Why sprint retros are a lot like watching game film

Sprint retros are an important part of the agile process — when done right. Unfortunately, many dev teams struggle to make them effective. In this post, we turn tips from the sports world into easy ways to improve your retros.
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Before any big match, teams watch game film to help them prepare and improve. They look at the play calling and how well the players executed. They look at mistakes and missed opportunities, momentum shifts and player contributions. They even study the competition — where they’ve won or lost and how they match up.

Software engineering teams use sprint retros in much the same way. Done correctly, sprint retros are an opportunity to raise questions, frustrations, and ideas about the previous sprint. What went well? What can you do better next time?

To make your retros as effective as possible, consider these film-watching tips from the pros.

1. Take your eye off the ball

In sports, we’re often trained to keep an eye on the ball. But when watching game film, that’s not necessarily the case. There’s a lot of action that happens away from the ball, so it’s critical to zero in on those plays when studying the game. The same is true in software development. You can’t focus solely on what’s being delivered and neglect the work that made it possible. Yes, you delivered a new feature on time, but what did it take to get there? Did you burn out your people in the process? In your next retro, measure success by more than just output. Pay attention to the less visible challenges and successes that often get lost in the big picture.

2. Evaluate in-game adjustments

If something isn’t working to start a game, the team makes halftime adjustments to fix the problem. They don’t wait until the game is over to correct what went wrong. And neither should your dev team. After a fast-paced sprint and a bunch of scope changes, it’s often difficult for devs to remember specific issues. Don’t wait until the sprint retro to gather feedback. Devs should have the opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas throughout the sprint. Your team will better remember the details come retro time, and you can change course mid-sprint if something goes wrong.

3. Break down audibles

Part of game planning is preparing for when things don’t go as planned. If a quarterback doesn’t like what they see at the line of scrimmage, they’ll call an audible. For dev teams, this means adjusting on the fly to items being added mid-sprint. Regardless of how simple the late change may be, it can still slow down your team. Keep track of the changes and their impact on delivery, discussing them in your retros. You’ll be better prepared to handle any audibles that come up next sprint.

4. Use data to help your team

Analytics have become a major part of many sports. Teams break down data before, during, and after each match to find areas of improvement. Dev teams can use data the same way. Sprint retros often rely on informal analysis and anecdotal evidence to reach conclusions, prioritizing feelings over facts. If every retro relies solely on this soft data, continuous improvement will be difficult. Developers need a baseline to measure against, as well as hard data to provide context and enable more comprehensive conversations about sprint outcomes.

5. View broken plays as opportunities

Even the best players in any sport make mistakes. They’ll take an overly ambitious shot or miss their coverage on defense. What’s important is that they learn from these mistakes, using them to get better. For dev teams, a lot can go wrong during the sprint. For example, you could become overwhelmed by bugs or a bad configuration. But a crucial part of growing as a dev team is managing the pain when things go wrong. Make sprint retros a safe environment where failures can be discussed without punishment, instead encouraging devs to keep taking risks.

Even the most well-planned sprints can turn messy. That’s why sprint retros are so critical to dev team improvement. Much like watching game film, sprint retros are a chance for dev teams to reflect on their process and outcomes. And hard data is the best way for them to do so.

Ready to change the game for your dev team? Schedule a demo to see how Uplevel is using data-driven insights to empower dev teams and improve sprint retros.

Or check out The Dev Team Playbook for more strategies to help you build a winning dev team dynamic.