This article talks about joint retrospectives — why they are needed, who participates, when and where they are held, how they are handled, and their benefits and challenges.

Before discussing joint retrospectives, let us quickly recap what retrospectives are and why we need them.

As a well-known and widely followed Agile practice, the retrospective ceremony of Scrum is a platform where the team members get an opportunity to reflect on how they worked together and to discuss how they can become better as a team. Retrospectives are generally held at the end of the each sprint, when the team gathers to look at the way they are working and identifies some commonly agreed-upon modifications and improvements for the next sprint (or project).

Why is a joint retrospective needed?

There is a challenge in doing team-level retrospectives when the team is part of a very big group of Scrum teams, involving complex and interdependent work at large scale, and working on a common backlog. If the teams are doing retrospectives at their team level, there is a good chance that their focus is only on short-term issues that are most concerning for them alone.

Some studies by Agile experts have shown that teams that do retrospectives only at their team level, focusing on individual cycles, tend to be more focused on team-level decisions rather than aligning to the organization’s long-term strategic goals and decisions.

Also, it is been found that highly efficient and effective coordination and communication among different Scrum teams is essential for organizations working on complex and interdependent functionalities. To achieve this, joint retrospectives can be reviewed and adopted.

To summarize these points:

  • We might want to hold a joint retrospective when we have teams working on a common product backlog and they would like to inspect and adapt regarding the common issues they came across during the execution of the sprints.
  • Instead of all the team members trying multiple things on their own to resolve the common issues, they could come up with ideas collectively. This could save a lot of time and it also brings in a good thought process, as multiple brains are involved.
  • This is a forum that brings to the surface the common issues that teams encounter while working together.
  • It could bring up some of the dependencies between teams, which could be triggers for having a specific forum, like a Scrum of Scrums, to address the technical dependencies.

What can be discussed in the joint retrospective?

We need to keep in mind that the idea of holding a joint retrospective is to discuss common issues, critical impediments, and achievements so that teams can benefit from each others’ journeys. If we start discussing everything that we have discussed in the team-level retrospectives, then these joint sessions would be redundant. So teams need to think carefully about the items they would like to discuss in these joint sessions, items that could be beneficial for other teams to know about. A practice I have seen with some teams is that, after conducting their individual retrospectives, they hold a dot-vote to decide on the items that they want to discuss in the joint session.

Some techniques for running a joint retrospective

Below are some of the points that could be discussed in a joint session. There could be others as well.

  • What is working well for the teams, what is not working well, and what can be improved?
  • What can we do independently, and what can we not do independently?
  • What did we try that was new, and what do we want to try in the future?
  • What were the team’s major achievements during this sprint, and how did the team achieve them?
  • What (if anything) went wrong during this sprint, and how do we plan to correct it?
  • What were the most critical impediments, and how did we resolve them?
  • What have we learned?
  • What still bothers us?
  • What can be done differently?

We can run a joint retrospective like a regular one, but, again, the focus would be on identified joint issues, plus whatever else might come up during the meeting. And, of course, the joint retrospective would have to occur after each team had held its own retrospective.

The joint retrospective could be held in one of two ways:

  1. First the individual teams have their own retrospectives. Then they can come together in a joint retrospective to discuss the common issues, each team sending a representative to this meeting.
  2. First the individual teams have their own retrospectives. Then all team members could attend the joint retrospective (rather than just sending a representative from each team).

Again, we can use some sort of visual format to hold a joint retrospective, so that visual radiators could generate some thought and we could cover all the points. Below is one format that covers some of the common issues. It can be customized by changing the quadrants. In the joint session, the facilitator could draw a picture like this on the whiteboard, enabling the group to have fruitful discussions about things that might have been missed in the individual team-level sessions.

What should be the frequency of joint retrospectives?

The idea is that process should not become overkill for the teams. Holding a normal retrospective followed by a joint one with all team members could be too much. Teams can decide on frequency based on the number of common issues they are seeing, and they can always inspect and adapt to check how often they want/need to hold these meetings. Some teams have them after every third or fifth iteration, or after achieving some milestone. Frequency depends solely on need. However, if the teams are newly formed, they could have joint retrospectives more often, until they become stable.

Where should we hold joint retrospectives?

  1. If the teams are colocated, they can hold these meetings in a conference room to enable face-to-face communication.
  2. If the teams spread out, they can use collaboration tools such as video conferencing, so they can see each other.

The first option is always the best.

Some of the benefits of joint retrospectives

  • Interteam communication
  • Interteam collaboration
  • Transparency in what is happening between teams
  • Sharing of best practices with other teams
  • Identification of common issues across teams
  • Ultimately, higher productivity

How can we make the joint retrospectives effective?

A retrospective on the joint retrospectives can be done once in a while to assess their effectiveness. Depending on the findings, the frequency and mode of conducting them can be modified, based on the collective experience of the teams.

Challenges of the joint retrospective

  • We need to have a good facilitator or moderator who can drive the discussions in the proper direction so they do not become chaotic.
  • Setting up a cadence for joint retrospectives can be a challenge if the teams are following different sprint schedules.
  • Time boxing the sessions can be difficult.

Originally Posted by Madhavi Ledalla @ Scrum Alliance on 29 July 2014