You most likely at least once in your life had a feeling of dejavu. It's a weird feeling when you are almost sure you have lived this moment before. And while it is fine, or even fun, in your every day life, you might want to avoid this feeling in your retrospectives, especially when it sounds all too real.
When an agile team gets frustrated with the situation where nothing ever changes, it is easy to say that the retrospective became useless. It is a time when the same topic keeps coming up in every single session with no visible improvements happening or solutions being so long-term, that no one even believes it's possible.
Interestingly enough, it is all too easy to find yourself in this situation when your retrospective revolves around the same discussion points.
It is fair to want to fix the most visible and most painful problem first. However, sometimes you can't make a positive enough change to see the difference so getting stuck on one thing for too long will lead you to a dead end.
This is when the time comes to change the way you look at your processes and the way you run your retrospective.
As I was working with a variety of teams, I have found that running retrospectives with diffent discussion points is very helpful, rewarding and engaging for every team member. It helps the team not only stop looking at the single biggest pain point they have, but find better opportunities to improve they never thought existed.
When we work with new teams as Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches, we always need to find new approaches that would work best for them. It should be the same for retrospectives. As you discover how the team operates, you will discover what questions spark more productive discussions since every team is different, so is every individual on the team.
I have found that teams are much more engaged in the retrospective, when we change discussion points almost every time. Team members become interested in the session itself and are looking forward to new outcomes it will bring.
There are many ways to make your retrospectives more engaging.
As a Scrum Master I personally enjoy making every retrospective special by using new unique techniques that I often create myself. A lot of them are based on coaching activities and are fine-tuned to make an interractive session that includes gathering data, analysis and solutioning. In my Scrum Master's toolbox you can find 20 techniques that I use on rotation. You can read more about that in my bio.
However, you don't have to go far to make immediate improvements to your retrospectives.
Take a simple retrospective type of "what went well / what didn't go well" and add new criteria to it. Here is a couple of examples:
Prepare different categories for the team to think in before the session. You can change the categories every time. That will give the team a baseline for their ideas and will help come up with something new. Instead of going with the usual "people, process, tools" ask for "communication, clarity, technology", for example.
Define a scale to align ideas to, for example, planned vs unexpected, or successful vs failed, or in team control vs out of control. Ask you team to map their ideas to that scale. This will help them think in terms of scale you defined and will open new areas for discovery.
Change the questions you ask at the very beginning to spark creativity. For example, instead of asking "what went well", ask "what made your day this sprint"; and instead of "what didn't go well" ask "what frustrated you this sprint". It is a small change that can help you improve your general retrospective experience and make it more personal.
Remember that agile encourages us to continuously improve. Retrospectives are the first line of defense for this continuous improvement and should not become stale. The discussions you have during the retrospective have the ultimate goal of finding new solutions to make positive changes to the ways you work. Use this time to your best advantage by making sure the discussion is productive.