AARGH! Not another Retrospective

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AARGH! Not another Retrospective

By Kumar Dattatreyan

You're thick in the middle of your work when your Scrum Master reminds you, "Hey Kumar, don't forget; we're meeting in 10 minutes for our retrospective". You're composing a response thinking, "What is the point! Why do we need to meet...AGAIN...for a retrospective when nothing gets accomplished in that meeting".

You're not alone in your feelings. Many people see agile retrospectives as a waste of time. But if done correctly, they can be a valuable tool for improving your team's process.

Here are a few tips for making retrospectives more productive:

1. Be sure that the whole team buys into the "Why" behind the Retrospective.

Why do we do them? What is the benefit? What's in it for the #team?

Too often, we don't take the time to ensure that the team understands the value of retrospectives. I call this "check-box" agile, and we're all guilty of it. Someone decided to use Scrum or some other framework, hired a bunch of consultants to help the company "go agile," and now all teams are following a framework that has disrupted how they used to work. Do your team members know the "why" behind the change? Have they bought into the idea of collaborating in short iterations, working closely with their business counterparts, and truly working as a team to create things their customers' value?

This is the "why" behind Agile (with a big A), and retrospectives deserve the same scrutiny as to why they are important to sustain high-performing teams. In my view, the Agile Retrospective is the most important meeting a team can have since it's the key to unlocking a team's potential. The Retrospective is the meeting where team members share freely and openly the challenges and opportunities and how they may meet those challenges. The team engages in deep and rich conversations about how they work together and how they can improve the way they communicate and collaborate around their work.

Now, if these types of deep and rich conversations aren't occurring, then perhaps you should retro the retro! The agile retrospective is an opportunity to inspect anything and implement adaptations that allow the team to grow stronger and more aligned than before. The most important thing about retrospectives is to ensure the team buys into them.

2. Make Improvements Visible:

A sure way to kill any enthusiasm you may have built for retrospectives is to ensure none of your actions and improvements get the attention they deserve. You must strive to ensure that improvement items are visible and prioritized so that people see that the time they spend in retrospectives results in tangible results.

One great way to do this is to use whatever work management tool you're using today and include your improvement items in the backlog. Treat all your improvement ideas as part of your backlog and force that a conversation happens to prioritize them along with the rest of the work the team is committing to. The team must be given the time to action on their action items. If not, you will not be able to sustain any support for retrospectives, or worse, your retro becomes another check-box activity.

3. Deepen relationships with the team:

As a Scrum Master, your main role is to coach the team, to understand the mindset, the trials, and the struggles your team has gone through in the past sprint. Be there for them, and stay away from "check-list agile" or doing the retro because you have to. Sometimes, it may be better to postpone the retrospective to a time more conducive to having a meaningful conversation about how the team can improve.

You may devise other ways to "inspect and adapt" that don't require a meeting on a regular cadence. I used to collect improvement ideas in a shoebox every day, and every day, I asked a team member to pull one out randomly at the daily standup. We discussed the improvement item as part of standup to see if it was something the team wanted to tackle that day! Continuous improvement that works!

Periodically, when the box became too full, we would schedule a retrospective and empty the box to see if there were any great ideas that the team wanted to implement. The cadence was up to the team; I didn't mandate when they scheduled the retrospective, but if I recall, we never went more than a month between formal retrospectives, and most often, our retros were still on a bi-weekly cadence.

4. Vary the Technique:

Tailor your approach to facilitate the retrospective to what the team needs. Dive into your retrospective "toolbox" and select the right tool to support the team based on your observations. Refrain from the same old "What went well, what could go better, actions" template. It gets old real fast!

Instead, take notes throughout the sprint and analyze potential focus areas for the team to work on. You can vary the techniques by consulting this wonderful resource for retrospectives.  Most importantly, you should consider where the team is currently and what they need most from you as their coach and Scrum Master.

5. Ensure you can talk about the "stinky fish"!

A team with no psychological safety won't get much value out of a retrospective since they will rarely talk about anything below the surface-level problems. A Google study called the "Aristotle Project" identified Psychological Safety as the most important determinant of team success. So what will you do to build a shared belief that the team is a safe place for interpersonal risk-taking?

One of the most effective techniques is to facilitate a team chartering session that helps the team articulate their expectations of each other, their expectations of the people who define what they work on, and from you, the Scrum Master/Project Manager/Team lead. It's not enough to just hold a chartering session (check-box charter?) but to visit it often, update it when changes are needed, call people out and encourage the team to do the same when agreed-upon protocols are not followed.

Of course, there is no safety without a strong commitment from leadership to encourage risk-taking and innovative behaviors. These may fail more often than not. However, the payoff can be huge as teams will develop a strong sense of safety and can draw upon their creativity to solve problems in unexpected ways.

6. And finally, have fun!

Retrospectives are as much a celebration of the team's accomplishments as they are an opportunity to learn and improve. Make sure they are a fun event people look forward to.

This goes back to preparation and knowing your team; what do they need? How can you help them? And how will you prepare to facilitate an awesome retrospective? In our "Art of Facilitation" class, we cover many techniques that cover all 6 of the points in this article and many more. The one thing we stress in that class is the need to be prepared for any meeting. This is never more true than for the retrospective!

With adequate preparation, you can design a retrospective that celebrates the team's accomplishment, gives them time to appreciate one another, and also time to discuss the "stinky fish" while having fun doing so.

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And for a little fun, watch this video by the same title:

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