Improving with Agile Retrospectives

Meeting Ester Derby at the Agile Coaching Conference - 2013.

Agile Retrospectives: At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. — 12th Principle: Agile Manifesto

Retrospectives are my favorite of the Agile Ceremonies. A well-facilitated Retrospective provides a team with insights on how they can improve. This information should be used to set one or two team goals.

“Retro” vs “Project Post-Mortem”

Unlike a typical “Project Post-Mortem” or “Lessons Learned” session that occurs at the end of the development cycle, Agile Retrospectives occur multiple times during the cycle. Scrum Teams should be engaging in Retrospectives at the end of each iteration, or Sprint. Initially, team members may try to schedule these less frequently; which is not advised. This Agile Ceremony is the critical piece in building trust and learning from mistakes and successes. Interestingly, the Retrospective is really more about the future than it is about the past. It is important for teams to take this time to inspect and adapt; as this is the crux behind Agility.

Facilitation – Not Presentation

A good Retrospective is facilitated, not presented. As an Agile Coach, I will typically facilitate the first few Retrospectives for a team, transparently sharing the 5 phases as I am facilitating them through the process. Each Sprint, I begin engaging the Scrum Master more in the process of weaning him/her into the facilitation role. An effective Retro is not driven by the facilitator, but rather is led by a servant leader who elicits honest feedback from the team. This requires patience and should result in more conversation between the team members, less from the facilitator. The Retro should be facilitated in a way that allows team members to candidly share perspectives with the clear intention of setting goals to resolve challenges. If the goals are not set, the Retro becomes the all-dreaded “Bitch Session.”

I.G.I.D.E. – The Retrospective Format

In their book, “Agile Retrospectives,” Ester Derby and Diana Larsen outline a five-step process and various exercises that can be used to facilitate successful Retrospective Ceremonies. This book is a great reference for any Scrum Master or Agilist. Each of the five phases can be facilitated differently, and a variety of exercises have been included in the book. There are also websites dedicated to sharing Retrospective exercises for just about anything a team may be encountering. It’s recommended that we try different activities each Sprint to keep the team engaged and effectively inspecting and adapting.

I named the five phases outlined in the book to create an easy-to-remember acronym, I.G.I.D.E.:

  • Intro – The purpose of this 10-minute introduction is to break the ice, connect the team and create a safe environment where the team can check in and begin honest introspection. This can be a quick, fun exercise asking the team members to describe the past Sprint as if it were a vehicle, a color, a movie, a rockband… etc. And have them explain why it relates to that item they chose. Another quick intro is to ask the team members to “check in” with Glad-Mad-Sad and explain why they feel one or more of those emotions coming into the Retrospective.
    The facilitator may also choose to begin by introducing the Agile Prime Directive. This aids in creating a safe environment for sharing. This brief exercise should bring the team members present in the room with their teammates.
  • Gather Data – This is the crux of the Retrospective as it is the time when team members share their individual perspectives during the Sprint. This phase can be facilitated in many ways. I recommend using post-its and Sharpies whenever possible, or a virtual board such as Trello. These techniques allow the individuals to write more candid input than they may share verbally. Keep in fun and interesting!
  • Inspect Data – Once the team members have written out their perspectives, wins and challenges, they should post them on a board, or table so they can be grouped together and shared with the group. Common themes should be grouped together, and the team should have the opportunity to discuss any items of interest. It is important to maintain a sense of safety as issues are discussed. The facilitator should encourage team members to openly discuss issues with the goal of finding resolutions during the session.
  • Decide what to do – After healthy discussions have occurred, I ask the team to vote 1-2 topics that have been uncovered during the session. A simple “dot vote” works great. If you don’t have stickers, you can simply ask people to mark a dot on 3 topics of interest. The topic(s) with the most dots will become the focus for the upcoming Sprint. Once the team has identified the top 1-2 categories of interest, they can agree upon a goal for each challenge. Each goal should be a “SMART Goal; specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely. Often times, issues may be outside of the team’s control. In that instance, I will encourage the team to consider things they can do to resolve the challenge. The goal may simply be to arrange a meeting with another group or individual to discuss the observations and challenges with the intent of finding ways to resolve it together. This simple technique has proven to be quite effective and empowering as I have literally seen teams turn around in the wake of setting such goals and following through, taking action together.
  • End – Retrospectives can be powerful, intense, cathartic and also draining. it’s important to send the team off on a good note. That’s why I like ending with the Core Protocols “Appreciation Game.” This can feel vulnerable at first, but us incredibly powerful. After all, we don’t hear that we are appreciated nearly as much as we should. This activity unifies the team and often becomes the “favorite part of the Retro.”

Retro Resources

For innovative, fun Retrospective activities, check out any of these resources: