Goodbye to unproductive retrospectives – make them count!

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Learn three pro tips to make easy but powerful improvements to become a master in running effective retrospectives that add real value. You don’t need to be an Agile Guru to facilitate effective retrospectives.

I often hear Scrum Master, Team Leads, or Agile Coaches complaining that the team doesn’t like the retrospective anymore or is not engaged in it anymore.

I believe the retrospective is one of the most important meetings within a modern organization. The retrospective should not be the only meeting where you try to improve. Still, it is a good approach to sit together with your team and take the time to identify possible improvements.

You can make some easy but powerful improvements to get your retrospective back on track.

#1 We first need to finish this last item

When do you plan the retrospective? We often plan the retro at the end of an iteration. The Scrum guide, for what it is worth, does not say when to schedule a retro. In the Scrum guide, you read: “The Scrum Team inspects how the last Sprint went with regards to…“. This implies you don’t inspect a sprint when it just started. Most people plan the retrospective just before the end of the sprint when most team members are trying to finish work in the current sprint. Doing a retro just before the end of the sprint could result in some stress for some team members. I’m not sure if the focus is on reviewing the current sprint. Of course, you will say let’s plan a retro to learn how to prevent us from always being stressed at the end of the sprint. Fair enough. But why not plan the retro a few days later? Maybe the first day of the next sprint? Yes, indeed, you can’t take learnings from the retro to improve the sprint planning. True. But to be honest, most teams have most topics not related to sprint planning. The same challenge is when you try to plan a quarterly retrospective just before the quarter ends. Plan it when the work is done and the next quarter has started.

#2 Boring, boring, boring

When I facilitated my first retrospectives in 2004, I used the “What Went Well?” and “What Went Wrong?”—using two sub-categories, team and organization. After a few retrospectives, team members already prepared the stick notes at their desks before the retro. And a few months later (back in the day, we did sprints of four weeks), they even posted the sticky notes on the whiteboard. It took me a few sprints to realize I was killing the team with the most boring retrospectives ever. During last week’s training, I was reminded again about System 1 and System 2 thinking.

System 1 is the part of your brain you prefer to use. It costs little energy, is autopilot, gives fast results, and doesn’t tire you. System 2 is where you can solve problems that cost a lot of energy and do not run on autopilot. Always using the same retrospective format, or same room, same setup, etc, makes people start using system 1. This will result in people doing the retrospective on autopilot. You should not expect any results from these kinds of retrospectives. Your goal as facilitator is to trigger the system 2 of the brain. Surprise people, change the format every time, change the location, etc. Yes, this is hard work, but you are the facilitator of the retrospective. If you prepare your retro five minutes before it starts… you are also using system 1. You can find enough inspiration on the internet nowadays. Here are some links that could be interesting to get inspiration.

#3 Do we again have to talk about this?

You have planned the retro when people have peace in their minds. You use another format every time. Great! You are almost there. There is a third issue that I often see happening. The issues are discussed, and some actions are identified, but nothing happens… In the next retrospective, we all look at the previous actions identified and conclude nothing changed. How to prevent this from happening? First, try something other than go for world peace.

Trust me, it will not happen, said but true. Try to set a smaller goal and improve by 1% every day. Small steps can also bring you to Rome. Use actionable words to describe your actions. Start with a verb, make it actionable, something you can do. An action should change something in the world; it should trigger something. If you still want to go for world peace, what would be your first step? Probably not going to the United Nations; maybe the first step would be to make a list of all major wars in the world. If you don’t know what a first step could be, at least identify a first experiment to start learning. Also, ensure the identified actions have one assignee and are visible daily (or at least in every status meeting). I also ask people for an informal status update. Did you make any progress? Do you need any help? You could argue that the facilitator should not do this, but I learned it helps people. It is just a small effort and can make a big difference.

These are my tips to facilitate effective retrospectives for the three issues that I see happening often:

  • Retrospective scheduled at inconvenience time/day;
  • Always using the same format or at least a boring form;
  • Not able to execute the identified actions.

The most important tips are to plan the retro at the start of the next iteration. Get inspired by reading this blog post and use this tool. Use verbs to describe actions and remind people when they have an action.

Do you have any other tips to facilitate effective retrospectives? Please share them with me.

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