“How can I excite others for retrospectives?” – Don’t be too elaborate

“I’d like to share the awesomeness of retrospectives. How can I excite others?”

On the surface, this question is similar to last week’s about motivation. But they are asked in very different moods. People who ask “How can I motivate people” are subdued. They’ve often run a couple of retros that somehow fell short of expectations.

People who ask “How can I excite others?” are bouncing on the balls of their feet, eyes sparkling. They haven’t run a retro yet, but they want to hold ALL the retros! They are so excited that they want to wow everyone away with how awesome of a first retro they facilitate. They come to me looking for some ultra fancy activity from the Retromat treasure trove.

And I don’t deliver something fancy. Instead I’ve got a word of caution: If you want to convince people that retrospectives are a fabulous idea, then don’t make it too fancy. Don’t start with something that’s far removed from people’s normal interactions. It’s likely to confuse or make participants defiant. Depending on the team, appearing as too much of a tree hugger hurts your credibility. Let’s ease everyone into it.

In my experience a “normal”, well-facilitated retrospective already has a huge effect. You don’t need more than that to get started. If the participants get real benefits (shared understanding & improvements in their work flow), they usually want to do it again. Keep your enthusiasm and down the line you get to try funkier activities 😉

Btw, I totally get the desire to create something elaborate. When I introduce teams to retrospectives in my freelance work I always get the urge to pick special activities. I mean, they are paying me the big bucks. How can I possibly go there with a variation of my default retrospective? Well, because it’s the right thing to do: It’ll get them good discussions and actionable action items. It’s easy to understand what’s happening and what to do. It’s versatile and they can repeat something similar without me. And remember: These well-worn tried-and-true activities are new to them.

If that hasn’t convinced you, let me share some anecdotal evidence with you:
A friend of mine just started at a company where retrospectives have a bad rap. He’s a developer, but he pushed for a retrospective in his team and facilitated it himself. The team doesn’t have an agile coach and he was new so he didn’t have a huge stake in the content, yet. He’s a good facilitator but it’s not his main job. This was his first real retrospective ever.

He took my default retrospective and adapted it a bit. The feedback he got was along the lines of “The best retrospective I have ever seen in this company with a wide margin”. Really great for him, really terrible for the company. That’s why I think you don’t need anything fancy to start. Just the basics, well done.

Does that make sense? Have you ever introduced people to retros? How did it go?

PPS: Have you heard of Wall-Skills.com? It’s main idea is teach people basic concepts when they weren’t looking for something to learn, e.g. about retrospectives or the agile mindset.

“How can I motivate people for retrospectives?” or Retrospectives are Step 1 of 2

“How can I motivate people to do retrospectives?” is a question I used to hear frequently.

If you ask me, that’s the wrong question. It’s wrong because you don’t have to motivate people to do something that they perceive as valuable.

Which makes the real question:
Why aren’t they getting value out of their retrospectives? And is there anything anyone can do to get them their money’s time’s worth?

The only time, when the “motivation” question is admissable is if you’re trying something for the first time. You’ve never done a retro before? Yes, than you’re asking for a leap of faith from participants. And maybe the first one is wonky and you need a second one to make it count. But that’s it. From then on retros have to pay their own way – just like any other meeting should. If it’s not creating value then why are you doing it?

Btw, the retrospective itself is usually not the problem. It’s what happens afterwards. Which is often enough: nothing. It’s unfair to tell people “come on, we’ll look for improvements” and then not implement a single improvement idea. The actual meeting is Step 1. Following up on the agreed upon action items is Step 2.

Change happens

Sometimes this problem with Step 2 originates in the retro: The improvement ideas are too vague to be actionable. Other times it’s outside: There’s not enough time or money to do anything. If retrospectives don’t affect any change or these changes aren’t beneficial the majority of times, then yes, people don’t want to do them anymore. And rightly so. They shouldn’t. In these circumstances, retros are a waste of time.

Ironically, I’d use a retro to figure out what’s going wrong and how to actually make them more valuable 😛
But only after I did my homework. And I’d try something new, not the same format that failed people before. Maybe this one.

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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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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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Activities to say farewell and reminisce in a retrospective

Teams go through stages. They form, clash, perform well, quarrel, perform, and so on. Until they  eventually disband. Tuckman called this stage “Adjourning”.

A while ago, Stephane asked for activities for a retrospective for an adjourning team. Here are some suggestions:

My team is awesome” would be a great opener.

Appreciative Inquiry” would also work well, if the questions were tweaked a little to serve the purpose.

If you’ve got a budget to take the team out to eat, “Retrospective Cookies” are an excellent option.

I guess it depends a little on whether you’d rather the team takes away a farewell lesson that they can carry over to the next team or you’d rather let them bask in their team spirit and appreciate each other.

What activities do you recommend for an Adjourning retro?

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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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Activities for Checking up on Action Items

There are a lot suggestions for Retromat that I can’t  include. Sometimes because the strict 5-phases format can’t accommodate them. One example: Anja Schwarzpaul developed the  following activities for “the new Phase 2” that I call “Phase 0” aka “the phase in which you check what happened to last retro’s action items”. So far, there are very few activities for this new phase described out there. That’s why I’m extra excited to have Anja’s permission to share these two with you!

Her reason for coming up with these?

I feel it’s important to analyze successful or completed experiments in at least as much detail as failed or incomplete ones. Success doesn’t just happen. There’s always a reason. Real life success example in my team: The phrasing was clear and concise, leaving little room for misunderstandings and making the item easy to follow.

And here are Anja’s activities in her own words:


Flow Chart

Use a good old fashioned flow chart to dissect a single action item. (Probably scales to 2 or 3 actions). Duration is flexible and largely depends on the number of questions.

Photo courtesy of Anja Schwarzpaul

From a start node, draw an arrow to a decision node labeled “Done?”or “Success?”. Now branch to “yes” and “no” paths along one or more boxes containing questions to be asked. Near the end of the diagram, merge both branches into a final box “Anything else?” and end in a final state.
Follow the path that the team indicates. If the result is ambiguous, use the “no” branch until just before the merge, then the “yes” branch.

You can either display the entire diagram at once or draw it as you go along. I outlined the start and decision nodes with a marker and sketched everything else with a pencil, in real time outlining only the path we used. This allows for adapting the question(s) to the situation.

Possible Questions:

  • Why did / didn’t it work?
  • How did / didn’t it work?
  • What could we have done to make it work?
  • What does it do for us as a team?
  • Is this something we can use / try again…
  • on a regular basis?
  • in a different context?
  • at some point in the future? (for non-continuous activities, e.g. release estimation)

Improve the Improvement

Suitable for 2 or more action items. Duration depends on the number of items and questions.

Write each hypothesis / item / experiment on a large-ish index card or sticky note. Lay them out on the table or stick them to a wall or board. Let the team rank them from most to least successful, top to bottom. Now ask a few strong questions to help the team analyze the outcome of the experiments. The goal is to get some general ideas of why and how experiments work, and put these ideas to use during the “decide what to do” stage, thus improving the improvement.

Possible Questions: What would have had to happen in order to…

  • make the least successful item come out on top?
  • reverse the order?
  • make all items an equal success?
  • move item <no.> move up a spot?

And maybe:

  • Under which circumstances would you not be able to rank the results?
  • How do you feel about the success to priority ratio?

If I ever have more time (fat chance…) I’ll figure out a good UI to include the new phase in Retromat. Until then, thank you Anja for sharing these with us!

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Trump, sad, glad

There are a lot suggestions for Retromat that I can’t  include. Most commonly I decline because an activity is a variation of one that’s already in – just like the following one. I thought it was a fun one (gotta keep a sense of humour in trying times …) and asked its creator Leszek Blacha to publish it here so that you, dear readers, might use it. Those of you outside of the US, anyway.

Trump, sad, glad

This is a variation of “Mad, Sad, Glad” based on a certain Mr. Trump who has a distinct way of talking. Therefore the new categories are “Total disaster”, “So sad”, and “Great (again)”.

Let us know in the comments whether you got laughs for that one. Thank you for sharing, Leszek!

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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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