Book review: 50 quick ideas to improve your retrospectives

· December 11, 2015

I have a confession to make:

I think retrospectives are boring

There. It’s out there. I’ve attended many and facilitated even more. I don’t like it. But before you all start to throw wasted fruit and vegetables my way, let me follow that statement up with a contradiction:

I think that retrospecting is the fundament of agile, and what's needed to improve

If agile brought anything new to the IT table it was the idea that we repeatedly, often or even continuously look back on our work, our tools, our output or our environment and try to improve it. Admittedly that was not invented by agile, but that’s how most of us got in contact with it. And it’s the one basic idea that can be found in all agile framework. Because it’s essential to improve.

Anyway - those two statements causes a problem for me, as you probably can see. Hence, it was with some resistance that I picked up “50 quick ideas to improve your retrospectives”.

On page 2 the authors Ben Williams and Tom Roden had me. I read it in one go.

This is is the paragraph that got me hooked:

Unfortunately, many teams repeat the same process over and over so their retrospectives become flat, unrewarding and get discarded because they stop adding value. This can slow down or halt team improvements and de-motivate team members

Aha! That’s me. And sadly, many teams that have had the misfortune of being subjected to my retrospective facilitating skills.

If Ben and Tom (hey wait a minute here… are these the guys behind the ice cream?) could fix that - I’d be over the moon of joy.


The structure of the book follows the same as the other in the great 50 Quick Ideas series. It consists of 50 (who knew?) short tip, thought provoking ideas, principles that will help you doing retrospectives more effective.

These ideas are sorted into 6 categories: Preparing for retrospectives, Providing a clear focus, adapting the environment, facilitating sessions, re-engineering retrospectives and improving outcomes. Each filled with battle-hardened experience and advices.

It goes without saying that a book with this structure and length (each tip is just a couple of pages) there will be no full treatment of everything. This is both frustrating but also, by design. I think this book benefits the most of that in the series so far. When it came to the testing and user story book I found me wanting more, but here I find it’s just enough to provoke my own thinking. Plenty of references are given and pointed out throughout the text too, should I need to dive deeper.

Each topic has an introduction where the authors sets the scene and context for when this particular tip might be useful. It’s in this section that we as readers benefits greatly from their experience. I find myself nodding and shouting “EXACTLY!” in ever other tip. They have been through the same journey as I have.

The second section of each tip is a Key Benefits that paints a lovely postcard from the future on what we might gain by apply this tip. Often this section opens my eyes on benefits, but also problems, that I haven’t considered before.

Finally there’s a How to make it work that gives concrete and practical tips on how to get this particular practice to work. We’re talking “down to the color of pen and post-it note”-level in some occasions, but other just sets your mind in a thinking zone.

What not to do

Do not read this book from cover to cover and expect to remember it all. You can, as I did, read it just to get an overview, but I think the real gain comes when you keep this close by and start to reflect on your problems. Then this book can become a vitamin injection to revitalize your retrospectives or the entire framework of improvements that you work within.


I particularly like the last two sections; Re-engineering retrospectives and Improving outcomes. I think this is where I most often fail.

Because of course we should retrospect the retrospectives.1 They need changing, improving and tweak too. For example, why do them every other week? How about after 10 finished items? Or after each reported bug? Or what have you.

The second part is about the Improving outcomes. I love that focus. All too often we focus on the activities itself, but that’s just efficiency. It’s not too important we don’t reach our goal, are effective.

The last section (Improving outcomes) gives us a couple of tools and ideas to see if the work we put into doing retrospectives actually gives us any improvements or not. In this section the authors starts to talk about goal-oriented experiments and I can relate to the effectiveness of that kind of thinking. A lot of great stuff in there!


I recommend any team interested in improving and improving their retrospective to own a couple of 50 Quick Ideas to improve your retrospectives.

Especially if you, like me, have a bad relationship with retrospectives. There’s a lot of great, inspiring and useful stuff in here.

Thank you for a great book!

  1. Just don’t retrospect the retrospection of the retrospectives. You will never get out of there…. 

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