Plan of Action

A Retrospective Technique for Creating Actions Tied to Long-Term Goals

6 August 2007

Bas Vodde
Odd-e

While I regularly change all other retrospective exercises, the action planning technique I’ve been using for the past two years has worked so well that I don’t want to change it. That has not always been the case.

Action planning in my earlier retrospective often had some problems. Some of the action items were just good intentions without enough concrete details to make them actionable.  These items focused on some longer-term goal that couldn’t be achieved during the next sprint. The result of this was that nothing actually happened. “Improve communication” is a good example for such an action. Other action items had the opposite problem. These items were very concrete but lacked a clear goal. For example, one action that came out of many retrospectives was to change the time of the daily scrum. We easily accomplished that action, but didn’t move any closer toward our overall goals as a result. If actions aren’t tied to goals, the team gets stuck in short-term thinking and leaves the longer-term, harder improvements simply because they cannot do them within the next sprint.

Action Format

To solve these problems, I ask the team to generate all actions in a specific format, as shown below.

Long-term goal:  Have test automation on acceptance-test level
Now-Action:  Pete will automate one test using Fit

This format helps the team consider a long-term goal for every action. It also helps them create very concrete actions to move the team a step closer to the long-term goal. The now-action has to be one that can be implemented in the next sprint and must be something the team can accomplish itself. The question to ask is, “What can we do?” This does not mean that the action or the goal has to be within the team’s authority. For example, the team might need new, expensive test equipment. The team might not have budget authority to make such a decision. In this situation, the long-term goal could be, “Have enough test equipment so there is no waiting waste”. The now-action might be, “Make a cost analysis for purchasing test equipment and share this with the person authorized to approve the purchase.”

Every sprint retrospective starts with a review of the previous now-actions. If the now-actions are not completed, we invest time, perhaps the whole retrospective, discussing why not and how we could change that. If the now-actions from retrospectives are not complete, then it’s probably no use to even have retrospectives since no improvements are being made.

Action generation and prioritization

Having an action format is of little value if we do not have a method for generating those actions. The first step in action generation is to have every team member individually generate as many actions as possible. Every action is written in the established format (goal and now-action) and written on an index card. This activity is timeboxed to about ten minutes. After the individual actions are generated, we divide the group into pairs. The individuals in each pair explain each other’s actions to each other. The pair selects the most important actions out of their combined actions, trying to limit the total to a handful of actions, for example five. In this phase they can, of course, generate new actions. This activity is also timeboxed, though it’s often finished before the end of the allotted time. Next, the pairs join with another pair to form groups of four and repeat the process, this time sharing only the most important actions they selected from the previous activity. The foursome further pares down the chosen actions, to for example four. This process continues until there is a whole team discussion. At that point the team selects the actions that have slowly emerged to be the most important.

At the end of the selection process, I write all the actions on one flipchart sheet and hand it over to one of the team members. This sheet is then hung in the team’s workspace as a visual reminder. Those actions not selected can be discarded.

For example, in a retrospective with eight people, the following steps would be taken:

  • 10 min – Individual action generation.
  • 10 min – Pairs select the top five of their shared actions
  • 10 min – Groups of four select the top four of their ten shared actions
  • 10 min – The whole group selects the top three of their eight shared actions

The process is based on having team sizes that are a multiple of two; however, with some creativity it works for any size group. It might mean that in the first step there is one group of three or in the second step one group of six and one group of four. (The calculations did give me and my co-facilitator a headache in a group of around forty.)

The advantage of this action generation technique is that it combines individual action generation with group action generation. It then slowly, step-by-step, creates consensus on the actions. Everyone tends to stay involved in the process mostly because they have all been involved in the process from the beginning. Also by slowly increasing the group sizes, the more silent personalities tend not to be excluded.

While we generate as many actions as we can, we ultimately select only a few, typically three, to be done in the next sprint. Selecting too many actions is a common mistake in action planning. The effect is a loss of focus and a huge amount of time spent on tracking the actions.

Linking retrospectives

Sprint retrospectives should be linked so that they build on each other and focus on long-term, continuous improvements. One way to link retrospectives is to bring the actions from the previous retrospective into the current one and discuss whether they are complete or not.

Another way of linking retrospectives is to keep the long-term goals from every retrospective, typically by writing them on a flipchart sheet. In every retrospective, then, we display the long-term goals and use them as input for the action generation.

Can we generate new now-actions for these long-term goals? Do we have any new long-term goals that we need to add to the list? Every now and then we go through the list to see which goals are still valid and which ones we achieved. We remove all invalid or complete actions.

Conclusion

I’ve used the action planning technique presented here in countless retrospectives over the past two years.  Without fail, it has resulted in a small number of agreed-upon actions. Whatever other retrospective exercises you use can serve as input for the action planning. This action planning exercise should happen at the end of a retrospective. I hope that sharing this technique will help other teams improve their own retrospectives.

 


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Comments

Andy Murthar, CSM, 8/8/2007 7:57:56 AM
thanks for the article. while i am not sure i understand\agree with all points made, i felt it highlighted the need for focus in the retrospectives. My own experience is to encourage the team to take ownership of the retrospective as part of their self management. but, as self management is a hard concept to grasp, the meetings can get a bit 'muddy' at times. So i sent your article out to both teams, to stir things up a bit. i was amazed how little understanding they had of the retrospective concept. so thank you again, you have highlighted an area i need to work on as scrummaster, in our process.
Arvind Patil, CSM, 8/17/2007 12:01:52 PM
Nice article. In our company we practice the retrospective using 'Open Space Technique'
that proved to be very effective as some of the team members are little bit hesitent
to come forward with open suggestions.
Nicholas Cancelliere, CSM, 8/17/2007 12:12:38 PM
I help facilitate retrospectives using techniques from Ester Derby's book "Agile Retrospectives." It's been very welcomed by the team and has taken their retrospectives from a laundry list of gripes that never got completed to a democratic goal-oriented approach focusing on the high priority issues facing the team. We change the "games" we play in the retrospective for generating insight (having the same games after each sprint becomes tedious and tiresome). The end-goal is always the same though: evaluate the hard and soft facts, look for patterns, gleam insights, prioritize and then decide what to do.

The team will often come up with a bunch of insights and ideas on how to work better, but we cannot realistically focus on that whole list, so they use dot voting to decide which they feel are the most important. We then take the top two or three issues and address those with SMART goals. If you do not have specific measurable goals to shoot for coming out of a retrospective it quickly becomes a exercise in futility -- and you know when this happens because the attendance or team participation decreases or goes away entirely.
Bas Vodde, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 8/19/2007 9:30:15 PM
Arvind Patil: Yes, Open Space is a good idea. You might want to try this planning method after the Open Space. You just gather all the results together and put them in front of the team and then ask them to use the results as input and generate actions from them.
Alexey Krivitsky, CST,CSM,CSPO, 8/20/2007 4:11:00 AM
Bas, thanks for your ideas! The practices of combining consensus of smaller groups into bigger sounds really interesting.

My question.
The project team works in a complex environment where you could probably distinguish 3 main aspects:
1) the project scope, 2) the processes and 3) the working environment itself.

On your retrospectives do you focus your team on generating the actions for all of the aspects together, or you do it separately?
Or you just target the most painful one?
Bas Vodde, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 8/20/2007 7:04:27 AM
Alexey: Yes, I would let the team make actions to whatever they find important since they are the one in control of their work. Though project scope is a little weird since that's normally in the hands of the product owner. I never seen any actions related to project scope, but I guess it depends on the type of product.

One team made actions related their chairs and related to some noise in the room. It really improved their working environment :)
Matt Wynne, CSM, 9/3/2007 10:13:00 AM
I've lately started using user stories as the format for these goals. It's a good excercise to get everyone on the team familiar with writing stories if you want to coach your team on that aspect.
Aniket Mhala, CSM, 10/18/2007 6:31:37 AM
Bas,
It is really nice article. I have a team which is geographically distributed and generally we have retrospective using telephone conference. How we can use the Action planning technique in this case?

Cheers
Aniket
Bas Vodde, CST,CSP,CSM,CSPO,REP, 10/19/2007 10:10:25 PM
Hi Aniket,

It depends a lot on the setup. If the group is balanced equally then you could only do the last step in a large group (over speaker phone or webcam). Otherwise you'll need more phone or skype connections. Most techniques are possible in distributed environment, though it always makes things more difficult :)


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