Agile Retrospectives

One problem faced by my team is that we’re not really a team, more a group of teams and individuals lumped under the generic title of data management. We’re Python and .NET programmers, SQL developers, DBAs, reporting and data warehousing specialists, data integration engineers, Salesforce developers, intranet tool builders… and we do more than our job roles. We’re all working on different things, but you appreciate that while our tasks and projects might not be the same, the issues we face are similar. Our customers, mostly internal, are similar – we talk to the same people and use a common business language / jargon. We face typical problems: inter-departmental communication, scheduling of work, dealing with defects, refactoring code, juggling priorities, coping with the office environment. In hindsight, it sounds obvious: it’s the same set of problems that face anyone in IT, or most lines of work for that matter.

I decided that we needed to pool knowledge, get a bit of team bonding going and try to figure out how we can collectively tackle the irritations we face. We also needed to share and celebrate our successes.

A few months ago I picked up a copy of “Agile Retrospectives” written by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. Even if you don’t practise agile development, retrospectives can be a very useful way to close projects or provide regular team reviews. In my case, it was a great way to get the team talking to each other and sharing their problems and successes. We’ve opted for a 2-hour monthly retrospective, with a general reflection on the time between the current and previous retrospective. One thing I really need to do more is set some proper tasks and goals from the meeting as we tend to be a little vague at times. We also find ourselves focusing on problems we can’t easily fix because they lie outside our immediate control. We need to work on the things we can do ourselves first.

A typical retrospective, as defined in the book, is broken up into five sections:

  • Set the Stage
  • Gather Data
  • Generate Insights
  • Decide What to Do
  • Close the Retrospective

Set the Stage is a simple welcome and introduction. This is a chance to get everyone to say a couple of words so they feel comfortable talking and contributing. So far, I’ve stuck with asking the question “in one or two words, what’s on your mind?”. It can be uncomfortable for some, but it can be quite revealing too, and it certainly takes the edge off things – once you’ve said one or two words, more will often follow.

For the Gather Data part of the retrospective, the aim is to grab as much raw information about the project / iteration / month covered by the retrospective. Different people experience different things – in our case, the fact we’re all doing different things means we cover quite a lot of events. Some of these overlap (server problems, office temperature, distractions) while others can be specific to one or two people. I use the “Mad, Sad, Glad” game, accompanied by suitably coloured sticky notes, to get the team to write out anything and everything that comes to mind. We’re often talking quite a lot, and as people stick up notes on a wall it prompts other ideas and memories. When done, we collectively cluster the notes and then choose labels for each cluster – it’s perfectly fine if we discover the need to recluster as we label, because we’ve spotted something interesting or have found a better way to cluster.

Generate Insights is about analysing the data gathered: looking for patterns and discussing our stories. For our retrospectives, quite by accident, this ended up becoming part of the clustering process mentioned above. It felt a natural transition, so we’ve kept it that way for now. Things will obviously change when I decide to switch the game to something different.

Next up is Decide What To Do. Using sticky dots, we then vote on what cluster is most important for us to take a look at. Obviously, things that are affecting us negatively will be most likely to want attention, but it’s nice to see the good things voted for as well. We then brainstorm ways we can tackle the cluster before voting on what suggestion we want to do. I’ve found making a list of things we need to Start Doing, Stop Doing and Keep Doing to be simple and interesting for the group. The only downside, which is my fault, is pinning the team down on setting actions that are achievable by us. Too often we hope for other people to change, when we could (and should) more easily work on change amongst ourselves.

Finally, Close the Retrospective. Wrap things up and let the restrospective coach know how things went. I like the Helped, Hindered, Hypothesis game where everyone writes a note to me to tell me what helped them during the retrospective, what didn’t help, and what things I can do next time (the “Hypothesis” part of the game – struggling for an H?).

It’s early days for our retrospectives, but there’s plenty of scope for improvement and mixing things up to keep it relevant and, above all, fun. It’s proved a great way to vent some steam, think about the way we do things and give ourselves a pat on the back for the good things we do. We don’t celebrate success as much as we should, which is a shame because we all want to do the best we can and get a little recognition when we achieve that. I’m enjoying hosting them and it’s a great help for me as it provides the opportunity to work on things I always felt I couldn’t do well: like leading a group, facilitating team discussion and planning something IT-related that isn’t a software project.

Give them a go sometime!

For further reading….

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2 thoughts on “Agile Retrospectives

  1. This is a very good story… and it sounds like you are going doing a great path. The interesting part of retro’s is that it will also lead you to other process changes. I feel like most people considering agile will get there if they only try retro’s but can make them successful.

    One of the things I’ve learned about retrospectives (as your team matures them) is that you tend to focus on recent stuff, and people tend to zone out after an hour.

    Because of this, I would suggest doing 1 power hour every 2-3 weeks (15th & 30th?). Just make sure each phase is quicker! It forces people to focus on the “really” important stuff and not reach for possibly annoying items.

    Also, make sure that whatever you take away as an action item/change is assigned to someone or a group and they are accountable to showing progress by the next retrospective (can be by email outside the retro). This will build faith in the process and accountability in the team (strengthening trust and a sense of team!).

    Good luck!

    1. Thank you for your comments Kevin! I’m definitely going to ensure action items are assigned to someone from now on – that accountabilty looks to be the key I’m looking for. Much appreciated!

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