Retrospectives don’t get the respect they deserve, compared to the other elements of agile work. By comparison, they’re right-brained and touchy-feely. And even though I consider them a load-bearing wall of agile, weak retros aren’t felt nearly as quickly as failures in commitments, quality & technical debt, or user feedback. But they are essential to long-term team health, and maintaining and growing your way of working even in a changing context.
A Retrospective-Technique Library
Today I was coaching some ScrumMasters about the retrospectives they’re about to lead, and I ran across an excellent article by Ben Linders on InfoQ, “Why Do Teams Find It Difficult to Do Retrospectives?” I encourage you to read it, and follow the included links. There are a lot of good ideas to help your retrospectives fulfill the last principle in the agile manifesto:
At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
Another excellent source of retrospective techniques is Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. They offer a five-step retrospective plan that keeps facts, insights, and actions from running together, and activities to help the team with each step.
The Basic Formula, And Adjustments
But sometimes it’s good to get back to basics. We spent our prep time today on the minimalist retrospective formula:
- What went well?
- What went badly?
- What shall we change?
Here are some ways we came up with to fine-tune it.
Encouraging a forward, action-oriented perspective
If your team is prone to dwell on the past rather than improve for the future, rephrase the questions:
- What should we keep doing (or do more)?
- What should we stop doing (or do less)?
- What should we start doing?
We thought of several other alternate wordings—you can do the same.
Hearing all voices
If you aren’t sure you’re hearing from everyone because of more and less dominant team members, especially on a bigger team, start the process with, “I’d like everyone to take the next 15 minutes to write down three items for each of the three questions.” That will let the introverts work the way they work best, by gathering their thoughts first. Then go around the room and let each person read out their list in turn, keeping a merged list on the board.
Making it safe
If you think that people might withhold information out of fear, add some anonymity. For a small team, collect the lists and write them out on the board yourself. For larger teams, have them work in triplets to merge their individual lists, and then have one person from each triplet read out.
If there’s a particular subject that you believe deserves special emphasis, shine a light on it. Sometimes a flashlight is enough. “As you’re writing down your items, spend at least a little time thinking about how well we handled the Definition of Done in the user stories and the conversations with the product owner and subject-matter experts she recommended.”
If the particular subject needs a searchlight, separate it. “Make a separate list of ‘keep doing, stop doing, and start doing’ when it comes to the build environment. That seems like it’s been a source of frustration.”
Helping your team follow through
Finally, to keep retrospectives from reverting from Lessons Learned to Lessons Observed (and repeated), write the action items—not too many!—on special cards and display them where you hold your daily stand-ups. Keeping them in sight is a good way to help people keep them in mind.