A 7-Step Agenda for Effective Retrospectives

Pragmatic Marketer Volume 12 Issue 1

1. Context

Participants need to understand the meeting’s focus. You can start with a pre-defined context or define it in real time with the participants.

Some sample contexts:

  • In 14 days, our artifact should reach the main production stage.
  • Feature XYZ exploded in production, bringing the servers down for two hours.
  • We worked together in the past year, and we will work together for another year to come.
  • This is a biweekly recurring scrum retrospective for the ABC team. We are on sprint 12 out of 30.

2. Prime Directive

In Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews, Norm Kerth introduces the prime directive, a statement intended to set the stage for the retrospective. It states: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available and the situation at hand.” The statement is invaluable for setting the meeting tone.


3. Energizer

The energizer, or icebreaker, is a good starter for any team meeting and is especially valuable for the early stages of team building. It’s designed to warm up the team and promote group interaction. We recommend activities that focus on sharing information, such as names and hobbies. It will help create a friendly environment and make people more comfortable about participating in the activities that follow.

4. Check-in

Check-in activities gauge the participants’ frame of mind and how they feel about the given context. It is a good next step, as it can help people put aside their concerns and focus on the meeting. Check-ins are usually short activities; think of them as quick bites to tickle everyone’s appetite for the main course while providing the moderator feedback about participant engagement.  One example: Ask each participant to describe his or her feeling—regarding the meeting context—in one word on a sticky note. Group the notes on an open canvas and then ask if anyone wants to share more about their selected word.

5. Main course

The main course is the core of a meeting that seeks to foster continuous improvement. This is where you gather data, check on the team’s morale, talk about the positive stuff, recognize people and seek improvements. These activities drive the team to reflect about the given context, reinforce a shared vision and generate insights. The main course is also the time for team members to feel heard. Each comment is acknowledged and written down so it is visible to the entire team.

Teams that have regular retrospectives as recurring meetings may want to vary main-course activities to see different angles and perspectives and generate new insights.

Choose the main course wisely, with the participants and purpose in mind. This is the main activity of your meeting; the information you gather and discuss will set the tone for continuous improvement.

6. Filtering

After the main course, you will have a lot of data in front of you. It’s important to have well-defined criteria to decide what will be discussed given the meeting’s limited time.

Define the filtering criteria with your team in advance. One example: Arrange notes by similarity and then discuss the identified clusters. Another possibility is to vote, and then focus on the most-voted topics. Whatever the approach, this will allow you to prioritize and keep your meeting on track.

7. Next steps

The meeting is almost over. The team had a great discussion and generated many insights. Perhaps the activities resulted in a few actionable items. This list of “next steps” is the last step in your meeting agenda. There are no formulas or specific activities for it. The whole group should talk openly about what’s next for the team and what you will do with the findings from your meeting.

These seven steps will help you create a solid retrospective structure that keeps you and your team focused, ontrack and continuously improving your activities.

Get more activity ideas for effective retrospectives at

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  • Paulo Caroli is an agile coach at Thoughtworks and frequent speaker and writer. He is co-author of Fun Retrospectives and wwwFunRetrospectives.com, offering ideas and activities for effective retrospectives. Find his latest writings and links to his latest books at www.caroli.org.

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