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: Interested in retrospectives? Sign up to the Retromat newsletter to get related news and tricks!

Share this article:

3 Comments Phase 0 – Checking follow-through in retrospectives

  1. Todd Galloway

    Hi Corinna,

    Great post. I absolutely do something similar to this in my retros. Just an ‘Intro / Review” block I put at the beginning where I do a check-in activity along with reviewing past retrospective actions. As you noted a retro is only good if the actions the team is taking are getting accomplished. Thanks for sharing your Phase 0 concept.

    Regards,
    Todd

    Reply
  2. Wolfgang Schnerring

    Just chiming in to say we do a follow up on the action items of the previous retrospective as well (however _after_ the Checkin/Phase 1 ;-). What we haven’t figured out to our satisfaction though is how to either prevent the current issues from spilling into that review part, or integrating previous and current things in a helpful way. Currently we try to strictly table any current topics in that “Phase 0” part, but that makes for somewhat awkward conversation at times.

    Reply
  3. Corinna Baldauf

    Hi Todd & Wolfgang,

    thanks for sharing! There were at least 4 people chiming in on Twitter that say they are doing something similar. So, it does seem to be a common thing!

    @Wolfgang: If you ever figure out a good way to balance old and new issues, I’d love to hear about it 🙂

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *