Reinvigorated Retrospectives

Have you heard these statements lately?

“Our retrospectives have dried up.”
“Why are we doing this? We never do anything about it.”
“Uh, I don’t know – there’s nothing that we need to change.”

Well, this is not uncommon for agile development teams to reach the point where their retrospectives become ineffective or the team members stop seeing value in the meeting. In fact, this occurs with both newly formed teams that just haven’t grasped “Inspect and Adapt”, and mature agile development teams that have lost sight of the need for continuous improvement. There are multiple reasons why retrospectives may be going south, but there are three biggies that stand out in the crowd:

  • They’ve Become Monotonous. Ok, so we’ve been asking the same three questions for the last six months – “What can we Start? What should we Stop? And, what should we continue?” Although this format is tried-and-true, it takes on Borg-like repetitiveness – especially when it happens every two weeks.
  • No Actions Taken. “That’s a great idea”, “We should do that”, “We need to make that happen”. These are all great phrases often exuded during retrospectives but rarely are the items implemented. In fact, after the fourth retrospective performed – those actions and/or issues mentioned in the first retrospective are re-digested.
  • Quiet Majority. The quiet majority are those in the room that simply never speak up unless called upon. These folks often are incredibly smart, but there are those in the room that tend to overpower and those that have just given up on sharing their input because of the first two reasons identified above.

So now you are saying, “This is exactly what’s wrong with our retrospectives, but what should we do about it?” Well, here are a couple great ideas that work:

Sailboat

SailboatThere is a great game called Speedboat from The Innovation Games Company. The original goal of Speedboat is to frame up a constructive manner by which customers can provide product feedback without spiraling into a complaint session. The great thing is that this game can be used by teams for performing retrospectives. This game has been transformed and adapted to Sailboat (first saw this posted here). Here’s how it works:

  1. Assemble the team, you’ll need a whiteboard (or sheet of easel paper), sticky notes, and black pens.
  2. Draw an ocean, a sailboat floating on the ocean, and a couple anchors. If you are the artistic type, feel free to add some flare (I like fish).
  3. Hand the pens and sticky notes to each of the attendees, and ask them to write down the bad things (or issues) and good things (or efficiencies) that have been discovered since the last retrospective. Give everyone 5-10 minutes to write down their ideas, thoughts, and opinions – encourage the team to participate.
  4. After everyone is complete, put the sticky notes on the sailboat – the good things represent wind in the sails and the bad things represent the anchors that slow the boat.
  5. Once the sticky notes have been placed, have the team organize them into themes or simply groups of like items (e.g. issues surrounding quality). Eliminate duplicates and consolidate where possible. Within each theme, rank the different sticky notes.
  6. Now the team should discuss each top item and identify issues that need to be worked and/or stories to add to the backlog.

4Ls

The 4L’s is a retrospective technique put forth by Mary Gorman and Ellen Gottesdiener. Teams like this format in that it’s quick and forces all parties in the room to interact. The 4L’s are: Liked, Learned, Lacked, and Longed For. As you can see, the 4L’s give people a simple area to focus their thoughts that can easily be translated into issues and or stories for the backlog. Here’s how it works (taken straight from Mary’s and Ellen’s Blog):

  1. Assemble the team, you’ll need four posters (easel paper), sticky notes, and black pens.
  2. Hang the four posters (easel paper) around the room and title the posters appropriately, one for each “L”.
  3. Ask the team members to individually write down what they Liked, Learned, Lacked, and Longed For since the last retrospective. They should write down one per sticky note. Give the team 5-10 minutes and ask them to put their sticky notes on the corresponding posters.
  4. Divide the team up into four subgroups and assign an “L” to each group. They should read all the notes, consolidate and identify themes.
  5. Have each subgroup report on the themes – this means read out-loud and converse.
  6. As a team, decide how they might use the data. For example, ask “How can we satisfy the “lacked” or “longed for” items?” Identify issues that need to be worked and or stories to be added to the backlog.

Both the Sailboat game and the 4L’s encourage full team participation, they are fast and focused, and they can be fun. No matter which technique you use for your retrospective, always remember a few key rules:

  • Focus on process not individuals. If there are issues between individuals, have them work it out and if necessary – involve a 3rd party.
  • Involve everyone. The approaches above help drive this; however, be sure folks are contributing and more importantly they feel their input is important.
  • Do something about it. The items identified should be tracked and acted upon.  If you are a VersionOne user, you have the perfect mechanism to capture issues and stories during a retrospective and keep-up with them as they are worked by the team.

Please share your ideas and thoughts, retrospectives can and should be fun — and they are immensely valuable.

If you are totally new to the whole concept of retrospectives or you really just think it is about getting a refresher, check out the Retrospectives section of the VersionOne Agile Checklist.

This entry was posted in Agile Development, Agile Teams. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Reinvigorated Retrospectives

  1. Jacob Creech says:

    Thanks very much for these new approaches, Matt. We’ll definitely have to try them out at our next retro. Always good to have a bit of variety like this. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Matt Badgley says:

    I stumbled on one more that would be useful for an established team. It’s called The Story of Our Sprints and I found it on TastyCupCakes.org. The basic idea is to have the team tell a story together, much like a kid’s campfire game. The part I like the most is the story to tell about what the next sprint should look like and focusing on those things the team should do to make that story come true.

  3. Pingback: VersionOne | Serious Games At Work

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