Retrospectives can easily devolve into chaotic gripe sessions or dull affairs with low participation unless they are well-planned and executed. At each extreme, the meeting suffers from poor facilitation, which hurts morale and makes it difficult to generate concrete action items. To steer the meeting toward successful outcomes, the Scrum Master has a full set of meeting facilitation tools at his or her disposal.
One such tool is the Retrospective agenda, which is a time-boxed outline that serves as the template for the meeting’s activities. It ensures that the Retrospective progresses in a logical, step-wise fashion. With a thoughtfully crafted agenda in hand, the Scrum Master can lead the team from behind to its own fresh and actionable insights, while ensuring it doesn’t go off course into unproductive territory.
Below, we’ll look at various activity types that comprise an effective agenda. Each generates specific outcomes; in combination, they lead to agreement on actionable improvements. Within each type, you can select from an array of popular and tested activities. This allows you to keep your meetings fresh and get your participants to think outside the box. Note that your agenda is filled with “activities” rather than “discussions.” Activities can and do lead to discussions, but they can generate more personal and unexpected insights than asking the three Retrospective questions directly, sprint after sprint.
The following is a recommended agenda for a 1 hour Retrospective. There are different formulas out there for retrospective time per weeks in the sprint. 1 hour to 1-1/2 hours for a 2-week sprint should serve quite well. If you engage your soft skills of scanning the room and leading from behind, you’ll be able to judge what’s best for your team. If the activities are tightly run without rambling discussions, 1 hour should work fine for a standard team of 6-9 members. You’ll get better results if you keep things fairly fast paced, so lean towards a shorter versus a longer meeting and keep things moving. Your team will thank you for getting to a quick conclusion.
Icebreaker (10 minutes)
Getting people into the same room doesn’t constitute a meeting if you’ve co-located their bodies without co-locating their minds. As stated earlier, you are essentially architecting a network of complex hardware (brains) and software (personalities). Check-in activities boot that system up. Minds tend to wander, especially among high performing individuals who obsessively multitask. Even though electronics may be put away, you can be sure someone is working out a line of code or writing an e-mail or grocery list in their head. Your check-in activity will break these pre-meeting thought strings and get all those minds co-located and ready to collaborate.
Another function of check-ins is to establish an upbeat, friendly, and dare I say, FUN, atmosphere. We want to shake off any self-consciousness, hesitation, or insecurity. We want to open up the flood gates of free, honest, and creative contributions. Seriousness puts a damper on participation, as people tend to censor themselves and share only the most carefully considered, “right” answers. When it comes to brainstorming, we want all ideas on the table without prejudice. This is easiest when people are in a somewhat playful, unrestrained mood. So we have a two-fold purpose for our check-in: 1) clear away distracting concerns; 2) set an upbeat and collaborative tone.
Here are just a few activities to choose from:
A very direct way to defuse external distractions is the “Mind Dump.” Each participant has two large sticky notes. On one, they write what they were doing before the meeting; on the other, they write what they’ll be doing immediately after the meeting. They post these on a white board or wall under the labels “Before” and “After.” The Scrum Master reads each list, asking, “Is there anything here that can’t wait?” or “Is there something here that you need help with?” Any such wording will work. The goal is to identify and quell any potential distractions.
These allow people to reveal something unique about themselves to each other. Some options include: “Which super hero or movie character would you like to be, and why?” “If we could hold this meeting in the place of your choice, where would we be, and why?” “What’s the best thing that happened last weekend?” You can ask any open-ended question which reveals personal preferences. The goal is to help team members relate to each other and set the stage for uninhibited collaboration.
Various improvisation exercises can be used to get people interacting. In “What’s in my Box?” team members pair up, with one partner holding an imaginary box. The other partner mimes removing items from the box and announces what they are. “Here’s a nice chocolate cake.” To which the partner replies, “Yes, that’s a nice chocolate cake.” This continues for two minutes and then the partners reverse roles. Yes, this is silly! That’s the point. In the Retrospective they may be confronting sensitive issues. The purpose of this check-in is to encourage freedom of expression and empathetic listening. Participants will sometimes pull strange items like airplanes, planets, or dinosaurs from their boxes, but the only acceptable response is, “That’s a nice ________.”
Check-ins may be light-hearted, but they’re not lightweight. As long as humans are involved, there will be underlying inhibitions and distractions that impede free and productive brainstorming sessions. Once those are addressed, people will lower their guards and contribute more openly and honestly. The check-in sets the stage for the upcoming more serious swork.
Data Review (5 minutes)
In the Retrospective, you want to elicit personal reflections on how the sprint went and get unique insights on what can be improved. First, you must be sure everyone is looking at the same sprint. Presenting hard sprint data for group review narrows their focus to the facts at hand. Clear and easily digested charts should be visible to all in the room. A dashboard view of the sprint should include your burndown, defect counts, stories completed, stories deferred, outcomes of any critical meetings, sprint impacting events, etc. The raw data is presented objectively and free from any interpretation by the Scrum Master, the Product Owner, or any other team member. There are no “good” or “bad” facts here; there are only facts
Have the team look, but don’t allow any discussions just yet. You want them to absorb the information, process it individually, and stir up their own personal opinions about what to do better in the next sprint. Because group discussions can get quite unwieldy and unproductive, Scrum best practices tend to favor silent brainstorming, using a highly sophisticated information management tool – the Post-it note!
Eliciting (10 minutes)
Once your team has been allowed to reflect on the simple, mathematical facts of the sprint, you will want to elicit their feedback as to what went well, what didn’t go so well, and what could be done better. The most straightforward way to do this is to hand each member a small pad of 3X5 inch Post-it notes and a fine-tipped marker. Have them answer each question as many times as they wish, putting each brief response on a separate note. They will stick them to a prepared white board or wall with a column set up for each question: What did we do well? What didn’t we do so well? What could we do better?
In time, you may want to vary the elicitation activity to keep things interesting and encourage fresh perspectives. For example, the “Speedboat Retrospective” uses the metaphor of a speedboat for the sprint and elicits replies to four boating-inspired questions: 1) What propels us forward? (represented by an outboard motor); 2) What slows us down? (represented by an anchor); 3) Where do we crash? (represented by rocks); and 4) What rescues us? (represented by a life preserver). The scrum master sets these four quadrants up on a wall or white board, with images of the four icons (motor, anchor, rocks, and life preserver) as headers. Participants attach their notes in the appropriate quadrants.
Another fairly flexible template I created is what I call the “Wheel of Fortune.” I draw a large, six-sectioned pie chart with 3 pairs of opposite categories, for example: fast/slow, easy/hard, clear/unclear; or won/lost, coordinated/uncoordinated, continue/stop. Partner categories are located opposite each other to keep the concepts clear and simplify posting. The key is to keep the categories as general as possible, so as not to limit potential responses.
Varying your elicitation exercise will keep the team on their toes and lead them towards less obvious problems and solutions. They may come into the meeting armed with pre-conceived answers to the three basic questions, but if you stir things up with unusual or unexpected questions you’re likely to generate some fresh ideas. The key here is to elicit a wide range of responses. They will be organized into manageable groups after they surface.
Grouping (10 minutes)
Once you’ve captured these impressions, you can start grouping identical, similar, or related responses. Identical, or very similar, responses can be placed over each other; related responses can be placed near each other, and unrelated responses should be kept apart. This first phase of grouping can be done as the scrum master reads out the responses in a particular section, identifies similarities, and asks the team if particular items should be grouped together. Alternatively, the team can gather around the board and group items themselves, with minimal discussion for clarification and consensus only. When replies are grouped, the Scrum Master or another team member should write a summary statement on a new Post-it and place it over the group. Once the notes are grouped they can be sorted in the next activity.
Sorting (10 minutes)
Once you’ve grouped your Post-its to eliminate redundancies and show dependencies, you can sort them into action oriented categories to identify potential action items. A fairly simple and robust framework is Stop, Continue, and Start. Work with the team to identify which notes represent practices which should be stopped, continued, or started, or let them sort amongst themselves. For example, un-productive activities would be placed under a “Stop” heading. Items that call for new and better ways to do things would be placed under “Start.” Successful actions would be placed under “Continue” to ensure they’re not forgotten. Moving notes from the previous activities into these three categories is a precursor to creating concrete action items with assigned owners. Not all of them could or should be moved. The idea of this sorting activity is to deliberately slow down the thinking process. The team isn’t deciding what to do yet; it’s only considering what it might do (stop, start, or continue something) to address an issue. In the final activity, the team will choose action items from this pre-sorted list.
Action Items (10-15 minutes)
The team has already narrowed down its improvement candidates with the Stop-Start-Continue list, now they can decide which items to commit to. This is an activity where group discussion is most likely to be manageable and productive, since the scope of that discussion is fairly limited. As consensus builds around particular items, they are moved to an “Action Items” list, but that shouldn’t happen unless someone steps up as the “owner.” The owner drives and monitors progress. He or she may contribute directly, may coordinate the contributions of others, or may do both, but regardless, that person will spearhead the effort and drive it to conclusion. This is an area where volunteerism is your best friend. Unless someone is motivated to drive results, an action item is useless. So, it is okay if “more important” items aren’t taken up because no one steps up to own them. Without owners, they wouldn’t be completed anyway. It’s far better to complete lesser initiatives than to do nothing about the more important ones. The only criteria that matter are group consensus and individual ownership.
It’s the Scrum Master’s responsibility to record and disseminate these improvement items so that they’re not forgotten, remove impediments and ensure that progress is reported to the team. Some teams place these improvement items in their sprint backlog to give high visibility. The daily scrum is an opportunity to report progress; the team can also utilize team discussion pages, posters, email/chat communication, etc., to get the word out on any behavioral changes needed to support the action items.
In the Retrospective, we’re not just dealing with simple facts and computations; we’re dealing with human beings in all their complexity. We are consulting them individually and collectively to elicit their insights on what they might do better. There are no obviously right or wrong answers, there are only recommendations that are implemented and tested.
It takes good planning and execution to have a successful Retrospective. An agenda of activities safeguards the team from distractions, diversions, and divisions. As the team moves through a logical progression of activities, they are led to individual insights and group consensus on improvement opportunities.
The Agile mantra, “Inspect and Adapt” is realized in the Sprint Retrospective. High performing teams are always reaching for the next level of excellence. The Retrospective exposes strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities for improvement. Some call these “improvement experiments” or “hypotheses,” since there are no guarantees they’ll have the desired impact. That may be so, but as long as intelligent and deliberate effort is made, and as long as the team continues to course correct and explore new opportunities with each Retrospective, overall improvement is inevitable as successful new practices are adopted and detrimental practices are eliminated.