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Adding Value to Sprint Retrospectives with Data 

Whitney Diehl

By: Whitney Diehl
October 26, 2021

Sticky notes on glass panel

The final principle in the Agile manifesto urges developers to reflect on the past and use that knowledge to improve future outcomes. Since we learn from the past, holding sprint retrospectives is key to improving the results of future iterations. Conducted well, sprint retrospectives can boost outputs and propel teams forward; conducted poorly, they may breed toxicity. The careful use of objective data can help you steer your retro in the right direction — read on to find out how to leverage data from the beginning to the end of the retrospective process, so you can maximize the value of this key opportunity for continuous improvement. 

Preparing for Your Sprint Retrospective  

Practices vary by organization, but sprint retrospectives may be facilitated by anyone familiar with the sprint, from a developer on the team to a stakeholder from another department. If you find yourself in the facilitator role, it’s crucial that you build a strong foundation for your retro by performing an audit to collect data in advance. 

Look back on the lifetime of the sprint, and ask yourself questions like: 

  1. What was finished? 
  2. Did we deliver all the items we intended to? If not, why?  
  3. What specific units of work didn’t get shipped? 
  4. What bottlenecks or blockers arose, and are they part of a pattern?

The answers will help you identify patterns and problem areas and formulate meaningful conversation points to guide the retrospective. 

For example, if your sprint finished with a lot of unshipped work, you’ll want to know that in advance, so you can dig into the reasons during the retrospective. Look for unassigned tickets, which may indicate that some units of work were not prioritized correctly or that tickets were lost or overlooked unintentionally — though you’ll need to bring these tickets up at the retro to know for sure. 

You’ll also want to look at the Issues from the iteration that are still categorized as In Progress, and see how many days they’ve been open. You can dig deeper by looking at the Pull Requests (PRs) associated with that Issue, and taking a look at relevant activity and comments for each. This can help you formulate a hypothesis as to why a unit of work was unshipped. For example, Issues with many PRs may indicate that work was not batched efficiently, while PRs with high levels of Rework may signal that an engineer was struggling with a difficult area of the codebase, or unclear technical direction. You can further investigate that hypothesis during your retro by discussing particular units of work to gain additional context and information. 

While you can piece together this information from your VCS and project management tools, gaining a holistic view can be tedious as this data is typically dispersed. An Engineering Intelligence Solution, like Velocity, can save time and add a layer of valuable insights by aggregating that data in a series of customizable dashboards and rich visualizations. 

Prioritize Your Sprint Retrospective

Typically, retrospectives last approximately 30 minutes for each week of the sprint, so if your sprint was three weeks long, you may want to carve out an hour and a half for your retro. Keep this time frame in mind to help you prioritize speaking points and focus on conversation topics that will keep your team engaged and on task. 

Once you have compiled a list of topics, see if you discover any common themes and group them together. It may be helpful to get the perspective of your team members when you reach this point. Here at Code Climate, our facilitators ask the team to vote on which items should be talked through first to ensure engagement and alignment. 

Open the Floor to Collaboration 

In order to have a productive retrospective — one that surfaces meaningful opportunities for improvement — the team must feel safe talking through any missteps. The purpose of a retrospective is to measure processes, not individuals, so it’s important to remind your team to focus on the work, and not on the people behind it. As you set the stage for your retro, keep in mind that the data you gathered during preparation is to be used purely as an empowerment tool. When used appropriately, data can keep the conversation grounded in facts and tackle negative biases, allowing you and your team to have genuine conversations about things that could have been done better without making developers feel singled out. 


Now to discuss. Based on the topics you prioritized, you can split your sprint retrospective discussion portion into easily digestible parts. Though format can vary based on team and personal preference, many teams focus on three categories using a “Start, Stop, Continue” exercise, which asks developers to provide feedback on the following:  

  • Start: Actions we should start taking
  • Stop: Actions we should stop or do away with
  • Continue: Actions we should continue and codify 

It can be helpful to use a visual aid to facilitate this exercise and keep the conversation on track. For in-person teams, that might mean distributing sticky notes that can be written on and affixed to a board; for remote teams, that might mean using a collaborative online platform like Trello. Take time to talk through each part, and… 

Develop an Action Plan

By the end of the sprint retrospective, you and your team should have several actionable ideas to put into practice to help the next iteration go smoother. While this data is qualitative in nature, these new ideas can then be measured against the quantitative data (such as PR size) they are meant to improve during the next sprint, enabling you to enhance software development strategies as time goes on.  

Standardize Sprint Retrospectives and Keep Improving 

Best practices are best utilized when reinforced. Each new retro you hold keeps you on the path of continuous improvement.  

While there is no golden rule as to how retros should be structured and held, some form of review is vital to achieving continuous improvement. By incorporating data into your retros, you can maximize the value of your discussions and help build a highly capable team that can successfully drive business goals. 

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