Back to blog home

The greatest strategy for project retrospectives

Software delivery teams often struggle to implement all outputs from a retrospective. Once a team is into their next sprint, the new backlog takes priority and what may have been agreed in the retrospective can be put onto the back burner. Starfish, a technique for retrospectives, helps the team to take accountability for retrospective outcomes to ensure they are achieved.

Over the years, I've used many different retrospectives techniques. Some are better than others, but none go far enough. While outputs were documented, no technique put a timeframe on implementing project improvements and making the whole team responsible and accountable for implementing them. That's why Starfish has been a fantastic technique for me.

Why Starfish over other Agile retrospectives techniques?

The output of a Starfish retrospective is more than a prioritised list of project improvements. Instead it categorises short, medium, and long-term project objectives and assigns them to a team member who takes ownership.

How does Starfish work?

The first part of Starfish, like all other retrospectives, is to reflect on the previous sprint and discusses the following areas in this order:

  • What the team should keep doing
  • What the team should do more of
  • What the team should do less of
  • What the team should start doing
  • What the team should stop doing

Step 1: Reflect and write thoughts on sticky notes

Starting with 'keep', the team silently reflect on the previous sprint and write their thoughts on sticky notes. I tend to time-box each section to two minutes. It’s important to let the attendees work in silence so they are not influenced by any other member of the team. Repeat the process until each team member has reflected on 'keep' through to 'stop'. As your team finishes their sticky notes, attach them to a board segmented into a starfish shape. At the end of the process, you should have a similar looking diagram to the below'

While the team are adding their comments to each area, the project manager should start to group similar comments together to help streamline the next phase of the retrospective.

Step 2: Team discussion

The next stage is for the team to discuss the outputs, and identify which topics (or comments) are major concerns and need immediate attention. The facilitator should then document tasks the team think will improve the project.

Step 3: Prioritisation

Prioritisation is simple and is broken down into the following categories:

  • What can the team do something about today

Example = keep stand-ups to 15 minutes

  • What the team will handle during the next sprint (or two weeks)

Example = product owner to run next sprint review meeting

  • What the team will initiate during the next month

Example = implement automated deployment

The final step in prioritisation is to document who in the team will be responsible for managing and implementing each output.

Step 4: Review retrospective outputs

When an output of the retrospective is completed, that team member should communicate to other team members that it is complete or has been implemented.

The team should make an effort to highlight successes and inspire the rest of the team to complete their own tasks. By communications success announcements, the product owner and project stakeholders will see how the delivery team are striving to become better and are not complacent. This is a powerful and positive message, which can have great effect.

The Starfish retrospective technique not only increases visibility to shareholders, but can also make team members feel more valued as their successes are celebrated with their team. Starfish is also a simple technique and can be applied to project retrospectives of any size and length.

About the author

Robbie Ablett has more than nine years’ project management experience and specialises in delivering Agile projects. He is a certified scrum master, is PMP qualified, and has experience in pre-sales, business analysis and programme management.


Image: © Rameshng via Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic