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?

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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!

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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.

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“.

Visualize remaining time with TimeTimer

How do you keep track of time when you facilitate a retrospective or other meeting? How do you make sure you all keep short timeboxes? A timer on a smart phone is one way to do it, but for me it lacks visibility. I forget the timebox and only remember it, when it’s used up.


What works beautifully are TimeTimers. With a TimeTimer you set the timebox by pulling out a red disk. As soon as you let go, the red disk slowly starts retreating back below the white parts. That way you always have a pie chart of the remaining time. Elegant, easy to use and it communicates time very effectively!



Host Leadership is the better metaphor

Whenever someone mentions “Servant Leadership” it triggers an almost Pavlovian reflex in me to say: “Have you heard of ‘Host Leadership’? IMHO it’s the much better metaphor for Scrum Master work.”Host-Leadership

Part of SM work is enforcing rules. How can you do that as a servant? The metaphor breaks. As a host it makes perfect sense: You have to make sure that everybody is having a great time and not one person ruining it for many. As the host you set house rules.

Despite being a big fan I haden’t even mentioned Host Leadership in this blog, yet. Until now 🙂 If you’d like to know more, here’s the 6 roles of Host Leadership and the official webpage for Host Leadership.

Mein rechter, rechter Platz

[English summary: Armin Schubert suggested a super nice “Set the stage” activity for Retromat that doesn’t translate well, so I present it in the original German.]

Immer wieder bekomme ich tolle Vorschläge für Retromat, die ich schweren Herzens ablehnen muss, meistens weil es bereits eine sehr ähnliche Aktivität im Retromaten gibt. Bei der folgenden Idee von Armin Schubert war der Grund, dass die Aktivität nur auf Deutsch funktioniert. Aber wozu habe ich ein Blog 😉

Hier kommt also Armins “Mein rechter, rechter Platz”: Diese Aktivität ist für den Anfang einer Retro und läuft wie folgt ab:

Die Teilnehmer sitzen im Kreis und starten mit dem bekannten Kinderreim “Mein rechter, rechter Platz ist leer, ich wünsche mir den $Name her!” mit einer entscheidenden Änderung im Text:

“Mein rechter, rechter Platz ist voll und der $Name, der ist toll!” Dann noch drei positive Eigenschaften des rechten Nachbarn und schon ist derjenige selbst dran.

Die Idee dazu ist in einer Retrospektive entstanden, weil wir einen schnellen aber positiven Einstieg gesucht haben. Das wirkte am Anfang etwas hölzern, war dann aber ein grosser Erfolg, auf dem im Nachgang immer wieder referenziert wurde.

(Falls jemand den (neuen) Kollegen rechts von sich nicht kennt, kann er gerne die anderen Anwesenden um Hilfe bitten. Hat bei uns mehrfach super funktioniert!)

Thanks for sharing with us, Armin!

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Cluster stickies next to each other

Here’s another tiny facilitation coconut for something I’ve handled wrong suboptimal in the past:

When it’s clustering time, related stickies often ended up on top of each other. Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka remarked that this is not very appreciative of the bottom sticky and its author. It’s just a tiny detail but it makes sense to me. Most people probably don’t mind, but some might, especially in power imbalanced situations. Since it’s not making things worse for those who don’t mind and makes it better for those who do, I vow to cluster related stickies next to each other from now on.

This will also create a more accurate visualization of support for a topic 🙂

Letting go of decisions

When building self-organizing teams, one of the hardest things for their (former?) managers is to pass power on to the team. Power as in “the possibility, ability and duty to take decisions”. If you pass a decision on, you have to let go of your “solution”. There are infinite solutions out there. Don’t expect the team to pick the exact same one that you would have. The chances are rather slim.

Unfortunately this is how I sometimes see it go down:

Manager thinks: “The solution is obvious. But I’m supposed to empower them, so I can’t just tell them what to do.”
Manager to team: “It’s your decision. Figure It out. You can do it.”
Team goes and figures it out.
Team to manager animatedly: “Look, here’s our solution :)”
Manager: “Umm, no. No, it ain’t. <Some leading questions> It’s your decision. Figure It out.”
Team goes and figures it out. Again.
Team warily: “Sooo. Here’s our solution attempt.”
Manager: “Umm, wouldn’t it make sense to … <Some more leading questions>”
“Together” they arrive at a new solution.
Team is quietly steaming.

This is the opposite of empowerment. Having to reverse engineer a fixed solution by trial and error is painful, disheartening and teaches a terrible lesson. As someone who used to be on the receiving end of this, I’d love for the manager to just straight out say what they want. They are the boss. It’s okay for them to dictate the solution, if there’s no wriggle room. But making teams guess over 3 rounds, because they don’t want to dictate a solution? That achieves the opposite of want they intended. Plus, they blur the line. It becomes harder for teams to tell when they really own the solution and when they secretly don’t.

Sometimes the solution mismatch stems from the manager having more information than the team. As the team, strive to become good at asking questions about constraints.

As the manager pass information on to your team as soon as you notice they’re missing. If it’s classified information, you probably shouldn’t that particular decision on to the team.

And check out Delegation Poker. It can help managers and teams figure out, how much power is really conveyed for each pending decision.