Raise your hand to speak – Self-Facilitation Basics

For somebody who spends as much time as I do on thinking about what we do at sipgate and why it works, I missed a tiny, big detail for a really long time: Our meetings work much better than at most other places because we raise our hands when we want to speak. And we talk in the order of hands being raised.

There’s this book I’m procrastinating on writing to help teams facilitate their own meeting. And it never occured to me to include raising your hand. I had thought about talking sticks and keeping a visible list for big groups, but not about “queueing” to speak. Which is kind of the basis for all the other things that work well in our meetings and the reason we rarely interrupt each other.

I only realized this, because my colleagues talked about someone who didn’t wait their turn and how super irritating this is. It ruins the flow and also makes it more likely for others to display bad meeting manners: Interrupting others becomes more frequent because everybody is anxious to get their thoughts out.

Even now that I’m writing it down, I feel like it’s too basic, too obvious to be mentioned. I mean: “You want nicer, fairer meetings, in which people are not talking over each other? Gee, have you tried taking turns by raising your hand to get the word when it’s your turn?” Duh.

But then again, I rarely see the hand raising in other environments and meeting flow is worse for it. So, I’ll be happy to state the obvious, if it helps some team, somewhere.

You’re meetings are going smoothly without hand raising? Great! Maybe it’s because you’ve got a facilitator? Facilitators can often guess who wants to speak, based on body language. And give the floor to that person either explicitly or also using subtle body language. I often give somebody the floor, by raising my open palm towards them or just looking at them with my head cocked.

But facilitators are not mind readers so even then the hand raising bit helps. And when there’s no facilitator it helps a lot! If they know who wants to speak, the more confident team members can give the floor to shyer ones, who wouldn’t just talk over someone else to be heard.

So, yeah, queue to speak and get more orderly meetings with a fairer distribution of “air time”. Peace Out 🙂

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Help, our retrospectives are complain-fests – How to turn blame and whining into action

Here’s another gnarly retrospective problems:

“Our retrospectives are huge complain-fests. All the team ever does is blame others and whine, whine, whine. Honestly, I don’t know what to do…”

This seems to be a common situation in newly agile teams judging from how often I have heard descriptions like that: The team eternally blames external parties. Naturally, they never come up with any action items. Why would they when it’s all somebody else’s fault anyway…

Blaming others is a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility and changing oneself. So how do you get a team out of this attitude? I describe several tactics in the ebook “Retromat – Run great agile retrospectives” and wanted to share them with you, too:

“What are you going to do about it?”

I start by stressing “you” a lot, as in “What are _you_ going to do about it?”

Here are activities supporting this angle:

Solution focus

Surprisingly you can also try a very positive angle: Talking about what the team did well sometimes opens up a window to also talk about what didn’t work out, e.g. with an Appreciative Inquiry.

In general, I’m a fan of the solution-focused approach, where you avoid analyzing the problem and look for things to try out instead. These activities fit this approach:

Change perspective

A change of perspective can help the team to empathize with their scape goat and see things in a new light. It can also do wonders if the scape goat attends the retrospective and shares their view and reasoning.

Try:

If all else fails I try an intervention along the lines of “We can’t change other people. We can only change our own perspective and behavior.”

Have you ever tried one of these with a finger-pointing team? How did it turn out?

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Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches need an Emergency Fund

Scrum doesn’t fix an organization’s problems. It makes problems glaringly obvious so that you they have a chance to fix them themselves. Except that “glaringly obvious” is relative and sometimes you still need someone to point to the steaming pile o’ shit of a problem and say it out loud. Sometimes to someone that has the authority to fire the messenger.

As a Scrum Master or agile coach it is part of your job to speak truth to power if necessary. And while it’s certainly a good idea to work on delivery, and phrasing hard truths in a way that make it possible for the recipient to accept and stomach them, there’s still a risk involved.


That’s why you need to have a certain level of independence. And a big part of that independence is money. How can you expose someone to an uncomfortable truth, if that person can fire you from a job you depend on? Depend on for rent, for food, for insurance. For your kid.

It’s a whole lot easier to “have guts” if you have an emergency fund, e.g. 3 to 6 months of living expanses in cash in a bank account. How many months you need depends on how fast you think you can land another job. Ultimately it depends on what you need to feel secure. My need for financial security is high, so we’ve got 12 months. This is just living expenses, not fancy vacations. Not that it’s necessary at my workplace but it’s still a very comforting feeling and helps me not be afraid to say what I think needs saying.

If you don’t have an emergency fund, why not start now? If you can’t save big chunks, chip away at it. Small contributions will also help. Having some money in the bank will make you more effective in you job. And it’ll let you sleep better at night.

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Phases are not always linear in retrospectives

If you facilitate retrospectives then you’re probably familiar with the 5 phases from “Agile Retrospectives” by Derby and Larsen:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Gather data
  3. Generate insight
  4. Decide what to do
  5. Close the retrospective

Whenever I talk about them and in all the material I’ve created, it always looks like the phases are strictly linear. But that is not how they work in the majority of my retrospectives – because I rarely have single-topic retros. I usually run a “gathering potential topics”-activity like “Speedboat” or “I like, I wish” and then the team works through 2 or 3 of these topics.

It would be strange to first talk about 3 topics in depth and afterwards come up with action items for all of them. Instead we talk about 1 topic in depth and create an action item for this topic. And only then start with the next topic. Like in this highly elaborate diagram 😉 :

I thought it might be worth stating this explicitly as it’s not necessarily obvious for beginners.

What about you? When do you decide on action items?

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“Too many topic ideas leave too little time to talk in-depth” – Gnarly Retrospecive Problems

Scrum Master Ellen wrote me about a problem with running out of time during retrospectives:

“I have a team that is quite elaborate in their retrospectives especially in the gathering data and insights part. Perfect, but this leaves less time for deciding what to do and transforming problems we face into action. Do you have suggestions on how to keep the teams focused on only the really important things they want to fix in the next sprint? The thing I try now is to minimize the number of post-its each person adds, but I would love to have some other suggestions.”

Yep, I definitely know that problem quite well. As I facilitate short retros (45-90 minutes) time is always an issue. Even small teams can come up with a multitude of topic ideas. And the more topics a team suggests, the fewer it can actually talk about.

Regarding minimizing stickies, there are at least 3 different ways to do it, all with their own disadvantages:

A) Give only very little time to write down topics
Con: Stresses some people

B) Limit the number of stickies to write (“Write 3 stickies with your most important topics”)
Con: Gives some people analysis paralysis

C) After writing, tell people to go through their stickies and only keep a certain amount (“Please count your stickies. If you’ve got more than 5, only keep the 5 most important ones and discard the others”)
Con: People have to throw away some of their work

I choose depending on the team, i.e. which con I think they can best live with. (I use C) most often.)

Alternatively, you can try to shorten the time that people take to present their topics. By 1) making them aware of the time problem and 2) intervening whenever people dig into a problem pre-maturely and start discussing instead of moving on to introduce the next sticky.

In my context (mature teams, very short retros of 60min every 2 weeks) “Gather data” is strictly for broadcasting: Everybody hangs up their sticky ideas, says one sentence per sticky and that’s it. Clarifying questions are okay, but no going into detail. Participants are great at reigning themselves in, when they go too deep into a topic. Everybody’s used to postponing until after dot-voting and then discuss the important topics.

That’s certainly learned behaviour. I’ve recently started to freelance on the side and now sometimes introduce retrospectives in other companies that are new to it. I noticed how easily participants get into details before it is clear, which topics are the most important ones. I stepped in a number of times. That’s when I realised how rarely (if ever) this happens at “home”.

One way to help a team help each other stay on track is with Jeff Patton’s Cups.

Hopefully, some of these ideas help you carve out more time for the important topics 🙂

PS: Now I wonder what a “normal” amount of topics per retro is. Across several teams I found we typically cover 2-3 topics in a 45-75 minute retro. It’s 2 way more often than 3.

I think it used to be more when we were less mature, but that’s might also due to the less than optimal method we used back then…

How many is “normal” in your retros? And how long are those retros?

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Enjoy the Silence

My proudest moment as a facilitator was when I did nothing.

Well, outwardly I did nothing. Inwardly I held the silence. I’m a chatty person. Shutting up is hard for me. Letting silence be. Enduring it. I counted from 10 to 20 in my head and when I had reached 20 I started over. I looked at them intently although they had technically already spoken about the problem. And then the magic happened!

The person that had talked before spoke up again. An additional thought on the topic that made her very concerned. We spend quite some time talking about what she had brought up. It was that important.

I don’t think she would have addressed the issue at all without that long pause. We would have nodded at each other in agreement, closed the topic and started another one, with that issue simmering on. Festering.

Very interesting things happen when you don’t fill an awkward silence with chatter. You’ll hear things that others wouldn’t have come forward with on their own. You’ll give others space to think through thoughts they hadn’t thought through before. It’s magical. Enjoy the silence!

What was your proudest moment as a facilitator?

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The Missing Manual for Retromat: 5 tricks that might come in handy

Every once in a while I realise that others aren’t aware of certain features in Retromat. These feature are not exactly hidden, but they are not super obvious either. I’d like to share them with you, just in case there’s one you didn’t know.

0. Step through all activities in a phase with the arrows

For completeness sake, let’s start with the most obvious one. I won’t even count these as a trick: The arrows:

Because in a random plan the activtities will not work with each other, the arrows let you step through all activities in a given phase. Pick activities that fit with each other. If you’re a beginner, try this plan.

1. Click on a phase’s name to see all its activities

The arrows are too slow? You want to quickly scan all activities in a phase? Just click the phase’s name.

2. Check out a single activity by clicking on its ID

Let’s say you want to share a single activity with a colleague: Click on its ID and voila 🙂

3. Click those buttons!

Noticed the row of buttons?

This one generates a new random plan:

It’s supposed to be a wheel of fortune, in case you were wondering.

And then there’s the search buttons:

The left-hand button is just there to be a visible way to search for a specific ID.

The right-hand button lets you search for words and IDs. The search algorithm looks at  titles, summaries and descriptions. If you enter more than one word any one of them is enough for a match. It’s an “or” search, not an “and” search.

As soon as you enter a number as part of your search term, you’ll get the activity of the same ID among the search results.

I’ve been wanting to kick out the ID search button for years but have never really gotten around to it. It’s not really needed.

4. Change the ID to get the activities into a custom order

From the moment I first conceived Retromat I wanted plans to be easily shareable. That’s why each plan has an ID. And you can change the order of activities by changing the ID around. You can change the ID either in the browser’s URL field or by clicking into the Plan ID:


This comes in really handy, when you want to break out of the 5 phases. You see, Retromat is somewhat limited in that each activity can only belong to one phase, although many of them arguably fit into several. If you want to repurpose an activity for a different phase than I sorted it in, go ahead, change the IDs around and press enter!

5. Something completely different – An Easter Egg

There’s another way to forgo phases: Did you know that Retromat has a secret phase called “Something completely different”? You’ve got a 1 in 25 chance of getting a plan with just 1 single activity – one from this extra phase.

Wanna take a peak at these unconventional activities? Here’s a list of all activties in “Something completely different”. You’re welcome 😉

Were any of these new for you? Did I not mention something you would have liked to see? Tell me in the comments!

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And what else?

Have you ever had to broach a difficult topic? You prepare, you make notes and you head for a 1:1. You start by talking about various smaller topics. You avoid the big fat whopper of a topic that you’ve been worrying about. Time is ticking by. You’re stalling. Then at the end of the – inconsequential –  conversation, there’s this little pause when you would usually leave and you have that inner debate on whether to mention THE TOPIC or not.

Well, I can’t help you with plucking up the courage to mention the topic. But I can help you if you’re on the other side of this potential conversation. That is, I’ve got advice for you if you would you like to hear about a serious problem sooner rather than later.

"And what else?” teases out difficult topics

It’s simple. Ask “And what else?”. Ask it often. It invites hesitantly shared information.

Oh, and yes, “And what else?“ is a better phrase to use than “Is there anything else?” It’s open instead of closed and errs on the side of implying that there is indeed something. So, sharing is more likely to happen 🙂

It doesn’t just work in this particular situation. “And what else?” is a great phrase in general, because it gives others the opportunity to reflect and dig a little deeper than the top of their heads. I picked up in an excellent workshop on solution-focused coaching by Sinnvoll Führen.

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So what? – Look for the real problem

Recently this statement raised my inner alarms: “We’ve got lots of problems! For example, nobody is pair programming.”

Why would this rub me the wrong way? That nobody is pair programming? After all, I am indeed a huge fan of pairing up. I witness this practice’s many benefits every single day at work. But no, that’s not the point. My alarms went off because “lack of pair programming” was presented as an actual problem. It’s not.

Let me repeat that: As much as I love pair programming, not doing it is not a problem in and of itself. Rather, pair programming is a possible solution to a host of problems an organization might be having such as:

And depending on the actual underlying problem there are different solutions available, one of which could be pair programming.

Nobody who’s not already a convert will start pair programming just “because”. Instead go looking for the actual problem. Ask “So what?” That phrase is magical and you can use it repeatedly. Just like there’s the Five Whys, dig deeper with five “So what’s”:

“Our problem is that nobody’s pair programming!”
“So what? Why is that a problem?”
“Nobody knows anybody else’s code. It’s 1 system = 1 developer.”
“So what?”
“Whenever a developer is sick or on holiday development in their area comes to a screeching halt. And there’s always someone sick or on holiday. Makes us super slow to release. And I dread the day someone quits.”
“Well, that does seem like a pickle…”

Okay, it weren’t five “So what’s” because I suck at making up examples but you get the point.

"So what" is a magical phrase to find an actual problem

This is not specific to agile practices either, though Agile folks have a reputation for dogmatism. Here’s a recent example from the field of web analytics: “We’ve got a huge problem: We can’t do cross-domain tracking.” Soooo …? What are the questions I want answers to and that we can’t answer because we lack this?

I’ve learned “So what?” in the context of Henrik Kniberg’s Cause-Effect-Diagrams and have since used it whenever I suspect that a “problem” someone presents is actually their (preferred) solution. It’s the same as with product features:

“Love the Problem, Not Your Solution”
Ash Maurya

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How to transition from Set the Stage to Gather Data in retrospectives

Here’s another interesting question about retrospectives I got in my inbox, this time from Claudia: 

I just became a Scrum Master and will have my first Retrospective ever. What I find difficult for the beginning – I’m sure this will change after doing some Retros – is the transition from Set the Stage to Gather Data. After setting the stage, how do I go the Gather Data? Do I simply say “thank you, now, we’ll continue to gather data…“ or do I comment anything from Set the Stage to Gather Data.

[If you are new to retrospective and have never heard about the phases you can find out more here.]

Questions like these are great, because they make me examine something that I don’t consciously think about and “just do”. So yeah, how do the heck do I frame the transition? As always, the answer is: It depends 😉

It depends on what I want to achieve with “Set the Stage” (StS). Let’s look at the different cases:

Default case: I want everyone to speak, preferably about something positive and true and relevant to the last iteration

In this case, yes, most of the time it is close to “thank you, now, we’ll continue with gathering data…“ I wouldn’t use that exact phrasing because it implies that the 1st phases content is throwaway, when it reveals something about the last iteration. I can’t remember ever picking a starting activity solely for the fun of it… 

My default opening method is a question that goes around the circle. Here are some of these questions and a transition to “Gather Data” that lends itself to that question:

  • What was your biggest insight during the last sprint?
    -> Thank you! Now let’s look into what other observations you have made with $activity.
  • If the last sprint had been a restaurant, what kind of restaurant had it been
    ->
    Very creative, thank you! Let’s go into more detail now …
  • Describe the last sprint in 3 words
    ->
    Now that we’ve had a summary of the sprint, let’s get more verbose…

Of course, the transition has to also match the activity you’re leading to in “Gather Data” (GD). But yeah, usually the sticky notes from StS just keep hanging on a board and are not re-used. If people have the same point again for GD, they can rewrite the sticky or re-hang the existing sticky note. I don’t care either way.

Special case: Testing the waters – with a new team or in a conflict situation 

When I facilitate for a team for the first time or in a conflict situation I like to test the waters with ESVP: Do people want to be here? How much engagement can I expect from them?

If I expect problems, I might use Constellation  or Team Radar to explore questions like “How likely are you to speak openly?”. It might be necessary to adapt these to a written form that participants fill in anonymously.

The important thing is that you have to be willing to deal with problems that come up. What if half the participants are Prisoners – How will handle it? What if nobody dares to speak openly – What will you do?

In short, you’ll have to have at least a rough idea of a Plan B. The more problems you expect, the more solid your Plan B needs to be.

Btw, “normal” opening rounds and retro activities can also derail, either because something “traumatic” happened to a single person (divorce, sick loved one, …) or the team as a whole (someone being fired, new boss, …) that you hadn’t been aware off. In these cases, don’t try to follow your original plan. The retro is not an item to tick off a list. Stay calm, sometimes it’s okay to just let people talk. But I digress …

Special case: Outcome Expectations

Related to the previous case: Some activities are about the retro on a meta level, e.g. asking for Outcome Expectations. I’ll try to help meet the expectations or at the very least check if they’ve been met or not throughout the retro.

Special case: StS is already data heavy

There are some data heavy StS activities in Retromat that can easily be fleshed out for use in GD, e.g. Amazon Review or Postcards. Don’t be limited by the phase that is assigned in Retromat. There are many activities that can arguably that also fit into a different category.

Actually, when you look at my retrospectives individually, you’ll usually find only 4 to 4.5 distinct phases in them. The middle three phases kind of bleed into each other. Which one I stress varies. But whatever I do, you can spot Lean Coffee in each one of them, just rarely as a standalone technique.

(If you plan your retrospectives with Retromat, you can get around the strict “5 phases” layout by manually changing the IDs in the URL and hitting enter.)

Anyway, the above are all the special cases I can currently think of. Do you have any to add? How do you transitien between StS and GD?

Thank you for the question, Claudia! It was fun to think about this!

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