February 2, 2017

Retrospectives: Essential for Any Team Doing Any Kind of Work

Written by Jannette Brace

No matter what kind of work we do, we look for feedback from our customers, our co-workers and our peers. Why do we do that? To improve and to get better at what we do.  The same thing applies to Agile teams and programs, no matter what methodology the team is following: Scrum, Kanban, XP, SAFe, LeSS, or DAD.

A good retrospective is the key to helping teams improve what they are doing. It helps them identify and streamline processes which can create efficiencies and get them to that next level of maturity.  Hard to believe, but this is the event which is most commonly ignored or taken lightly. Teams often feel they are too busy and do not have time to retrospect.  This makes the team get into a ‘Plan and Do – Plan and Do’, vicious cycle. They never stop to reflect and adjust and then they complain Agile doesn’t work.

An Agile Methodology isn’t magic and it doesn’t solve all problems by itself.  It makes the problems transparent, clear and appear sooner in a project’s lifecycle. But to identify the problems and to find out what can be done differently to improve the processes, the teams need to retrospect.

So why don’t the teams do retrospectives?  Here are some of the reasons they give:

  • Don’t have time just to talk, it’s a waste of time
  • Retrospectives are boring
  • No one takes any actions from the retrospectives so why bother
  • Same monotonous technique
  • Unplanned meeting
  • High performing team already, nothing more to improve on
  • No participation

So how do you make retrospectives interesting, add value to the team and make them a place where the team members can express their opinions without any repercussions?

First of all, the retrospectives should follow the “Vegas Rule” – what happens in Retrospectives stays amongst the team members.  All of the information is shared in this container of trust and all team members and facilitators should respect the container.  Information or data in the retrospectives is collected with the sole purpose of making the team better and improving processes.  The information should not be used as performance management feedback.

Secondly, and most importantly, it is not intended to be a finger pointing session or to point out the skill or knowledge gaps in any individual team member. Retrospectives should always be respectful and be conducted professionally by a skilled facilitator (usually a Scrum Master).

Thirdly, the retrospectives should be done by selecting interesting activities that engage all team members.  The activities should be relevant to what is happening in the team. They should let the entire team collect data, learn the insights and decide on what actions they can take together to improve.

Fourthly, the retrospectives should be made exciting! The teams which asks the same dreaded questions – what did we do well, what did we not do so well or any suggestions for improvements at the end of every sprint really gets boring and monotonous, not only for the team but for anyone facilitating the retrospective as well.

Create an environment of trust, honesty and make room for some creative retrospective ideas.  It should be planned in advance so the team feels like it is a treat being part of a retrospective after the hard work in the sprint. It should allow the team to think about innovative ways in which they can adjust and make themselves and the processes better. The book by Ester Derby on making retrospectives great is an excellent resource and so is the website Tastycupcakes.org for activity ideas.

Next, what about the findings and action items from the retrospectives? Many tools like Version One have a section wherein the output of  retrospectives can be created, stored and referenced in next retrospective. The best thing is to prioritize the resulting action items, assign them owners and place the list both in the online tool for distributed team members and on the physical board as an Information Radiator. Do a check-in on the retrospective action items and see if they are completed.  Items can be added to the team’s backlog and be accepted by the team’s PO.

Just collecting feedback and forgetting about the retrospectives is what makes most people discouraged from holding retrospectives.  When people feel that no action is taken and nothing changes, they wonder why they should keep on wasting time with this retrospective exercise.

Participation from all team members is key.  Especially if you have some very quiet team members and others who have a lot of ideas and take over the meeting. Good facilitation skills come-in handy to address this concern. If the facilitator knows that some team members are reticent to jump in and be part of the conversation, they can ask direct questions to engage those team members so that everyone is heard and valued.

Lastly, no team is so high performing that they cannot retrospect or find anything else to improve.  They might have found other mechanisms of inspecting what they are doing and how to adjust, such that they do not wait until the end of the sprint for this formal retrospective session.  But they are still doing a retrospective, even if it’s all the time.

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