Empowering Teams With Retrospectives

If there is one thing that embodies agile mindset then it’s the continuous and constant apply, inspect and adapt -cycle that goes on and on. In mature and advanced teams this is a natural part of daily work and goes on even without extra rituals. Still there is time and place to do it formally and that is something we call a retrospective.

What?

Since people learned to communicate people have gathered around a camp fire to share stories and tips around what worked and giving evolution a boost in the process. Retrospectives are a modern day way to achieve the same thing – learn from experience. Retrospective offers a chance for a structured inspect and adapt session. I roughly divide retrospectives to 3 categories: sprint, half year (some people call these iteration or release retros) and full project retrospective. All these have different meaning and more importantly a different scope. Sprint retrospectives are the corner stone of process improvement on daily activities. It’s one of the key artifacts in Scrum and implicitly defined in scrum guide. To do proper scrum, you have to have a retrospective at the end of each sprint. Kanban does not define retrospectives, but it’s highly recommended to do them every few weeks. Still in a sprint retrospective you can only do so much. If you only look back few weeks, you can only touch the surface. If you want to dig deeper, you need to look way back and dedicate time for it. That’s when a half year or a project retrospective comes into play. These take a lot more time and planning to do them properly. To look back a half year, you need at least 4 hours even with a small team, preferably a full day. Time needed is directly related to time frame you are looking to reflect on and how many people will attend. If you have more people, there will be more conversation and you need more time to make sure that everyone gets to speak their mind.

Why?

When done properly, retrospective empowers the team. It makes them feel like a change is a possibility, it makes them feel capable of change. Might sound like an obvious thing, but for a young guy at a new company these things are NOT obvious. Reasonable tasks that make a difference empower the team. This is also a key ingredient of creating self organizing teams. Retrospective is a tool for satisfaction and improving customer collaboration. You often run into prejudice that having clients present will hinder conversation when the contrary is true. Having another perspective only fuels conversation and diversity helps when creating action plans for the future.

How?

“The most important thing about retrospectives is that you have them”
-Henrik Kniberg, Crisp

I could not agree more with Henrik, as long as you do retrospectives, you have hope. Format matters, but start easy and do what ever feels comfortable. Just going off site for a coffee and a donut might good way to start. Just grab a notebook and pen and take notes during the conversation. This kind of structureless retrospective can work for a short while, but you might soon run into problems. Retrospectives that don’t result into doable actions are not really worth that much in the long run. Using 5 phase retrospective structure that Diana Larsen & Esther Derby introduced in their book is highly recommended. Each phase has an explicit purpose and should not be skipped, how decide to facilitate each phase is up to you and open for variation. Just for a quick introduction or reminder what the phases are:

1. Set the stage
Create focus on the matter, agree on rules and make sure everyone understand what is the purpose of the retrospective.

2. Gather Information
Create common understanding what has happened during the project or time span you are reflecting on.

3. Generate Insight
Spot patterns and underlining themes on information gathered in previous phase.

4. Decide What To Do
The most critical phase in the retrospective so really put effort here. What you need is clearly specified doable tasks. It seems to help if you tell people to handle it like sprint planning where you take big backlog items and split them to tasks. Retrospective tasks should be something that you can write on a card and put on the team’s task board.

5. Close
Something you really should do at the end of any meeting – close the meeting properly and summarize what ever was decided in the meeting. Make sure there is a common understanding of what was decided. This is the moment when you should also ask feedback for your session to improve your facilitation and retrospective planning skills. DialogSheets are a great tool for sprint retrospectives, they offer a clear structure and retrospective plan that is easy to follow and engaging. If you plan to reflect on a longer time span, try to get a neutral experienced facilitator for better results.

Conclusion

Retrospectives are a corner stone for any agile organization and there really is no good reason not to have retrospectives. This was just a quick overview of the process and there are a lot of good resources how to get started. The point is to get started. I would recommend reading Norm Kerth’s book on retrospectives first and then using Larsen & Derby book more as a hand book when planning retrospectives.

There is always something you do better and that is the essence of kaizen. Retrospectives are a great way to plant the seed of Kaizen to the team and to the rest of the company. If you really think that your team is doing so great that you have nothing to improve, then most likely you are the problem.

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Posted on 13/03/2012, in Agile, Retrospectives, Scrum. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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