Retrospectives: A Valuable yet Misunderstood Ritual

Hey friends,

Retrospectives are a valuable ritual to have as a team, but can be quite misleading when not properly executed. I often see teams going through what they call an agile transformation, and one of the most important rituals for them is the retrospective[1]. Only that, unfortunately, it isn’t really a retrospective – it usually feels like a collection of reports, with some blame game in-between.

I like to think of a retrospective as a continuous way of improving the way a team does work. It may sound obvious to some, since continuous and iterative improvement is the core of all this agile thing, but it’s worth reinforcing the point. Ideally, a team will have open communication and will discuss problems as soon as they arise; and also, team members will often look for improvements to make their daily life easier and to deliver better products that will make the client happier.

It all sounds great in theory, but in practice it can be difficult to do: sometimes the team is too large to communicate well enough; sometimes the team is not mature enough to talk about problems openly (this is the case where the blame game begins); and sometimes there may be just so much to do that we never stop to think about how to improve it. There are things we get used to and just accept, thinking “this is the way it is”, as much as we try to not do it. This is what retrospectives tackle most effectively, in my opinion, by keeping the team on track and pushing everyone to think and discuss improvements. Teams need to be critical about their own work, otherwise they just get stuck and become part of the process.

In Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great, Esther Derby and Diana Larsen propose the following retrospective structure:

1. Set the stage
2. Gather data
3. Generate insights
4. Decide what to do
5. Close the retrospective

As a facilitator, when setting the stage I like to talk about why are we gathering together and what’s the structure we will follow, restating the retrospective goal. I didn’t do this before, and I often found team members giving me feedback saying that it helps a lot to know what are the retrospective activities before we start. This way, people keep focus on what they are doing, rather than thinking “Is this the moment to talk about it?” or “When are we deciding on actions?”. This is also a good moment to remind everyone of the prime directive, and I cannot reinforce enough how important it is to say this out loud before running any activity (and keep the message visible on a board so that the team sees it during the retrospective):

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.[2]

It’s is also a good moment to invite everyone to talk. It may sound silly, but people will feel more comfortable to speak in the retrospective after they are invited to talk the first time. There’s one exercise I particularly like, which is to ask the team to describe the previous iteration (or period of time since the last retrospective) with one word. This fulfills the purpose of having everyone talking, without occupying much time but still giving valuable data about how the team is feeling. Depending on what’s the outcome here, it may be worth tweaking the next exercises to help the team to surface the pain points.

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 10.39.36 AM

Next, there is the Gather Data stage. The goal here is to have the team sharing their views about events and facts. Naturally, each person will have a different perspective and will feel differently, even if they faced the same issues or challenges. Some facilitators try to focus only on actual events and leave the feelings aside in this stage, but I hardly think that anyone will be able to describe facts without biasing them with their own point of view[3].

I’ll talk here about two activities that I like to use and work very well together[4]. First, I run the Happiness Radar, and then I use its inputs to drive an activity that Paulo calls DAKI. In the Radar activity, each team member is invited to put one vote for each of the following areas: People, Process and Technology. The vote represents if they are happy, sad or indifferent with that area.

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 4.16.03 PM

As you can see in the image above, a color code is associated with each of the areas. This is used for the DAKI activity, where the participants are invited to write down practices that they think the team should Drop, Add, Keep and/or Improve. It’s interesting to see how clusters show up for each area, depending on how their “happiness score” is. Also, it surfaces quite well how the team is facing their problems: a lot of improve and adds may suggest positivity and new ideas, while a lot of post-its in Drop usually mean that there is a clear issue to handle.

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 4.18.03 PM

Following Esther and Diana’s structure, we would then get to the Generate Insights part of the retrospective. However, I don’t see this as a completely separate part: I personally start questioning the team while grouping the notes in the previous activity’s last few minutes. It’s natural that, while gathering data, people will look at each other notes and will speak up some thoughts. I think there is a level of control needed, so that everyone gets a fair time to think and write notes down, but I also like to watch how the team starts discussions without much interference. Nevertheless, after all notes are on the board and grouped, it’s time to talk about it.

What I’m about to say is true for the whole retrospective, but specially in this moment: all of it works much better when you have an external facilitator. It’s very common to have team members facilitating the retrospective (in my previous projects, usually the Iteration Manager), which isn’t inherently bad, but the discussions tend to be guided by their point of view – even when they are trying not to do so. Not only that, an external facilitator will often question things that the team considers obvious (or part of the process), instigating everyone to think about their practices and talk about them. I’ve seen more than once, specially in projects where people joined after they started, that some “obvious practices” where not really obvious for everyone.

A good facilitator will challenge the team and ask the right questions so that the discussion is productive, but I’m not saying that the facilitator will solve any problem. Actually, I consider a retrospective good when I leave it thinking about more practices and improvements than I did before it – not necessarily solutions. This connects to the next phase in the retrospective, where the team needs to decide what to do. Not much will happen unless the team gets to the actions.

Deciding which actions to take is a tricky exercise. I often see teams owning more actions than they can resolve in one iteration’s time, and as a result they lose belief in the retrospective. Sometimes, also, the actions end up being way bigger than they should – or even not clear enough. For instance, “decrease build time” is a fair thing to expect after a whole discussion about how that affects the team’s productivity. It is, however, a wish – not an action item by itself. How do you say it is done? If it decreases from ten minutes to nine, is that good enough? “make the build run constantly in less than seven minutes” is slightly better, but it sounds a little too abstract yet, doesn’t it? You may know what’s the end goal, but how to get there?

Screen Shot 2013-04-30 at 11.13.23 AM

When deciding what to do, the team should pick items that they can accomplish until the next retrospective. They must be specific, measurable and realistic. The team should be able to treat them as user stories – and actually, following up on their progress in stand-ups is a good way to remember that they are not just ideas. They can be cards on the wall. Coming back to the build time issue, one way to tackle it would be “Change the build scripts so that they run in parallel”. But can the team do that in time? Is there a dependency with someone from other team? If that’s the case, is it useful to narrow it down to something like “Setup a meeting with Jacob to discuss build parallelization”? That’s something for the team to decide, and the facilitator role is to instigate this discussion.

Once the team has actions and owners, it’s time to close the retrospective. Action items should have owners and must be exposed to the team visually in the next days – maybe on a flip chart, or on the story card wall if the team decides to deal with them that way. Everyone’s time must be appreciated and, of course, it’s good to take some time to check what went well and what can be improved in the retrospective itself. Hopefully, the team will have a better understand of their problems and some food for thought.

Now, coming back to the beginning: why did I say that retrospectives are misunderstood?
Because they are nothing more than a checkpoint for something that a great team does naturally every day: continuous improvement. Adopting retrospectives just because the book says so isn’t effective. Any structure or exercise is only a guideline, because in the end who makes the retrospective effective is the group of participants. This is a practice that should come from the team.

Maybe this is a good topic to cover in your next retrospective ;)

What are your thoughts?


[1] The top 2 rituals are daily stand-ups and user stories, also often misunderstood. ^

[2] ^

[3] The 6 thinking hats is a very good exercise to separate facts and feelings, and also pushes the team members to think differently. However, it can be very time consuming and it is not an easy one to facilitate. ^

[4] All credits to Paulo Caroli’s activities catalog, a great reference for any retrospective facilitator: ^


Being an effective Inception participant

Hey friends,

Recently I’ve been in two inceptions, one with a distributed team and another one with the whole team on-site. Before that, I’ve been to some meetings that people called inceptions, but I refuse to comply with people who call “looking at a spreadsheet to review previously written stories” as “inceptions”.

In all of them, a few team members were not sure about how to participate effectively and what was expected from them – so I’ll list here some thoughts that might help anyone going to an inception for the first time (and also experienced folks who are looking for ways to improve).

First of all, participating in an inception with a distributed team is a whole different experience. It’s way harder for the team to visualize the information gathered, which reduces active participation. Besides getting very boring, it’s just plain ineffective to try to run a distributed inception with the usual format, just looking for ways to make it look like it isn’t distributed at all. You need to go beyond that. I’ll write a post specifically on how to make distributed meetings more effective some other day, along with some alternatives on how to use different locations (and possibly different timezones) in your advantage.

Now, coming back to the inception topic, regardless of being on-site or remote. Prepare in advance. Read everything you can about what will be discussed and start thinking on how to solve possible problems. If you have an idea over what will be the project’s scope, talk to your coworkers about their experiences with similar projects. If possible, meet the inception participants before it starts: build relationships early on and get that team feeling as soon as you can. Start the discussions and present your ideas to everyone before the inception even starts, if you have the chance. Push the team to discuss the inception format before it starts.

There isn’t a checklist on what you need to do in order to help the team once the activities begin. However, if there was one, the first point would be:

Take notes of everything

Regardless of the activities your facilitator comes up with, there will be always information flowing and not being gathered. There is always that product owner who talks a lot and throws many ideas out in the open. There is always the architect or subject matter expert[1] who shows concerns on how that new feature will fit in the current system. There is always that stakeholder who doesn’t quite know how to explain what’s the organization longer term goal, but somehow expects you to understand. You need to take notes of all this information. It’s difficult to filter out what’s useful at the moment or not, so capture everything. Have post its, index cards and pens[2] and write it down. Don’t be afraid to ask if what you wrote down is correct, or to narrow down that information and make it specific.

The goal here is not to capture the absolute truth and document it. It’s to gather information. To be an effective inception participant, you need to understand the context and be able to discuss it. Use the breaks between sessions to go over your notes and remember what was said. Then, you should be more capable of coming back with questions. Ask everything! I believe it’s needless to say that you should question everything the whole time. Don’t accept just the -what-, but look for the -whys-. I’ve seen product owners unable to justify why they needed a tool, and instead just had in their minds how the tool should look. Surfacing the reasons for building something early on helps a lot to drive the discussions to what is really necessary.

Other very powerful use of “taking notes of everything” is to capture assumptions. In an inception, you’ll often hear “yeah we should do this assuming that <fill any crazy or unlikely possibility here>” or “this is easy because <insert thing that doesn’t exist here> is done!”. It might sound silly, but often features are designed and user stories are written based on assumptions that are not true, and won’t be any time soon. Don’t consider anything said as -true-, consider it as -assumptions-. Write in a post-it and put on the wall, and don’t be afraid of referring to it in later activities.

Now, I talked about gathering information to become a more capable team member, and also about capturing assumptions so that the team doesn’t fall in a hole of insane and unrealistic scope. There is another thing which deserves full attention:

Make the information visible

Share your notes with the team. Make them visible. Put them on the wall, white board, flip charts, or just lay them on the table in a way that everyone can see (this is the essential part where being distributed becomes a huge problem). When people see what you’re writing, they begin to understand what YOU are understanding, and the discussion goes a step further.

I can give a real example on how this helped the team in my previous inception: We had a Product Owner who talked a lot and assumed that everyone was following (which wasn’t the case, since some people didn’t have all the context behind his ideas and even not being a native English speaker was a barrier for some). People would, then, write down notes that just didn’t reflect what he was saying. He quickly understood that he needed to slow down. He then started rewriting the notes himself. This was awesome for two reasons: it helped the team to clarify their doubts without directly interrupting the conversation[3]; and it made the PO to engage and write stuff himself, making accurate notes that were referenced throughout the whole inception later. Also, when we started activities to write stories, it was already natural for him to write them down with his own words.

Also, you should be aware that much of what you write needs to be thrown away (either for being wrong and corrected in a different note, or just being redundant). I really like the exercise of going through all the notes on the wall by the end of each session, reviewing if what is there is valid and clarifying open questions[4]. If there is anything out there that is just not needed anymore, don’t be afraid of removing it[5]. Ideas evolve during an inception, and sometimes a note from the first day is not true anymore on the third. However, be aware of not losing assumptions on which the project depends, and to not lose the notes where the true intention or necessity of the stakeholders is described.

One point I didn’t mention about making things visible is the use of projectors or previously drawn diagrams. I strongly believe that, in an inception, the team should understand the problem and build the solution together – and bringing anything previously done goes against this. However, there might be existing architecture diagrams or even mockups of what the solution should look like in the future. I suggest keeping this to a minimum and, when it’s needed, just refer to it – and not make it a fundamental part of the discussion. What I’ve seen previously is key stakeholders coming to inceptions with all their ideas written in a spreadsheet and just reading them to the team. -This is not how inceptions work-. However, it’s important to not throw their ideas away. Instead, while they go over their ideas and everyone just watches, start writing stuff down and make it visual. Change the flow of the meeting. You don’t need to shut down the projector, but you can surely change the flow and engage the whole team.

Run the extra mile

Even though pieces of what I wrote here might sound like a facilitator’s job for some, I strongly believe that the whole team should actively participate and make the inception happen. I don’t like to see “roles” in inceptions[6]. Everyone should to their best to understand the “business needs”, to clarify that and to build a realistic plan that makes sense.

It’s exhausting to think about activities, make them happen, understand the needs, capture them, clarify questions, think about technology, discuss architecture, see where your project fits in the organization, who you might need to finish it, among many other things you will discuss in an inception – and most of the time, all of this points come at the same time. It’s not a one-man’s job. That’s why there’s a team. Support each other.

Of course things will change when the project starts – people will have new ideas, some dependencies won’t be fulfilled, the team might change… It happens. A successful inception is the one that minimizes the gap between “the plan” and reality.

What are your thoughts?


PS.: Make sure all your inception artifacts are well taken care of after the inception ends. All flip charts, drawings, post its and pictures should be easily accessible for the team throughout the whole project. It’s not just something to remember the good old times: it is also a matter of saving all that useful information and being able to come back to it.

[1] Even though roles such as “architect” and “SME” are not agile-ish, from my experience is unlikely that you will participate in an inception for a whole new project, in a green field world. Most of the times there will already be an existing system, and thus, there will be people who own part of the knowledge. ^

[2] Help the facilitator. Bring material to the room and share with the whole team before the meeting starts. Don’t be the only one taking notes – instead, give everyone the option and tools necessary to take notes. As the time passes, it’s likely that people will join you and will stick post its on the wall with their notes. ^

[3] Specially when working with inexperienced people, you need to be aware that sometimes they don’t even know if they should understand something or not. They might get intimidated and leave the conversations with a lot of questions unanswered. Having the habit of writing everything down naturally helps these people. ^

[4] You might want to move the open questions to a Parking Lot and discuss them in a separate session, due to time constraints. However, if there is any outstanding question or issue, follow up with the team as soon as possible – it might become a blocker for the next sessions. ^

[5] Some people are sensitive and don’t like to see what they wrote down being torn apart and thrown in the trash. Be aware of that. ^

[6] In fact, I don’t like seeing roles at all in agile teams – but this is another discussion =) ^