Best Practice – Review the Action Items from the Previous Retro in the Current Retro

Here is how I define a Best Practice:

  • Best Practice -a practice that is good in almost all contexts and almost all team situations.

Name of Pattern

  • Retrospective Follow Up

Pattern Context

  • Many teams discuss and say they want to make changes to their development process in a Scrum Retrospective, but far fewer actually make those changes.
  • This pattern further refines the Sprint Retrospective practice of Scrum.
  • The breadth of this pattern is any team that uses Scrum.


  • Teams discuss process changes in their Sprint Retrospectives, but often don’t follow through with those changes.


  • Positive Forces
    • Reviewing and/or discussing the status of the previous retrospective action items helps provide transparency about the adaptations being attempted and/or completed. This transparency and follow up makes it more likely that the adaptations will be completed.
    • Following through with changes to the development process is at the heart of what Scrum Retrospectives are for. Teams that follow through with these changes will improve their productivity in creating and delivering highly valuable products.
  • Negative Forces
    • Taking the time to track and bring the action item statuses (or discuss the statuses) in the beginning of the current retrospective takes some time out of the current retrospective.
      • Teams that are already excellent at following up and completing the Retrospetive action items from previous retrospectives may not get a lot of value out of expending this time.
    • Teams that don’t implement their Retrospective action items will miss out on the possible improvements that could be made to the team.
    • At first blush, following up on a plan or action items may seem like common sense, but in practice, few Scrum Teams follow up well on their Retrospective action items.
    • Past product development practices often supplied some sort of “process improvement discussion” meeting, but didn’t put the emphasis on actually making process changes. Many newer Scrum teams fall back into this habit of complaining but not doing anything to make changes.


  • The Scrum Team does a quick review of the status of the action items from the previous retrospective(s) at the beginning of the current retrospective.
    • As part of the review, it should be clear which items were completed and the status of any remaining open action items. The reason to review them at the beginning of the retro is so that any remaining open action items will be in the forefront of people’s thoughts.
    • The format and length of the review will be highly dependent on a team’s needs and how much a team already knows about the status of the previous retrospective action items. I suggest a length of between 2-15 minutes.
      • Quick Review
        • If everyone in the room knows exactly the status of each previous retro action item, then you can just make a statement like “These two items were completed, one was carried over, and one was not worked on at all.” (I generally recommend that teams focus on a small number of retro action items like 1-4).
      • Moderate Review
        • In a more moderate review, you can review each item and let team members say a few words about the state of each action item. Don’t forget the praise!
      • Graded Review
        • If you really want to inspect your improvement results, give each action item a letter grade (A, B, C, D, F, etc). You can have the group come to consensus on the grade, or you can have people write their grade on a piece of paper and then have the whole team reveal at the same time(similar to planning poker).
  • I’ve used this pattern on two of the teams I’ve coached and it has had success. While I haven’t gathered empirical data on it, I did notice a marked increase in completion of retrospective action items.


  • Review in the Sprint Review – In Jeff Sutherland’s Scrumming the Scrum pattern, which includes a similar practice of reviewing items each Sprint(he uses an impediment list instead of a retrospective action item list), he suggests presenting the results of the action item at the Sprint Review. I question that myself, because I don’t feel like the business stakeholders who represent users really care about the details of Scrum Team mechanics or Scrum Team improvements(especially when they are technical or development process oriented in nature). It also offers an opportunity for people not faimilar with intra team details a chance to give inappropriate or unhelpful feedback. On the other hand, sometimes user rep stakeholders can help resolve organizational impediments better or faster than technical folks. I suggest you decide which Scrum event is better for your team’s needs. Or, better yet, try both, then retrospect on the results!
  • Retrospective Backlog(aka Improvement Backlog, similar to Impediments Backlog) — Make an ordered list of outstanding action items and review the list like a backlog at each retro. Order the list by perceived value to the team and/or organization. Update the backlog each retrospective with new action items and re-order as appropriate. Take on the top couple of items each Sprint to resolve them. Consider making a separate list of blocked action items. Sometimes a list of blocked items is helpful because a blocking condition gets lifted at a later date. At that point, the blocked item can be moved to the Restrospective backlog and ordered as appropriate. Making one or both of these lists visible to outsiders may spur help from an outsider with resolving an item.

Resulting context

  • Teams actually improve more often and quicker due to heightened transparency on Retro action items.
    • Teams often get motivated by the amount of changes they’re able to make and making improvements becomes more of a habit.
    • Teams often have improved morale due to the empowerment they feel to self organize to make their team’s development processes smoother.

Best Practice – Change Up Your Retrospective Format

Here is how I define a Best Practice:

  • Best Practice -a practice that is good in almost all contexts and almost all team situations.

Break through the B-O-R-E-D-O-M!
Retrospectives can get boring, and when they get boring, the effectiveness of them falls off dramatically. To help prevent this boredom factor, change up your retrospective format. There are lots of websites and even a few books that discuss numerous retrospective formats. You don’t even have to follow those formats down to the last detail — change that up too!

Rule of Thumb
My rule of thumb is that a team should never do the same retrospective format more than 3 times in a row. Either change a major piece of the format, or try a new one altogether. Not all formats will work well for all teams, but often you really don’t know how well one will work out unless you try it.

Some Boundaries
All formats should respect a few Scrum boundaries, so be sure that the your proposed format roughly adheres to the following:

  • Discuss the major things that went well in the last Sprint.
  • Discuss the major things that could potentially be improved in the next Sprint.
    • Improvements should not be changes to the Scrum Framework, but should be changes *within* the Scrum Framework.
    • Improvements should have the goal of making the Scrum Team’s work more effective and/or more enjoyable.
  • Create a plan for implementing the improvements in the next Sprint.

The retrospective can be very interactive, casual, and creative, and still cover the above main points.

What are your tips for retrospectives?


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