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Retrospectives – for newbies

For most newbie Scrum Masters the retrospective meeting can be very daunting. The internet is littered with all sorts of things you’re supposed to do in a retro. If your team (or company) is new to agile techniques and you’ve never even attend a retrospective, then facilitating one well is even harder.

“A meeting to improve things? Really? We don’t have time for that! We’d rather work in that time!”

Where to start

First, we observe.

Where should you start if you are a newbie Scrum Master or if your team is new to retrospectives?

First – attend a retrospective of a more experienced Scrum Master and mature team. Ask the local community if anyone is willing to allow you to observe. Remember that if they do, this is an important meeting for the team and you must stay in the role of an observer and out of the way of the interactions in the meeting – a fly on the wall!

Agile Retrospectives by Esther Derby & Diana LarsenNext – we suggest buying the book Agile Retrospectives by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. This book explains why retrospectives are important and breaks the retro down into 5 stages: Set the Stage, Gather data, Analyse, Action, Close. It had loads of activities that you can use during any one the stages. This is the type of book that you dont read from cover to cover  – rather you pick it up and use it over many years whenever you have a retro to inspire you with great ideas.

The book might scare you  bit if you have never facilitated a retro before 🙂 When we teach retro’s to new scrum masters we emphasise 3 of the stages: Data Gathering, Analysis and Action. If you focus on these 3 – you will get value from the meeting. Once you and the team see and believe in the value of the meeting, adding the other stages will feel more natural and you will be able to facilitate them without feeling awkward.

Time Well Spent

It is important to spend enough time in each section, and not skip sections. This is much more tricky that in appears. Even in a casual conversation we want to hop ahead to actions. We know the problem, we know what to do to solve it – so why not jump ahead to the actions?

The reason is because we assume things. Everyone makes assumptions all the time. When you are working in a team, you need to hear everyone’s thoughts. Usually when something goes wrong (or right) its not because of 1 thing, but rather because of a bunch of things that happened in a specific way. If we continuously action without analysing – we are usually just fighting the fire, putting a band aid on instead of trying to understand the underlying root causes.

We teach that a retro should not be under 90 minutes for a two week sprint. If you finish sooner that is fine, but allow for the 90 minutes to deeply explore what is happening for everyone on the team. Perhaps if you have 1 week sprints this is too much – I’m not sure? All the retrospectives we have observed that are under 60 minutes seem rushed and as if everyone was just trying to get out as quickly as possible.

And Action!

Which brings us to actions. Most teams we see leave their retrospective with a list of several actions and never do any of them. Three days into the sprint – no-one can remember any of the actions. We advise: Only commit to 1 action. I know you and the team want to improve on more than 1 thing. And that is fine. Improve on as many as you want – but only commit to one – as a team. Not one action for each person in the team.

When you decide on your action, focus on the wording. “Communicate better” is what we refer to as a Beauty Queen statement. It is as useful as “I want world peace”. Yes – that’s great, but not practical and not concrete enough to achieve in 2 weeks. If your team feels strongly that “Communicate better” is enough for them ask some questions, and have them make a few notes.

  • What are we going to do differently to communicate better?
  • How will we know if we are communicating better?
  • What will the signs be if we are not communicating better?
  • Who will notice and bring it to the teams attention if this is not happening?
If you do it, you own it

If you, as the scrum master, are taking all these notes – stop.  This action is not for you, it is for the team. In order for them to own it they need to write it down and word it. You should guide with some questions but not lead or push them to the action you most want to see (also very tricky!).

Preparation is Key

As a scrum master you should be preparing for a retro well in advance, start the week before. Notice what is happening on the team, perhaps ask the team for a theme for the retro? Start planning activities for the retro. Jean Tabaka in Collaboration Explained suggests that you should spend twice the amount of time of the meeting planning for it. So a 90 minute retro should have 3 hours of planning that went into it  🙂

Safety First

The people who attend the retro must feel safe. They need to be able to be honest without having to defend or attack. Your team should have this ability – if not, your retros will be very difficult and you as the facilitator will need to work on that first. Ask your team if they would like to invite anyone else to the retro. Personally I think the Product Owner should be at the retro but only if the team and the PO have respect and trust with each other. If not, don’t invite the PO until you have established that trust. Perhaps every 3 sprints have a special retro with the PO to discuss how the team and PO work together – this might start building a bond.

I think the most important thing to remember is to not stop having retros. Even if you and your team are perfect. Don’t stop. Once you stop retros, you stop reflecting and analysing and very quickly – without anyone noticing – you stop improving. If you feel everything is sunshine and flowers – have a retro to discuss that. Why is everything so smooth? What have you done right? How can you keep ‘doing right’?

Sjoe! This was suppose to be a quick, short post on starting with retros … and now it feels really long! I hope this assists some newbies with a few simple steps (those are the highlighted parts!). If you’ve been doing retro’s for a while and they feel a bit stale – ask someone to observe one of yours and ask them for feedback. We sometimes don’t notice how we have become the impediment 🙂

Growing Agile will be holding a 1 day course on Retrospectives to teach a few facilitation techniques, and some important aspects. The course will include a visit to your company to observe and provide feedback on one of your retros. If you want to get to that next level, come join us on the course.