Quick show of hands: Who here likes retrospectives? Who loves them?
Many people I have met so far would have kept their hands down. They would rather work on the next feature than sit in a retrospective.
That’s because, in many teams, retrospectives are boring and ineffective.
In many teams, retrospectives are boring and ineffective. But that does not mean that it has to be like that.
If this is your team, change something. Working on having better retrospectives is one of the cheapest things you can do to improve your overall situation.
Some time ago, I wrote a book about “Agile Anti-Patterns”. And most of the problems I described there could be cured by better retrospectives. At least to some extent.
By the way, there is a link to the book in the description of this video!
And “better”, or “good”, in this case means that
- The retrospective is not boring
- People talk about the “big”, “systemic” problems
- The retrospective results in real, positive changes
But before I’ll talk about those three points, let’s look at the problem again, in a bit more detail.
Question / Problem
Imagine a team that is doing some “agile” “process”. Like, Scrum, or whatever. Every two weeks, the team has a “Retrospective”.
But those retrospectives are boooring. Nobody likes them. People would rather work on their next task than be sitting in this meeting.
And nothing ever really changes - at least, nothing important. Yes, the team records action items at the end of each retrospective. But sometimes they don’t get done at all. Sometimes they get done, but have no visible effect. And sometimes they did solve the problem, but it does not matter because the problem was very small and unimportant.
Now imagine a team that does not do any retrospectives at all. Which team is using their time more efficiently?
The second team, of course. The first team not only wasted the time it took to have the retrospective and to work on the action items, it also had a meeting that demotivated everyone who was there. Those people will probably not go back to their desks afterwards and work on happily and fully motivated.
Does this mean you should stop doing “Retros”? NO! But if there’s one thing you could do now to improve your way of working, then look at your retrospectives and try to improve them.
To get better, your retrospectives should not be boring, they should tackle the big problems and they should result in real, lasting change.
To avoid that your retrospectives become boring,
- Keep them short
- Make sure everyone is involved and
- Have some variety in how you do them
Keep the meeting short - but not too short. To facilitate a good retrospective with actionable results, you will probably need 90 minutes. Longer than that will be too long for a sprint retrospective, but longer retrospectives might be necessary at the end of a quarter, year or project.
Maybe you can do a great retro in 60 minutes sometimes, but shorter than this is definitely too short. I would even consider 60 minutes too short for most teams, most of the time.
At the beginning, make sure that everyone will be involved. Try to get everyone to say something within the first few minutes, otherwise some might not say anything during the retrospective at all.
Get the book “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great” by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen and also have a look at the “Retromat” by Corinna Baldauf. Both will teach you activities that will help you get everyone involved at the beginning.
Also, both follow a structure with 5 distinct phases and activities for each phase. Following this structure will help you to add some variety to your retrospectives, so they will be less boring.
But even when your retrospectives are not boring and when everyone is involved, the time will be wasted when you do not tackle important problems or when you spend the retrospective finding out whom to blame. So,
- Remind people that we believe performance is mostly determined by the system
- Create an environment where everyone feels safe
- Spend time not only looking at symptoms, but also at root causes.
The “retrospective prime directive” is one way of reminding people that we are not here to assign blame, but to improve the system. It says:
"Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand."
Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review
But do not only read it out loud, talk about it. Talk about what it means and what it means to you, as a team, for this retrospective.
You need an environment where everyone feels safe. Make sure people know that, whatever they say, there will be no finger pointing, no loughing and no shouting. Let them know that in this meeting, they can talk about everything and point out any problems - and that this will not have negative consequences for them in the future.
And make sure that nobody ever breaks these rules. At one past client, an influential team member shouted at the team during a retrospective once. Called them unprofessional. Threatened to have some fired. Every retro after that was a complete waste of time because nobody would ever talk about the interesting problems again.
Also, do not only look at symptoms and simple solutions. It will not help to treat the brain tumor only with aspirin to make the headache go away. Before brainstorming possible solutions, dig deeper and try to find the real problem.
The retrospective should also result in real, lasting change.
If your retrospectives do not yield some visible results, the other two qualities - not boring, tackles big problems - won’t rescue your retros. If there are no results, people will still consider the meeting a waste of time, and it will become boring and shallow again.
To get started,
- Create less action items at the end
- Define success criteria and measure success before the next retrospective
- Use your influence or find people who can help you
Create less action items. Why do I want you to try that? Because with less action items, chances are higher that they will be done within reasonable time.
Some teams identify five problems, then 5 ways to tackle the problem for each. And at the start of the next retrospective, none of the 25 action items are “done”.
So, choose one problem. Define one or two experiments - things you want to try to solve the problem or to make your life a little bit better. Then make sure they are done next time to meet.
Also, define success criteria for these experiments. And say when you want to measure success. In two or four weeks, or whenever you want to measure, is not enough that the experiment was “done”. You also want to know whether it was successful and what exactly has changed.
Sometimes, especially in large companies, all the interesting problems cannot be solved by the team alone. They are caused by the processes, the rules and the culture of the oranization.
But just because you cannot solve those problems alone does not mean you should not try to solve them. Find people who can help you. Or find people who can help you find people who can help you. Make your problems and impediments known.
When you have retrospectives that are not boring because
- They are short
- Everyone is involved and
- There is some variety in how you do them
When you have retrospectives that tackle the big, systemic problems because
- People know that performance is mostly determined by the system
- The retro happens in an environment where everyone feels safe
- People spend time not only looking at symptoms, but also at root causes
When you have retrospectives that result in real, positive changes because
- The team creates less action items at the end and makes sure they get done
- The team defines success criteria and measure success before the next retrospective
- The team uses their influence to find people who can help them
People will start to enjoy retrospectives again. They will participate more, and the whole team will benefit.
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