How Long Should a Retrospective be for a Sprint?

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The short-short answer is it depends on the length of the sprint.  For discussion purposes I’m going to frame the topic to a one to two week sprint.

Generally, for one week cadence teams, I find it is more effective to have the ceremonious retrospective every other week just so that the sample size of relevant outcomes from changes put in place from previous retrospectives can be more effectively evaluated. Of course if there is a glaring issue, a retrospective can be called JIT and not just at the end of the sprint time box.  Inspect and adapt applies all along the process 🙂

A retrospective scheduled for less than an hour, IME, runs the risk of becoming a ‘check list event’, meaning that it is done because it’s on a list of things to do.  Unfortunately this is often when folks no longer see the value of the ceremony because nothing useful seems to come from it other than having a gripe session.

Even very mature lean-agile teams that only invest 30 minutes in retrospection for 1-2 week sprint (that just might be a contradiction in terms) are likely to only focus on simple team policy issues and never get to any of the meatier sources of waste in their value chain.

As a Scrum Master or just an invited facilitator, an hour is the minimum amount of time I generally recommend for a retrospective for a two week Sprint.  And once again, this is even true for very high functioning teams that have working agreements, good listening skills and are aligned to continuous improvement.  To get through the core retrospective phases of discovery, generating insights and then deciding what to do, with an actionable and owned outcome, takes a modicum of time 🙂

To help ensure that the hour invested in a retrospective for a two week Sprint is perceived to have a good ROTI by the team it behooves the Scrum Master to be prepared for it.  This includes actively planning the retrospective during the Sprint by collecting topics brought up at the Scrum ceremonies, interviewing team members and stakeholders as well as assessing performance on past retrospective improvement stories.

With this data a good facilitator (which should describe a good Scrum Master) can effectively plan for the retrospective by selecting a theme which can focus discovery and insight generation phases.  Having a theme also enables the facilitator to have the needed data on hand, in a shareable format to support the process.  With one hour there is no time for folks to spend on running reports.

Bottom line is that the amount of time needed for a specific team to execute an effective retrospective is context specific.  But in this post I’ve identified the lower limit of time required, based on my experience, for executing an effective retrospective for a 1-2 week sprint as 1 hour assuming adequate prep.

Of course preparation for a group meeting should be common sense and it is supported by some of the most referenced literature on the topic of retrospectives for agile teams (‘Agile Retrospectives’ by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen and of course the works of the grand father of retrospection, Norm Kerth.

I’d love to hear others experiences and feedback on this topic.

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About Mike DePaoli

Mike DePaoli has been contributing to the IT community for over two decades and practicing agile and lean approaches to software development since 1996 in roles from programmer to CTO. His evolved approach to crafting successful lean-agile software development organizations was forged by the meaningful challenges he undertook at prior employers and as an Agile Coach at companies such as eBay, Adobe Systems, AOL, NetApp, Disney, Boeing, EMC, and Trizetto. Mike’s area of expertise is helping organizations craft strategic change initiatives that educate on and establish agile and lean values, principles and practices at every tier of the organization. Mike applies systematic thinking with a multi-discipline approach to his work. Mike is a Certified SAFe Agilist, Certified Scrum Professional, Certified Scrum Master (CSM) and Certified Scrum Product Owner (CSPO). He is a highly-regarded speaker in the Agile community having spoken at Agile conferences in North America, South America and Europe. He is currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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