Need an idea for your next agile retrospective? Or 127? Retromat eBook!

Wow, this was a looooong time in the making, but it’s finally here: The Retromat eBook! So, if you’ve ever wanted to front-load your brain with each and every activity in Retromat, check out the Retromat eBook!
Cover Retromat eBook

Find the perfect fitting activity for your team and situation! Never run the same retrospective twice. Unless you have to bring one back due to popular demand :)

While I was at it, I updated and included in a lot of useful information around retrospectives, such as the basics, a default planPhase 0 & increase follow-through on action items and the interview series about remote retrospectives. I hope the result is useful to you :)

PS: If you’re the source or submitter of one of the activities currently in Retromat you get a free copy! Just email me! Ssee green box below for contact details.)

Of Baby Elephants and MVPs

As you know, I’m a sucker for a good metaphor be they coconuts or hosting. I’ve got a great new one for you: Baby Elephants! Fantastic, right?

Well, yes, it’s promising. Baby elephants – What’s not to like. But what are they a metaphor for, pray tell?

Cute baby elephant courtesy of Beratung Judith Andresen

Cute baby elephant courtesy of Beratung Judith Andresen

Judith Andresen introduced baby elephants as a metaphor for MVPs at Agile on the Beach 2016. One immediate benefit is that it short circuits endless, mostly fruitless discussions along the lines of “What exactly is an Minimum Viable Product?” “We need  an Minimum Marketable Feature instead!” “No a Minimum Loveable Feature is the way to go!” “No, it has to be a …”

Instead of arguing about different concepts, baby elephants give people concrete images to work with:

  • “I think we’re building a teenager elephant here, not a baby anymore.”
  • “We’ve got too many baby elephants in the stable already. Let’s get those out before acquiring a new one.”
  • “What are young mammoth trees (which the elephant is supposed to move) in our context?”

Judith’s fable includes much more, e.g. the context in which a baby elephant is an excellent MVP. Read the whole fable about nature-oriented forest management with baby elephants here.

Phase 0 – Checking follow-through in retrospectives

You are probably familiar with the 5 phases of a retrospective, as described in Agile Retrospectives by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. For years now I sometimes have a block before these 5 phases. I call it “Phase 0” and use it to check up on what happened to the action items the team agreed on in the last retrospective.

After all, retrospectives serve a purpose. In the long run, we want to improve and that means trying out things. If all that ever happens is talking and nothing ever changes due to retros, than why do them? Plus, teams quickly learn to resent retros in this case.
Change happens

I got the idea for Phase 0 from a team that was amazing at follow through: Each retro they added all action items and rule changes (we didn’t know about working agreements back then) to a big on-going flip chart. Each item had a “revisit”-date attached to – the date when the team thought they’d be able to judge the effect (usually 2, 4 or 6 weeks). At the beginning of each retro we would go down the list of all open items that had reached the revisit date and inspect them. Did the team do it? Did it work as intended? If yes, rule changes were made permanent and actions crossed off. If not, the items were consciously dropped or changed.

They had continuous improvement down to an art. It was a joy to facilitate their retros. They devoted a huge chunk of time to this process – 20-30 minutes out of 60. That sounds like a lot (it is!) but it worked very well for them. By the time they had analyzed the list, they usually had covered a lot of the things that bugged them.

I’ve never again seen such consistent follow-up. My Phase 0 is very bare bones compared to this: I bring the list of last retro’s agreements and ask what happened with them, boiling it down to 5 minutes.

This accomplishes several things:

  • It lets the team know that someone cares about what happens. (Whenever I remember to, I’ll also ask during the iteration – genuinely curious, not annoyingly!)
  • I can spot problems with follow-up early. And hopefully the team will notice them too

With a mature team, I’ll do this every once in a while. If I think there’s a problematic pattern, I’ll do it more often. I try my damnedest not to be accusing, but if the team consistently does very little of what they agreed to do, that’s indicative of a problem. Phase 0 lets us find this so that we can work on the lack of follow-through.

Curiously enough, I’m not the only one to come up with an extra phase before the 5 phases of lore. At least two other people have developed similar concepts: Marc Löffler and Judith Andresen. I’ve only recently heard about Marc’s ideas. I’m told it’s also something with checking follow-through but I’m relying on hear-say. I’m much more familiar with Judith’s work and her “Intro” is more elaborate than my Phase 0: She does an Intro at the beginning of every retrospective and it consists of the Agenda, restating the Vegas rule & the Prime Directive, and checking follow-through & team rules.

So, there’s at least 3 people who independently arrived at the concept of checking last retro’s agreements at the beginning of the next one. And those are just the Germans! Is anybody else doing this?

PS: Phase 0 is soon going to be part of the fabulous Retromat ebook.

Bonus shape for sticky notes

One of the topics in Darci Dutcher’s session “Running Killer Workshops Without Killing Yourself” at Agile on the Beach was promisingly called ‘Sticky note party tricks’.

“Don’t really use them at a party. Other people do not get excited about sticky notes.”
- Darci Dutcher

Well, I’m the kind of person who does get excited about sticky notes and that’s why I present to you the sticky note bonus shape: Diamonds! (Is “Diamonds are forever” now stuck in your head? You’re welcome! *evil laughter*)


This is super handy for when you want to color code stickies and don’t have enough different colors. Yeah! I’m excited! Aren’t you? ;)

Credits: Learned it from Darci Dutcher who learned it from Adrian Howard who learned it from Jeff Patton

Retromat is not meant for beginners!

Aaaargh, I recently found out that there are indeed people who just use whatever random plan Retromat spits out. Errh mah God! I was in serious denial about this, despite evidence to the contrary.

I never, ever meant for anyone to do this. The random plan was always meant as a starting point from which everyone would merrily click left and right to create a plan that fits their and their team’s needs.

That’s what I meant with the “tweak it” in “Planning your next retrospective? Get started with a random plan, tweak it, print it and share the URL”. It’s a little too subtle. To me it’s obvious that most random combinations will not work well together. It’s obvious to me, because I’ve facilitated retros before and I’m experienced. It’s not obvious for someone new to retros. So here’s a handy note to self:

What is obvious to me is not necessarily obvious to others. In fact, it will be least obvious to the people who need the clarification most.

How could I not realize this for so long? I guess I only get emails from people for whom it works. I don’t hear from those that fail with a random plan or those that “have to pick up the pieces after an inexperienced colleague unleashed a random retro on a team” (actual quote!). I’m so sorry!

I’ll try to find the time to beginner-proof Retromat ASAP. I’ve also thought about the best out-of-the-box, beginner-friendly retro plan I can come up with. It’s practically guaranteed to be better than a random plan.

To reiterate: Retromat is a great source of inspiration for people who know what they’re doing. It’s not a good place to start for people who lack the experience to know whether activities go together well.

In theory Retromat offers millions of plans for retrospectives. In practice only a fraction of these combinations work well. A random plan is highly unlikely to work out!

When you plan a retrospective with Retromat you have to make sure that you know how the results of one activity will be used in the next activity. That’s what the arrows at the sides are for: To flip through the activities for one that fits to the activities before and after it, as well as your team’s situation.

Retromat needs some experience. Please do not recommend it to beginners! At least not without fair warning. Recommend Agile Retrospectives instead and if it’s urgent, this plan. Thank you!

Self-Regulating Discussions with Jeff Patton’s Cups

Do you know this inner debate when you’re facilitating and somebody keeps monologuing: “Is this still relevant? Should I stop him? Do the others look bored? I should cut him off …”

That makes me judge and jury about whether something is still relevant to the whole group. I don’t like to make that call. If you’ve got a team (or team member) that’s prone to rambling you can make the team facilitate themselves with Jeff Patton’s Cups (Jeff himself credits “Katrina”):

Write “Tangent” on several styrofoam cups and distribute them around the table. Whenever someone verbally wanders off one of the other team members can signal it unintrusively by raising one of the cups. Upon the signal ramblers usually cut themselves off and the team can decide whether to park the topic for later.

Other possible cups are “Sold” for people still arguing when they’ve already convinced everyone, “Too much detail”, “No solving” when you’re still trying to frame the problem, and so on.

Keep cups and pens ready. Whatever the team is struggling with, approriate signal cups will evolve.

Obviously the signal doesn’t have to be cups. Paper would also do it. But cups stand out more (figuratively and literally) and are a great visual reminder that each team member can help keep the discussion going.

PS: For something more specific and even more playful check out the Rathole technique by Sandy Mamoli.

Can you repeat the question?

At the beginning of September I was at Agile on the Beach 2016. It was just as good as I expected, which says a lot given that I had really high expectations!

Fantastic talks, learned tons, in beautiful sunny Cornwall – what’s not to like?

Well, one thing. It’s a pet peeve of mine: Despite most presenters doing a really great job, virtually none of them repeated the audience’s questions before answering them. For the camera and everyone sitting in row 5 or farther back the answer was meaningless.

“Mumble brumble bumble mumble?” – “Yes.”

Repeating questions was so rare that several people enthusiastically commended me on doing it in my talk (on what happens when the whole company becomes agile). Not sure I want my distinguishing trait as a speaker to be “at least she repeats the darn questions” that’s why I appeal to you to get into the habit of doing it, too, when you’re a speaker. (Or to continue if you’re already doing it. :) )

If you’re in the audience, you can help by asking the speaker “Can you repeat the question?” after the first unrepeated question.

I had only resolved on doing so during the last talk and it went spectacularly wrong (the original asker repeated the question, again speaking to the front which did not help either me or the camera). After that disaster I didn’t wanna ask again. Instead I decided to bring a sign next time. It’s less intrusive than asking.


Please help spread the word! (Pun intended ;) )

24 Work Hacks – Das Buch

[English summary: We wrote a book at work (in German) and it turned out amazing!!! It's a cross between coffee table and business book. Watch out for "24 Work Hacks"! If you'd be interested in an English version, tell me so that I can make a case for translating it :) ]

Buchcover von "24 Work Hacks"

Endlich, endlich, darf ich es offiziell verkünden: Wir haben auf der Arbeit (ich arbeite bei sipgate) ein Buch geschrieben und es ist fantastisch geworden! Eine einzigartige Mischung aus Business- und CoffeeTable-Buch, d.h. richtig gute Fotos plus knackige Texte.

Wir haben versucht einen Rundgang durch unser Büro in Buchform zu gießen. Im Herbst 2015 haben wir mit Touren angefangen und seitdem Tausende Besucher herumgeführt und ihnen von unserer Arbeitsweise erzählt. Die Themen reichen von agilen Klassikern wie Retrospektiven bis zu innovativen, eigenen Lösungen wie Open Friday, Peer Feedback und vielem mehr.

Die bisherigen Rückmeldungen zu Beta-Versionen des Buchs bestätigen uns, dass “24 Work Hacks” richtig Lust darauf macht, agil und lean zu arbeiten. Ich wünschte, das Buch hätte es gegeben, als wir 2010 mit Scrum anfingen, denn wir hatten damals keine Ahnung, wie das alles aussehen könnte, wenn wir’s durchziehen. Naja, es hat auch so geklappt, aber leicht war’s nicht und die Inspiration und Vision im Buch hätte uns sicher geholfen.

“24 Work Hacks” erscheint am 15. September. Ihr könnt gerne schon mal auf Amazon vorbestellen :)

Mehr Infos, Bilder, ein Kapitel zum Probelesen usw. findet ihr auf der offiziellen Website zu “24 Work Hacks“.

Sense-Making Machines

Once, on our way to the movies our tram stopped at “Heinrich-Heine-Alley”. It’s a popular tram stop in Düsseldorf, especially for tourists. One such (German!) tourist exited there with his family and remarked: “Ah, Heinrich-Heine-Alley, he was mayor here once.”

That tourist was making sense of his surroundings and “previous mayor” seemed like a reasonable reason to name a street and station after. It is reasonable. It is also wrong. Most Germans (and surprisingly Russians) know that Heinrich Heine was a poet. (I think Heine was born in Düsseldorf, but I don’t really know. I’m just sense-making here ;) )

Humans are sense-making machines in search of a narrative. If facts are missing, we’ll often make them up. Once we got the narrative established it’s hard to let go. It’s why we keep going in the wrong direction, despite disagreeing signage. I love this episode as a reminder of how (made-up) context is everything in Usability. There’s no telling where users end up if they start with a warped context and it’s not their fault. It’s surprising to me that a fellow German doesn’t know Heine, but I’m also aware that it’s entirely possible to be smart and live a good life without knowing that tidbit. It’s not essential. Neither are the ins and outs of your software and its context. Be as obvious as you can.

PS: Fact-checked Heine: Yes, he was born in Düsseldorf, died in Paris. He was never mayor :D