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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My most important retrospectives were horrible

I’ve got a confession to make: I think fun in retrospectives is overrated. And I never bring cookies, when I facilitate.

Don’t get me wrong, I prefer having a good time to moping about and yes, I prefer participants to be in a good mood. Light hearted people are more creative and willing to try new things.

But all my most important retrospectives – the ones I still remember years later – were horrible! Or at the very least deeply uncomfortable. That holds true regardless of whether I facilitated or was a regular participant.

All my most important retrospectives were horrible

The important retrospectives, the ones that really counted and made a profound difference were about troubling topics: When something or someone wasn’t working out despite everyones best efforts. They had a big impact like teams dissolving; people leaving teams or even the company. That category of events.

Something like that is decidedly not fun. But it’s necessary to have these conversations. I’m grateful to people who have the guts to bring up the crucial topics even if it hurts in that moment. After the dust has settled everyone is better off, because a harmful situation has turned into a new beginning. And work in general, not just that the retrospective, has a chance to be fun again.

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My Facilitation Mindset

It all started with a tweet by Tobias Mayer:

“Don’t make assumptions” says one school of wisdom, “Assume positive intent” says another. I choose the first. You?

I’m a card bearing member of the second tribe (at least I thought I was) so I answered:

The second one. Makes me kinder.

Going into difficult conversations assuming positive intent has rarely left me disappointed.

Or as Gitte Klitgaard so beautifully put it:

I find that I get what I expect. So if I expect good, I get good.

My experience is exactly the same. Whenever I don’t manage to assume positive intent and give in to blaming thoughts it leads to more disappointment. My beliefs always always leak into what I say and how I say it.

That’s why I ask someone else to facilitate / mediate in my place when I cannot honestly assume positive intent for each party.

The “don’t assume anything” school of thought has never helped me to prep angry people for constructive conversations. When someone thinks others to be malicious, countering their theories by saying “You don’t know that. Don’t just assume that” only helps for about 2 seconds:

They rake a hand through their hair and say “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I don’t know that for sure.” Pause for effect. “But I swear, they’re just doing that to fuck with us!” Aaaand, back to square one.

What did help multiple times is giving a couple of scenarios in which the enraging behaviour is a result of good helpful intentions of the other party and doesn’t manifest their evil and / or stupid nature.

Giving examples of how something might have had positive intent opens the door to really talk. I’ve established a possible alternate reality 🙂

What’s really going on is something we can try to find out during the facilitated conversation.

After I laid out these thoughts, Tobias remarked:

Talking “of how this might have had positive intent” is very different to making the assumption, isn’t it?

Huh? Hm, I guess that’s true. Apparently I fall inbetween the two schools of thought and my mindset when preparing to facilitate is “I assume that positive intent is possible (while not actually assuming any particular motive)”. And I can come up with at least 2 positive intent scenario for any given situation.

Assume positive intent is possible

Learned something about myself there. It’s a mindset that has served me well so far. What’s your mindset for crucial conversations?

“I just can’t get her to engage!” – Gnarly Retrospective Problems

A Scrum Master from the financial industry shared a gnarly retrospective problem with me:

My gnarly problem is that I have one member of my team that doesn’t like to participate in our ceremonies. Her body language shows it, but her words never do. She doesn’t really talk during any of the ceremonies, just tells our manager that she thinks they are a waste of time.

 

I keep trying to play games and spice things up and I’ve tried the boring, to the point method of: works well, not so well, and needs improvement …

 

I just can’t get her to engage! Any help on this?

This seems to be a very common problem. I’ve certainly had it. That’s why I want to share an edited version of my answer here. I try to keep a focus on retrospectives although it seems to be a larger problems.

In a live coaching situation there are loads of good questions to ask: How does the team react? Was there ever a retrospective during which she was engaged? What is she like outside of the retros?

Without knowing many of the specifics, here is some generic advice.

Prologue: We can’t force agile on people

In general, I’ve stopped forcing people. As Marshall Rosenberg said, you cannot make people do anything. We certainly can’t make them “be agile”. If she doesn’t want to be there, she won’t engage. What would happen if she didn’t have to come? How would that affect the team? How does it affect the team now that she’s not engaging?

I’ve often seen teams invest a lot of energy trying to include someone who didn’t really want to be part of it. Not everybody is cut out for agile. Not everybody can be won over. That’s okay. Time will tell if she wants to work in an agile team or not. Sometimes it’s best for everyone if someone leaves the team – As graciously as possible: Let everyone save face. Certainly no mobbing!

But we’re not there yet. Everybody deserves a fair chance and we’re trying to include someone.

Make it worth her time

She gave a reason for her disengagement, at least to the manager. And it’s a valid reason. Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka taught me: “Everybody is the expert for their own situation”. If she thinks it’s a waste of her time, then it’s a waste of her time. Period. The question is: What would make it worth her while?

Continue reading

How to get a very dirty whiteboard sparkly clean

When you let the writing on whiteboards stay on for long enough – say, a couple of month –  dry-erase markers stop being “dry-erase” and start being “leave unwipeable shadowy traces behind”. You’re left with an unsightly board, no matter how often you wipe. Water doesn’t help, at least not against dried up German Edding markers.

Even worse are traces of the slim tape that some teams use to create tables on their boards. Its remains are stickier than candy floss and way uglier.

wepos-kunststoffreiniger Fear not, my colleague Frieda has the miracle cure: Clean your whiteboard with “Wepos Kunstoffreiniger” (= Wepos plastics cleaner) and it will become perfectly clean and smoother than a baby’s butt. Way smoother, actually.

That’s also the catch: After wiping your board with the cleaner you have to wipe it with water. Otherwise no sticky note will stick to the board. Try it, it’s quite fascinating. The sticky notes fall right off of the infinitely smooth surface.

If you don’t have tape traces you can also get rid of the old marker markings with a wet microfibre cloth. Again, kudos to Frieda for finding this trick.

The very last resort, for people without any equipment, is ye olde overwriting trick: Retrace the old writing with a whiteboard marker. The solvents in the marker’s color will also work on the old markings and make them wipeable again. It’s works, it’s just tedious.

Do you have any neat tricks for cleaning dried-in markers?

What can you do if retrospectives repeatedly go sideways?

Not all retrospectives go well. When you support a team as a Scrum master, there are all kinds of strange behaviours or team dynamics that can make retrospectives go sideways, time after time. A facilitator can’t always prevent that. At least I can’t. Not always. Got lots better, though. Over the years I’ve picked up several different angles to get retros back on track (what I think is the “track” anyway). Enjoy:

Choose specific activities

When I started out as a Scrum master I thought my only option was to carefully choose activities to nudge people into the direction I thought they needed to go. And for some situations that works well.

The team acts the victim. Others need to change, there’s nothing they can do? Try Outside In, Circles & Soup, If I were you, …

There is a specific “weak” area they don’t like to look at? Communication Lines for (surprise!) flow of information, Quartering for Tickets, Company Map for Power Dynacmics, …

Talk to individuals

Then I started to address individual behaviour in spontaneous 1:1s whenever I could snatch the person alone. For instance: “I’ve got the impression that you often address me during the retrospective (/standup/…). The information is not for me, it’s important for the others. I would love for you to try to look at the others more.” Continue reading

Improve your Retrospectives with this 1 weird trick: Liftoffs

When health is concerned, preventing issues altogether is often easier than treating them once they’ve manifested. The same can be said for retrospectives:

In retrospectives we often make up for the fact that we didn't have a liftoff

Either Deborah Hartmann Preuss or Steve Holyer said that in a conversation and it rang true. Very few teams get a proper liftoff and they lose weeks and months of productivity to initial friction. In contrast, a proper liftoff sets up a team for success by laying a solid foundation of agreements and shared understandings. Then the team doesn’t have to spend their retrospectives patching up problems that could have been avoided.

What are liftoffs exactly?

You might know them as kickoffs, jump starts, launches or project starts – a meeting at the beginning of a team coming together and / or starting to work on something. I’m going with the name “liftoff” because of the book by the same name written by Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies. Continue reading

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 a lot of useful information around retrospectives, such as the basics, a default planPhase 0 & increasing 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! Check the green box below for contact details.)

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

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*)

fm_diamond-shape

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