“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?

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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

Story Cubes for Retrospectives

Sometimes we have guests over who want to learn more about our Open Friday and see it in action. Lately we’ve been asking for a session in return so that visitors add to our pool of knowledge. These guest sessions are often interesting and sometimes you strike gold: Cynthia Hohlstein and Kevin Plechinger hosted an inspiring session on and with Story Cubes. Because neither of them blogs, I get to share their idea with you: Story Cubes are sets of 9 dice with images on them. The images cover a wide range of motives, such as a speech bubble, a sheep, a star, a hand or a walking stick figure. The idea is that you roll 3 dice and then tell a story that contains the 3 motives you rolled.

3 Story CubesThis can easily be turned into a fun activity for agile retrospectives if players answer a question instead of just telling a story. Cynthia and Kevin already had a couple of ideas:

  • What was last sprint like?
  • How do customers view our product?
  • What’s the state of agility here in our company?
  • What was your carreer path? How did you get here?

We spend the hour-long session answering questions in groups of three. It was very interesting because the cubes prompt you to talk about aspects you wouldn’t normally have touched on – you tell the truth and still have to incorporate the 3 images. Among others, we used the “Customer View” question and it was quite revealing. Story Cubes help with changing perspective and add a fun element.

Thank you Cynthia and Kevin for introducing us to story cubes!

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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.)

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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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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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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.

TimeTimer

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!

 

 

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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Distributed Retrospectives – Interview with Philipp

People ask me: “How do you best run a remote retrospective with a distributed team?” and I have no idea. I’ve only ever worked with co-located teams. That’s why I started to ask people who actually do run distributed retrospectives. After the interviews with Christoph and Frank I present to you:

Philipp Flenker, Product Owner from Münster

tl;dr A) Most online retro tools are bad. Just try something simple like wikis, Google Docs, etc. before wasting time with research on specialized tools. B) There are activities that don’t work remotely, e.g. anything with movement or anonymity*.

Screen Shot 2016-05-25 at 00.02.10

Full Interview

What’s the situation?

Our team consists of 5 people including me. We cover 3 time zones (3 people in Germany, 1 US east coast, 1 US west coast) and 2 languages. We speak English at work.

I’m the PO but since we don’t have a Scrum Master (don’t ask …) I facilitate the retros for our team.

Sprints used to last a month. Last month we switched to 1-week-sprints.

We meet every 6 months to see each other in person. That really helps with “individuals and interactions over processes”.

Do you prepare differently for a remote retro than a co-located one?

Yes, there are a lot of activities that don’t work in our setting:
Anything with metaphor, because of the language barrier. For instance, when using Speedboat, the US colleagues would use all the nautical terms and us Germans couldn’t follow.

Anything with movement is out.

And nothing is anonymous. This one I miss the most. Anonymity is great to have, e.g. for ESVP and we can’t really achieve that. Each input has a name attached to it.*

One activity that works well is Learning Matrix. It’s easy to learn and fits a wiki page.
About twice per year we meet in person. I plan these retros very differently! I plan for more honest and more difficult subjects. Participants tend to be too polite in remote retros. There’s very little healthy conflict.

What’s your setup?

First, everybody writes notes on their own computers. We discuss everybody’s notes and then we all paste our notes into a wiki page that I prepare in advance.

We can hear each other, but we don’t have video. We just can’t get a good video feed across 4 company VPNs. Hangouts don’t work at all in the company network. Skype is not very good. [At a former employer we had one remote guy and used Lync. That worked okay.]
The audio works most of the time. We only lose someone’s audio connection once in about 10 retros.

Our biggest challenge is the different time zones. We hold the retro at 5pm German time. One of the German guys is an early riser, so by that time he just wants to be done and head home. In California it’s 8am, in Colorado 9am. And the Colorado guy likes to sleep in. The bio rhythms don’t work out here. Concentration is difficult to maintain. The retro needs to be short, 90 minutes max.

When you’re co-located you can easily spot when someone is wool gathering. In a remote setting you can’t. Especially if you only have audio and people frequently mute themselves.
Retros are still valuable to us. Small changes are better than stagnation.

Do remote retrospectives have any advantage over co-located ones?

No, remote retros are not better than normal ones in any way. But they are better than losing a team member all together by not allowing remote work.

Any tipps for new facilitators of remote retrospectives?

Most tools suck. There are a lot of retro tools out there and I haven’t found any good ones. You just waste time trying them out to assess what they can and cannot do. The wiki page we ended up with, was better than most. Next retro we’ll try out Google Docs. In a Google Doc you can see the others’ cursors and it’s a fair guess that the cursor is where people are reading. So we’ll have more information than with the wiki page.

Thank you very much, Philipp!

You can follow Philipp on Twitter!

* Professional Scrum Trainer Jason Knight has found a workaround to achieve anonymity: Create a Google doc (or spreadsheet) with a private link that anyone can use to edit it. The team members open the link in a browser in incognito mode.

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