The Retrospective: A known recipe for improvement — with my own spice

Claus Vagner Pedersen



min. læsetid

January 3, 2019

Have you ever been at this retrospective:

The team gets together, write up some post-its on what was good/bad in the last Sprint. Vote on which ones of the bad ones to do something about. Agree that those are the things we will fix, and then at the next Retrospective no one can remember, what we actually agreed to do something about. Then we start over and do the exact same again. This creates Retrospectives that are just long meetings. Where people are frustrated and do whatever they can to avoid participating.

I have been to my share of such Retrospectives. Which has led me to take up the fight every time I encounter a Retrospective like that.
Esther Derby and Diana Larsen created a “recipe” with a set of stages recommend to go through during a Retrospective. I have used it a lot over the years, and still use it every time I run a Retrospective or have a dialog with anyone about Retrospectives.
As all chefs who cook something multiple times I have come to add my own ingredients. This is my take on the recipe, what I think is important to remember, and what to focus on.

I will not go over the generals of each stage, for that I will refer you to Derby and Larsen’s work (Agile retrospectives — Making Good Teams Great). So if you have no prior knowledge of Retrospectives, I would recommend you look that up first.

The six stages

1. Set the Stage

In my experience 2/10 teams remember this stage.
For me it is important to get the team to be present in the Retrospective. So away with all interruptions (laptops, phones etc.).
In general if you browse the web, Set the Stage is one of the stages for which you will find the most variants. I’m guessing it is because there are a lot of fun ones to do here.
I usually tend to go with some kind of team building exercise, ice breaker etc. I like to get people in a good mood, to laugh, and maybe get a bit closer to each other than during a general workday. My goal is starting the Retrospective in a good mood, from my experience that creates a better Retrospective.
Some of my personal favorites are: The Shoe Tower, Jump in Jump out, Tip your Opponent.

2. Look Back

In my experience 2/10 teams remember this stage.
Teams often forget to look back at the previous Retrospective, that is why I have added my own ingredient to the Retrospective model.
For me this is the number one Retrospective killer. I have seen it so many times, that teams forget to actually do something about what they decided last Retrospective. If we do not follow up on it, we will never know if we actually completed anything. When we do not achieve any of the improvements we agreed on. The Retrospective is just a waste of time. I have seen a lot of teams being discouraged by this.
So it is important that the team takes time to reflect on the Retrospective actions from last Retrospective. Did we complete the actions? If yes, this calls for celebration, if no, let us talk about why not.
I usually do this by going over a flip chart poster with the actions listed on, and asking the team “Did we complete this?” one by one.
Look Back can also be done before Set the Stage, but as I usually do Team Building/Icebreakers in Set the Stage this is a nice fit for me.

3. Gather Data

In my experience 9/10 teams remember this stage.
For me this stage is mostly about creating variation. It can be quite boring to do the same Gather Data activity. So spice it up!
The most common pitfall for teams in Gather Data is going in to solution mode. It is often my main task during Gather Data to pull the team back to just gathering data. To remind them that we are currently not looking for solutions but trying to recall what happened during the sprint.
Some of my personal favorites are: The Kite, Starfish, The Faces of X, Timeline.

4. Generate Insight

In my experience 4/10 teams remember this stage.
This stage is often skipped and I see a lot of teams go directly to Decide What to Do. For me it is important to spend some time on finding correlations. Are any of the statements in Gather Data related to the same root cause? Again try to keep the team out of solution mode. Skipping Generate Insight can lead to trying to fix a symptom which is actually not causing the issue.
Some of my personal favorites are: Brainstorming, Pair-up, 5 Whys.

5. Decide What to Do

In my experience 9/10 teams remember this stage.
But often I see teams just decide on something from Gather Data or Generate Insight.
I usually force teams to go through this very rigid. What do we want to do something about? What are the action items? With a focus on making the action items very actionable. We should know if it is done or not when we do the Look Back in the next Retrospective. Make sure every action item has a name of the person who will take the lead on it. It does not have to be that person who does the effort, but he/she should make sure it is done during the sprint. The action could also be to add something to our Definition of Ready/Done.
Some of my personal favorites are: Dot voting, Move It Up, Make it Actionable.

6. Close the Retrospective

In my experience 3/10 teams remember this stage.
Close the Retrospective is about acknowledging the team for their effort in the Retrospective. It is important to conclude on the Retrospective. What we decided to do and where we go from here. This is also a good time to give a positive remark if someone shared something during the Retrospective that you could feel was hard for them. Positive reinforcement about sharing what matters.

Some of my personal favorites are: Checkout, Appreciation Posts, Team Temperature.
From my experience, following this recipy for a Retrospective will enhance the outcome of the Retrospective a lot. It ensures that you cover all the angles and that you are not mislead into trying to fix symptoms rather than the actual impediment.

In future posts I will dive into some of my favorites as mentioned above. Feel free to comment if there are some you are curious to get described before others :-)

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