action items throughout the sprint. Put your documentation out in the cloud or on a web page where the whole team can access it.

Have a scribe document the retrospective as it is being conducted. That way if the facilitator misses writing something on the board, it can be documented electronically and not lost in translation. Plus, if you do the drawings like my team does, it’s fun to go back and look at the wonderful artwork.


The retrospective is a tricky meeting to learn, but an easy one to master. Once you find your team’s groove, it will be easy to get the information out of them you are looking for. Participation is key to success with a retro, so make sure everyone is comfortable and willing to participate. Start off with a fun exercise or a joke to get the team laughing and ready to talk. Extract every ounce of detail when someone offers a contribution, and make them be as specific as possible. Don’t be afraid of pauses—sometimes silence will give people an opportunity to think of something new. Give the team a chance to vote and express their concerns for how the team is operating. Hold people accountable for action items. Write down everything, the sole purpose of this meeting is information gathering, so every piece counts.

I hope you try some of the techniques above in your next retrospective. When done right, a retro can be a fun exercise the team looks forward to at the end of every sprint. Let me know what you think. Have you tried any of the steps above? What does your team do particularly well?

Allen Helton

About Allen

Allen is an AWS Serverless Hero passionate about educating others about the cloud, serverless, and APIs. He is the host of the Ready, Set, Cloud podcast and creator of this website. More about Allen.

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