Better Meetings

How to run a sprint retrospective [with template]

How to run a sprint retrospective blog post featured image

Congrats! Your product team has completed another successful sprint. Now you’re on to the last step: the sprint retrospective. 

Sprint retrospectives are a type of product meeting that gives everyone a chance to reflect on what went right and what went wrong during the sprint. It’s also where everyone determines how to make the next sprint better. 

Not all sprint retrospectives are the same. There are effective ones that actually lead to better sprints, then there are ineffective ones that lack engagement, productive accountability, and maybe even basic respect. 

This guide will help you run your sprint retrospectives like a pro, so they fulfill their purpose in making your next sprint better than the last. 

Table of contents

  • What is a sprint retrospective?

  • Sprint retrospective vs. sprint review

  • Why sprint retrospective meetings are important

  • How long should agile sprint retrospectives be?

  • Who attends sprint retrospective meetings?

  • Who facilitates sprint retrospective meetings?

  • A 5-step template to run an effective sprint retrospective

  • 4 tips for better sprint retrospectives

What is a sprint retrospective?

A sprint retrospective (also known as an “agile retrospective” or “scrum retrospective”) is a type of recurring meeting in agile project management that happens at the end of a time-boxed period of work called a  sprint.

Sprint retrospectives are an opportunity for agile teams to discuss their last sprint  and create plans to improve the next one. 

Any team can conduct retrospective meetings, but the sprint retrospective we’re talking about here is part of the scrum agile project management methodology. There are four types of scrum ceremonies

  1. Sprint planning

  2. Daily stand-up

  3. Sprint review

  4. Sprint retrospective 

Sprint retrospective vs. sprint review

The difference between a sprint retrospective and a sprint review is that the sprint review demos the work completed during the sprint, whereas the sprint retrospective identifies improvements for future sprints. 

A sprint review showcases work for the purpose of feedback. The meeting is usually an informal team meeting for internal team members, but external stakeholders might also be present. 

The sprint retrospective, on the other hand, is focused less on the product and more on the workflows and teamwork required during the sprint. 

Why sprint retrospective meetings are important

The sprint retrospective, or scrum retrospective, is a chance for the entire team to share and receive useful feedback that will make them more productive and efficient for future sprints. 

Done right, sprint retrospective meetings should:

  • Allow teams to document wins and areas of improvement

  • Produce a list of next steps and assign ownership of action items

  • Reveal small changes that can lead to larger improvements down the road

  • Identify those processes that aren’t broken, so don’t need fixing 

  • Make it easier for the team to identify potential weaknesses in workflow before the next sprint

The sprint retrospective is crucial for teams to measure how well their tools and processes are serving them during a sprint — so don’t skip it.

How long should agile sprint retrospectives be?

While every team may require more or less time, depending on the team and the sprint, every sprint retrospective meeting should be clearly time-boxed. 

A rule of thumb to remember is that the maximum length of a sprint retro is three hours for a month-long sprint. If you’re reflecting on a one-week sprint, the meeting should last no more than 45 minutes. 

Many factors can shorten or lengthen the duration of a sprint retrospective, like:

  • The size of your team

  • The number of people you’re inviting to the sprint retrospective meeting 

  • The method you’re using to gather team feedback (sailboat, affinity mapping, the four Ls, etc.)

  • The average tenure of your team members

Who attends sprint retrospective meetings?

Given that the purpose of the sprint retrospective meeting is to improve future sprints for all team members, you’ll want to invite a diverse set of voices. 

People who attend sprint retrospective meetings are the product owner, scrum master, and development team members. But depending on your internal and external project stakeholders, you may also want to invite designers, UX writers, or other members of the leadership team.

Who facilitates sprint retrospective meetings?

The scrum master is usually the meeting facilitator for a sprint retrospective. During the meeting, the facilitator’s role is similar to that of a moderator in a debate. They remain neutral while setting the tone of the conversation and keeping participants on track. Scrum masters are mindful of time limits for each part of the retrospective process. 

Now that you know the basics of what makes a good sprint retrospective meeting, keep reading to get a template that will help you run these meetings with ease.

A 5-step template to run an effective sprint retrospective

A screenshot of the sprint retro meeting agenda template

Grab our free template!

Here’s how to best use the sprint retrospective template, sourced from agile coach Maria Chec

Step #1: Prepare for the meeting with an agenda.

Before the meeting starts, it helps to set the stage. A few days before the meeting, make sure you have all the tools you’ll need to review the notes from the last sprint retrospective.

Tip: Use Vowel to send a meeting agenda with your invite. When meeting attendees can see the agenda in one place, they’ll be more likely to read it ahead of time and prepare for the meeting.  

Share meeting agendas in Vowel

Step #2: Gather and share relevant data

Begin your sprint retrospective meeting with hard data: changes to the team, milestones, and relevant metrics. With this information, create a timeline of the sprint then ask the team to comment on the events. 

💡Tip: Every meeting has its introverts and extroverts. To make sure everyone has the chance to speak, consider going around the room and asking everyone to provide their perspective. You may find that people who tend to speak less add a new point of view that previous sprint retrospectives have been missing. 

Step #3: Generate insights

This is the “main event” of your sprint retrospective meeting. It’s time for the team to discuss wins and losses. There are a lot of different ways to get your team to share feedback. 

Some of the most commonly used are:

  • ⛵Sailboat method: The team “attaches” feedback to the relevant part of the sailboat: wind, an anchor, an iceberg, and an island. The wind represents the people, items, and processes that moved the team forward during the sprint. The anchor is what weighed down the team. The iceberg stands for unexpected events. The island represents the goals. 

  • 🗺️ Affinity mapping: Meeting attendees write feedback on sticky notes. Feedback that’s similar is grouped together so the team can better visualize themes, rather than fixating on feedback that doesn’t matter as much. 

  • 🇱The four Ls: Ask your team members what they liked, lacked, learned, and longed for during the sprint. 

  • 🚦Start, stop, continue: Let the team discuss what you should start doing, stop doing, and continue doing.

Step #4: Decide on the next steps

At this point, you’ll notice a pattern in the feedback you received from team members. Group the feedback by topics, and put suggestions to a vote. Then plan actions and experiments to implement during the next sprint. 

This part of the meeting is usually an open discussion, but try to keep attendees focused on actionable tasks. When someone shares their ideas, ask them to be specific so that the ideas can be easily turned into tasks.

Step #5: Gather feedback and assign action items

At the end of the meeting, gather all feedback and start assigning action items. If your retrospective happened as an in-person meeting, take a picture of the whiteboard then input the action items into your preferred project management tool. 

If you’ve just had a virtual meeting with your remote team through a tool like Vowel, you can add action items in the shared notes, so all relevant information from the meeting stays in one convenient place and helps keep your team accountable

A screenshot of a recorded meeting summary in Vowel

How to have better sprint retrospectives

Challenges in communication tend to show up any time you’re gathering a large group of people to provide feedback on the previous iteration of ... anything. Sprint retrospectives can become emotional, especially if you’re coming off a difficult sprint.  

As a meeting facilitator or scrum master, you’ll want to master the arts of communication, emotional intelligence, and mediation — all of these skills come in handy when you’re leading a sprint retrospective. 

Here are 4 of the most common challenges you may encounter and how to solve them:

A graphic that features 4 key challenges and tips to run better sprint retrospectives

Challenge #1: Lack of communication

If you’ve ever been to a meeting that’s long on blank stares and short on spirited discussion, you’re facing a lack of communication. For sprint retrospectives, it’s important that the whole team is engaged and participating. 

There are a lot of reasons why meetings fall flat. Your team may be shy as a whole, or members may not feel like their contribution matters. 

🎯 How to combat it: Gather feedback before the meeting

Excitement precipitates engagement, so one way to bust through this challenge is to do some work before the meeting begins. A lack of communication can also mean you’re overwhelming your team before they’re prepared to speak. 

Use a virtual whiteboard tool before the meeting to allow team members to add thoughts and feedback in the form of virtual sticky notes. This way you’ll already have things to discuss when the sprint retrospective starts.

Challenge #2: Lack of engagement

Sprints are recurring meetings, which can create routine. This is great, until people get bored and stop engaging the way they once did. 

🎯 How to combat it: Use icebreaker questions

To shake up your scrum team members and warm them up before the actual discussion, try using a round of icebreaker questions. Don’t ask the same questions every time, but don’t worry about coming up with your own – this list has more than 100 questions. 

Also consider switching your feedback style. For instance, if you’ve been using the sailboat method, consider using the four Ls next time. 

You don’t have to stop there – there are a lot of sprint retrospective games you can try, such as two truths and a lie and SMART action.

Challenge #3: Insufficient planning

Many agile teams and scrum masters don’t plan sufficiently for their retrospectives. If you don’t prepare, you’re setting up your meetings to fail.

🎯 How to combat it: Stay organized and track progress

When you’re holding recurring meetings, track progress and plan your future meetings accordingly. 

Vowel lets you group similar meetings in shared folders for easy reference, meaning all your meeting notes, recordings, transcripts, and action items are ready for you to share and others to review. That way, it’s easy to refer back to previous sprint retrospectives and keep track of what’s going on. 

On top of this, recurring meeting notes are grouped automatically to streamline conversations from sprint to sprint.

A screenshot of the meetings dashboard in Vowel

Challenge #4: Lack of meaningful feedback

When you’re discussing a previous sprint with honesty and authenticity — which effective sprint retro meetings require — someone’s feelings might get hurt, especially if they’re blamed for something that went wrong. 

Scrum masters are also masters at keeping emotions in check and all team members respectful to others. Hostility, negativity, and finger-pointing are not meaningful feedback. 

🎯 How to combat it: Make the sprint retrospective a safe space 

Scrum masters must remain unbiased and non-judgemental as facilitators of the meeting. You can do this by setting expectations clearly at the beginning of the meeting. When the meeting discussion begins, promote a positive conversation by setting an example.

Consider creating a working agreement that will outline how you want the group to work together.

Take your meetings to the next level with the right tool

Sprint retrospective meetings are crucial to the agile methodology of project management. They help untangle what you’re doing properly from the things you need to change. 

There are a lot of moving parts to running an effective sprint retrospective. A tool like Vowel can make the difference. Share agendas beforehand so everyone knows what to expect, and record meetings with real-time transcription so everyone can review what was said later on. 

Post-meeting view with transcript

When it’s time to assign action items, Vowel has you covered with its collaborative notes feature. You can try all this out right now —sign up for Vowel for free!