Agile Retrospectives

Episode 14

May 04, 2011


The Agile Weekly Crew discuss running retrospectives.

Derek Neighbors: Welcome to another episode of ScrumCast. I’m Derek Neighbors.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

Jade Meskill: I’m Jade Meskill.

Agile Retrospectives

Derek: Today we’ll talk a little bit of retrospectives.

Jade: Actually, I have a question for you Derek. You are the one who usually runs the retrospective here at Integrum. Doing that for a while, what are some traps you could fall into as a Scrum master, where the retrospectives are kind of stale, where you are talking about the same thing over and over again. What some negative patterns you have seen, maybe some smells and ways to avoid those.

Retrospective Negative Patterns

Derek: I think one negative pattern is using the same activities over and over again. I see a lot of organizations or a lot of teams that do the Plus, Minus, Delta. That has pretty much the only tool, no tool box, only activity. I think that teams kind of get into a rhythm of just, “OK, I’m just going to spit out the same kind of thing. I’m not really challenging my thinking.”

I think sometimes if you start to go into a little bit deeper activities, you can almost ‑‑ I don’t want to say trick people ‑‑ but you can get people to stop thinking about being guarded about the data that they’re giving, or about the ideas that they’re having.

Instead, allow flow to happen a little bit better. I think that the more you can get people out the rhythm of the activity, the more that they tend to be honest or give responses that they wouldn’t normally. Because they are too focused on, “I want to get that activity and not screw it up,” or do it right, “that I’m being more real with my responses.”

Whereas, if I know exactly what you’re going to do with the data and how you’re going to respond to it, it’s just like, “I’m not going to add this to it because I know that next step is A, B, C, and I don’t want to deal with whatever comes after A, B, C.”

One of the ways, I think, you can really deal with it is to change it up quite a bit.

Facilitation Resources

Jade: I think the trap that some people fall into is they only think about facilitating a retrospective from an Agile perspective, instead of thinking about being a meeting facilitator. There are tons and tons of resources out there, but really great, smart people who have become very proficient at facilitating meetings, getting people to be creative and lots of games and exercises and different techniques.

We buy the “Agile Retrospectives” book and stop there. I think that’s a huge mistake.

Derek: I think “Thinker Toy” is a really good book. “Game Storming” is a good book. “Innovation Games” is a good book. There’s definitely kind of a whole industry or segment that really talks about a lot of these brainstorming or innovative ways or game ways to unlock things in your brain. I think that anybody who’s doing a lot of facilitation exercises should really check those out.

The Art of Facilitation

Additionally, I think there is an art to facilitation. We talked about traps. I think it’s very hard, especially if you are a Scrum Master or somebody who is kind of on the team, it’s hard not want to interject your opinion or to drive things the way you want them to be driven, opposed to being a facilitator who really lets people express themselves.

One of the things I would say is, like the “F” word is a dirty word in engineering, and I’m not talking about “Fuck” because we all say that in [inaudible 03:45] . I’m talking about the explicit “F” word which is “Feelings.” I think that a lot of times to, really, unlock change you have to get people talking about how they feel about things, so they can overcome those feelings to move on.

I think there is definitely an art, especially in dealing with engineers, in facilitating in a way to not really say, “How does that make you feel. Clayton?” But instead ask questions that pull those feelings out so that they can be dealt with, and so the team can deal with them. I think that’s definitely a trap that’s easy to fall into if you’re an engineer doing facilitation.

Taking Too Long To Get To The Heart

Clayton: One thing kind of segway into this that I’ve seen, we’ve had this problem and I’m sure other people maybe have this problem on their team, is when you want to get into the feelings, and you want to start talking about those things. But you also have a time box and you want to respect everyone’s time and people have things to do and whatnot.

It seems like sometimes you get into the last 10 or 15 minutes of the retrospective, and there is some “aha” moment where you start getting into something deeper, but then it’s almost too late. It seems like that happens more often than not where it takes quite a while. Why do you think it is that it takes maybe the whole retrospective to get into that stuff? What are some things you could do to bring that up earlier?

Derek: I don’t know good ways necessarily to bring it up earlier. I think some of it is we have to let our guard down. Sometimes it just takes a little while of that surface level chitter‑chatter. If you think of it like a dating ritual, sometimes you need to break the ice, and relax with each other until you move it to the next level. I think the retrospectives follow a similar pattern.

Everybody has been doing the work for the week, so your mind is a little bit burned, you’re a little bit on edge, and it takes a little while to getting a little more relaxed, and get out of the “doing the work” stage to talk about the mental part of reviewing the work, in retrospect, and all that.

It takes that time to, say, let the guard down and really do that. I think if you can pick activities, if you know you’ve got a team that’s a slow mover team, if you can pick activities that help break down those barriers, and get it into the mood of being able to share more openly, that you try to do those more often.

Inspect and Adapt Your Retrospectives

Jade: I also think that you need to inspect and adapt on your retrospectives, and, if you’re always having this problem, maybe you need to change the timing or the length of your retrospective to deal with that. If it takes your team an hour to even get to moving beyond the surface level, maybe your retrospectives need to be two hours. You spend the second hour really digging into the meat of that. I think you really need to pay attention to what’s working and what’s not working with your teams.

Clayton: Maybe change format, like the CNN Crossfire.



Clayton: SMART goals. Good or bad?

Jade: Hate them.


Jade: It’s not very Crossfire‑ish.

Derek: I like the concept of SMART goals. I like setting a tangible action to improve. I like the principle of SMART in that it really allows you to keep things where, “Yes, I can do this,” “Yes, it’s reasonable,” “Yes, it’s timely,” “Yes, it’s actionable,” ‑‑ all of those things.

I think some of the problems that come out of that is it’s very hard to do the follow‑up on those, and to build upon them. I think, if you’re doing discipline retrospectives, where you say, “Over a period of time, we’re trying to make this change,” and you’ve got multiple SMART goals, it maybe makes more sense.

We’ve done them. It’s difficult to follow through, sometimes, all the way to the end. Then, where it’s really been a problem, I think, is the problem with SMART goals is you don’t do the habit setting. You say, “Oh, we’re going to this for the next iteration.” You do it, it works really great, and then you do it the next iteration.

Then, it starts to follow across on the third iteration. Then, it’s gone on the fourth iteration. Then, in six more retrospectives, it comes back as, “Hey, we need to solve this problem,” and everybody goes, “Haven’t we already talked about this?”

Jade: The problem I have with it is not the actual SMART goals and the follow‑through, like you’re saying. I agree that those are issues. The problem that I see is, in the context of the retrospective, the way I’ve seen it on our teams, it totally derails the good conversation that we’re having, and changes it into, “Well, how do we come up with another stupid SMART goal that fits this formula?”

I think a lot of times, it really detracts from some of the more powerful and more honest conversation that we could be having, and now it’s just about creating this formulaic thing.

Derek: Right, but I see the flip side of that is people will talk shit to death and never come up with anything actionable.

Jade: I agree.

Derek: We can have a really great, deep, meaningful conversation, but that doesn’t do shit for improving oneself.

Jade: Maybe it’s like everything else that we’re saying. It’s used appropriately and not abused. Maybe that’s where the secret lies, in moderation.

Retrospective Pet Peeves

Clayton: For each of you guys, who both run a retrospective, what is your ‑‑ maybe not biggest ‑‑ but what is a retrospective pet peeve that you have that you think, if we did away with not only on our team but on other teams, things would be greatly improved?

Speaking On Behalf Of The Anonymous

Jade: [laughs] One that jumps to my mind is the biggest thing that irritates me when I’m facilitating is somebody speaking on behalf of the anonymous other people who feel this way, “But not me personally.” That drives me insane. I will usually shut that down and say, “Well, if those people need to say that, they need to speak for themselves,” especially if you are not part of that group.

If you’re saying, “Well, I think that such and such people might be feeling this way, because I’ve heard about it, but I don’t feel this way,” you need to stay out of the conversation. Maybe bring that up and challenge the people to speak their mind, but don’t give me this big story about how other people are feeling.

Refusal To Express Feelings

Derek: I don’t really like that one much either. I really hate when people won’t express their feelings. When I say that is they won’t say what’s on their minds.

Before retrospective, all during the week, somebody will really belabor and bitch and moan about something with the team. Then, when it comes to retrospective time, and it’s the wide‑open slate to bring up that issue with the team, the person won’t engage. When somebody else brings up the topic, there is no opinion on it from that person. If you ask them, try to pry it out of them, “It’s, oh no, no big deal.”

Immediately after the retrospective, they’re right back to the, “Yeah, we’re never going to get rid of problem X, Y, Z that I’ve been bitching about for the last five days.” I just think we should institute the nut punch rule where anybody that does that, you’re OK to punch them in the nuts.

Jade: Some of that is being a good facilitator and watching out for some of those things. It is hard when you do acknowledge that, and they still refuse to initiate the conversation. That’s really challenging, but if you’re just watching body language, and watch for the eye rule and draw attention to that, you can solve some of that. Like you said if they still refuse to talk about it, then definitely nut punch.

Inverting The Question

Clayton: One technique I was actually reading about in the “Coaching Agile Teams” book that, I thought, was really interesting was as a facilitator phrasing your questions in such a way that you’re not actually asking the person. The example was rather than saying, “Hey Derek.” I know Derek has this problem about somebody, but I don’t think he’s going to talk about it. I could say, “Hey Derek, why do you think some people would feel this way?” Now, he’s not talking about his feelings.

I thought that was really interesting. As a Scrum Master listening to this podcast, what is something that I could do at my next retrospective, real quick tip that would make it better than the last one?

Derek: I would read at the retrospectives by [inaudible 12:05] …


Derek: …Diana Larson to start with. Lisa Adkins book “Coaching Agile Teams” has a lot of really good points about dealing with teams and good ways in facilitating. There are a ton of books that we don’t talk about on facilitation and coaching that have nothing to do with Agile that those skills are totally transportable, whether you are doing organizational redevelopment, or doing a respective for a team.

Facilitation is facilitation. Coaching is coaching. I would say anything you could do to improve on those. Maybe, you’ve got a cat at home that doesn’t like to use the litter box, practice some of your facilitation techniques on the cat. See if you can get it to start using the litter box on a regular basis.

Jade: Take a risk, but that’s the biggest advice I would give. I ran a retrospective, at our last one. I’d been reading “Gamestorming” a lot. I pulled out an experiment, one of their games, and just tried it. I had no idea if it would work, but I thought it might be fun to at least try. We got really excellent results out of it.

Derek: The other thing, I would say, is add alcohol to your retrospectives. It does wonders for loosening inhibitions as far as the team saying what’s on their mind, and it’s definitely a little dangerous, too.

See you next time.

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