Agile Retrospectives

More Than Just Facts!

30 June 2014

Akhilesh K M
Tata Consultancy Services


This paper is based on my experience with retrospective meetings. If done effectively, they energize the team and not only help with continuous learning and improvement but also help increase the team's capability, productivity, and capacity. These meetings require skill, which needs to be acquired by conscious effort. Retrospection provides a forum for the appreciation of the hard work the team did during the iterations, and it motivates the team to perform better than its previous best.

The objectives of this article are:
  1. To provide insight and better understanding of retrospective meetings
  2. To outline the five stages for conducting effective retrospection
  3. To provide different innovative techniques to ensure that these meetings are effective and productive
  4. To review the attributes of a retrospective leader/coordinator
  5. To review guidelines for customizing for teams


Introduction

Many teams have migrated to the Agile way of working. Out of the many Agile practices that they follow, retrospection is one of them -- and an important one.

When we say "retrospective," here's what the team may have in mind: "Yet another meeting to discuss the metrics, defects, and lessons learned after the completion or at the closure of a logical milestone with the data available." It is all about presentations and formal meetings, where they have to listen, though more often than not they want to be heard!

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Hard facts are only part of the data. Feelings are at least half the story. Feelings tell what's important to people about the facts and about the team. And surprisingly rarely do the project team members realize this.

Creating a structured way for people to talk about feelings makes it more comfortable to raise topics that have an emotional charge. When people avoid emotional content, it doesn't go away; it goes underground and saps energy and motivation. And without data on feelings, the team may not address the topics that are most important to them. This paper is based on my experience with these meetings. If they are conducted traditionally, like any other meeting, their purpose may not be met.

If done effectively, retrospectives energize the team and not only help with continuous learning and improvement but also help increase the team's capability, productivity, and capacity. These meetings require skill, which needs to be acquired by conscious effort.

Agile, as we all know in reality, is not just a set of practices or principles such as customer focus, collaboration, communication, simplicity, synchronization, flexibility, adaptability, iterative incremental, etc. It is much more than all these. It is mind-set change. Since there are so many dynamics involved, it is important -- imperative -- that the team continuously inspect and adapt.

Usually, the project closure meetings or lessons learned at meetings are monotonic and not as interactive as they should be. They are more focused on results, metrics, achievements, feedback, and things to improve upon in subsequent projects. These meetings are conducted once in the lifetime of the project, at the end, and the team usually doesn't get a chance to incorporate them into their work immediately.

However, in the Agile way of working, which is incremental and iterative, it is important to have collaborative meetings frequently and regularly for the teams to self-organize, maintain momentum, and improve continuously.

So, what is retrospection?

Inspect and adapt -- this is considered an essential ingredient for continuous learning and improvement.

Look back and assess. Take everything into account; try to set a better platform for the upcoming future.

Analyze the good practices and the lessons learned so they can be followed for the next iteration.

After every iteration, all the team members discuss:
  • What went right? What went wrong?
  • Ideas/suggestions for improvement
  • Collective and collaborative decisions about how to improve
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Why hold retrospectives?

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Retrospectives are widely considered one of the most important and indispensable of Agile techniques. Inspection and adaptation is one of the main points of agility, and retrospectives focus on inspecting and adapting the most valuable asset in an organization: the team itself. Inspection and adaptation is all about continuous improvement, and without continuous improvement there is no true sense to the term "agility."

The biggest thing about retrospectives is to make sure everybody knows they can speak their mind. It's not going to help anybody if people keep things inside. Those things are just going to fester for that person if not resolved.

By asking what happened, a common understanding of the project -- a common culture, in fact -- is built. Just getting people together at one table, giving them a chance to talk, and having them listen to each other goes a long way toward reducing emotional conflicts. Everybody feels that each one's input is considered important.

By asking what the team is doing well, the risk of blame games is largely minimized. Everyone is appreciated and motivated. An atmosphere of trust is created that makes everyone believe that they are working for the good of the project. They will respond and work better just because of the feedback and respect they are getting.

Furthermore, there is an opportunity to ask leading questions and direct people to respond with a good answer or suggestion. This helps drive the improvement process in the right direction.

By asking the team how to improve, people get motivated to provide a list of short- and medium-term action items that will make visible improvements in the state of the project. Furthermore, the team owns the list, creating a broader sense of responsibility and ownership.

Agile retrospective: The five-phase structure

Retrospection often follows a five-phase structure, and it can be a good idea to structure the retrospective meeting as below to make it well organized and effective:
  • Setting the stage
  • Gathering data
  • Generating insights
  • Deciding what to do
  • Closing the retrospective
1) Setting the stage
Lay the groundwork for the session by reviewing the goal and agenda. Create an environment for participation by checking in and establishing working agreements.

2) Gathering data
Review objective and subjective information to create a shared picture. Bring in each person's perspective. When the group sees the iteration from many points of view, they'll have greater insight.

3) Generating insights
Step back and look at the picture the team has created. Use activities that help people think together to delve beneath the surface.

4) Deciding what to do
Prioritize the team's insights and choose a few improvements or experiments that will make a difference for the team.

5) Closing the retrospective
Summarize how the team will follow up on plans and commitments. Thank team members for their hard work. Conduct a little retrospective on the retrospective.

Setting the stage

Set the goal for retrospection; it helps the team to focus on work. Many times the discussions seem to get distorted and deviate away from the original intent. Hence it is important to set the goal in advance, so that all brainstorming can be around that goal.

Inform the approach and agenda for the session. Time is precious. It is important for people to know and understand how their time is being used and what the value should be. Hence it is a good practice to let the team know, in advance, the approach and the agenda.

Develop the team's agreements and values. This helps keep the conversations and interactions productive and focused. The intent of this meeting is to understand and address the issues rather than pointing out or playing blame games. It is good to have the team's buy-in and agreements from the start and make them visible to everybody.

Gathering data

Gathering data creates a shared picture of what has happened during the course of the interaction. This enables the team to think together.

It is important to collect all data. Hard data: Events, metrics, features, stories etc. A visible depiction of data and events makes it easier for people to see the patterns and make connections.

Thorough data gathering, including both facts and feelings, leads to better thinking and action during the rest of the retrospective. As I've said, while facts are just half the story, feelings are the other half. Hence it is important to create a structured and a comfortable platform for the collection of subjective data.

Generating insights

It's time to ask "Why?" And decide what to do differently. All the gathered data is now organized and consolidated to provide the bigger picture.

The team should examine the conditions, interactions, and patterns that contributed to their success and investigate the breakdowns, risks, and unexpected outcomes. All data is converted into relatively meaningful data and patterns.

Deciding what to do

At this point, the team has a list of experiments and improvements, after all that brainstorming and generating of insights. The team prioritizes the list of the action points that they have come up with, and then they should choose items that they can commit to and that will have a positive effect.

The team has to limit the number of improvement actions it takes on. This is to ensure that the action items that are chosen are implemented and closed positively before the retrospective. This brings the team confidence that the actions arising out of the retrospective meetings are addressed and are not left unattended.

Closing the retrospective

It is important to end the retrospective decisively and decide how to document the experience and plan for the follow-up. There should not be any open-ended action items or action points whose owner is not clear.

The team should also decide how to retain what the members learned from the retrospective; maintain a leaning log or a retro shelf. It is important to track the new practices with posters or big, visible charts, so that there is a sense of a public announcement. It will also help provide an unconscious reminder to the team members themselves.

Agile retrospective: Different techniques

A good retrospective has to have some kind of structure to it, to keep from becoming a mere complaining session, or one where everybody sits around silently. Mainly, the basic structure was to put everything into buckets of "Good," "Bad," and "Needs improvement." Good was obvious: the stuff we thought went well during that sprint. Bad are things that could have gone better but weren't terrible.

All the input should come from the team members themselves, and this is not an easy job. The challenge is to get people to open up their minds to speak freely, to participate in the discussion to get a common understanding among all. While it is important to create a structured approach for the team to provide their input in a structured way (like the 5-phase structure), there are techniques to obtain input in a creative way and break the ice. It is important to build trust among the team members, to make them believe that everyone's input is important, that the team jointly decides on actions, and that there will be concrete results at the end of it.

There are several techniques, games, and simulations that can be conducted to create a creative as well as a comfortable platform for team members to express themselves freely. Team members and the retrospective co-coordinators can invent their own games to suit the team dynamics, given their experience with each other. Some possible techniques are mentioned below in brief detail. As was suggested, these can be used as guidelines and can be further customized.

Set the stage

1) JAW: Just a Word. It is an effective ice breaker. Team members are requested to best describe the iteration in a word or a phrase.

Each person can answer with a word or short phrase. Put aside other concerns and focus on the retrospective. Articulate what they want from the retrospective.

2) This-That Game: This is an effective game that helps establish a mind-set for productive communication and also helps set team agreements before the start of the retrospective.

This / rather than That:

Inquiry / rather than Advocacy
Dialogue / rather than Debate
Conversation / rather than Argument
Understanding / rather than Defending

3) ESVP Game: This is an interesting game to categorizes the team into different groups based on what they feel about the meeting. It also help set the stage.
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Explorers: They're eager to explore new ideas and insights. They want to learn everything about the iteration.
Shoppers: They will look over all the available information and will be happy to go home with one useful new idea.
Vacationers: They aren't very interested in the work of the retrospective per se, but they are happy to be away from the daily routine.
Prisoners: They feel that they've been forced to attend and would rather be doing something else.

Gather data

1) Timeline and color-coded dots: This game is used to stimulate memories of what happened during the increment of work. Here the entire project is time lined and the team represents information, both facts and feelings, in the form of color coding. The team decides the color coding legends before they start, and they represent their input in the form of color-coded dots, sticky notes, or swim lanes over iterations.

Express facts and feelings: Group members post memorable, personally meaningful, or otherwise significant events during the iteration.

2) Build up the story: This is a cumulative build-up of ideas.

Group members generate an idea and pass it on to next and the next person, each building on it. The idea may be either written or spoken to one's neighbor. The ideas can be cumulative, building in a discussion and finally consolidated at the end of the discussion.

3) Pair interviews: One plus one is more than two!

Pairs are formed and each member interviews other about the previous iteration, its highs and lows. Each person learns by asking questions. A short questionnaire may be prepared, and the feedback may be consolidated at the end.

4) Satisfaction survey: A survey can help find out how satisfied the team members are with a focus area. Focus areas can be created and the team can rate each one of them on a scale of 1 to 5. Then data could be consolidated or plotted graphically to collect further insights and make an analysis.

5) Team Radar:
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The team decides on and agrees to certain factors that they believe are important to the project. The activity begins with a blank radar graph, and each team member plots the points based on scores on the radar to complete the graph. Sometimes the team may decide on control limits for the scores, and then plot the actual scores.

Generate insights

1) Brainstorming: The teams are divided into groups and are challenged to come up with the maximum number of ideas in a given span of time, based on the data collected during previous phases. This is an effective method of generating insight into the data collected and generating a meaningful and a filtered pattern.

2) Fishbone analysis:
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This is yet another effective method of generating insights. The team identifies factors that are causing or affecting a problem situation and then looks for the most likely causes. After they have identified the most likely causes, they look for ways they can make changes or influence those factors.

3) Five Why's technique: In this method, the team asks questions continuously (usually five times), till they arrive at a final -- the "real" -- solution. An example is illustrated below.

Say the issue is that the iteration review meeting never starts on time.

Q1: Why did we start our review meeting late on Thursday? A: The room was not available.

Q2: Why wasn't the room available?
A: We forgot to put it on the meeting schedule.

Q3: Why did we forget to put it on the meeting schedule? A: Charlie was sick, and he always schedules the room.

Q4: Why does only Charlie schedule the room? A: Because we did not think it would matter.

Q5: Why did not we think having the room scheduled mattered? A: We did not understand how much of our time it would waste.

4) Group report: The team divides into smaller groups and the groups discuss and present a report to the whole team. They discuss which actions to take forward into the next iteration. This is conducted like a workshop.

Closing the retrospective

The team is divided into small groups, the groups discuss, and the task to be implemented in the next iteration is written.

A final summary of all that went well and all that needed improvement is important before the close of the retrospective. Also, don't forget awards and appreciations, which are also important and are usually given less priority. In an Agile environment, motivating people plays a vital role. The right awards and recognitions to the right people at the right time are highly motivating.

The team's feedback about the retrospective meeting is important as well; this input could be considered points of improvement for the next retrospective.

The successful closure of the retrospective is handled by obtaining individual member signatures and commitment for their respective action points.

After the retrospective, a quick dashboard of the consolidated information, preferably done as a picture or graph, may be published to the entire team. For example:
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Retrospective leader/co-coordinator: Role and attributes

What are the attributes, roles, and responsibilities of a retrospective leader/coordinator? These are skills that must be consciously acquired.

Leading retrospectives

When facilitators talk about process, they aren't talking about a heavyweight process and method. Here, "process" means managing activities, managing group dynamics, and managing time. Though the retrospective facilitator may want to follow the content and the flow of information, his primary responsibility is the process and the structure of the retrospective.

Qualities of retrospective leaders

  • They attend to the needs and dynamics of the group and help the group reach a goal.
  • They remain neutral in discussions, even when they have strong opinions.
There are two tasks during retrospection:
  • To be available to answer questions about the activity
  • To monitor the room

Main roles of a retrospective leader

  • Managing the activities. The retrospective leader has two tasks during an activity: Be available to answer questions about it, and monitor the room. He interacts with the teams and helps create an atmosphere where people are comfortable and will speak up. He collects input and manages the team members.
  • Managing the group dynamics. Managing group dynamics means managing participation: making sure people who have something to say have the chance and making sure people who have a lot to say don't dominate. Group dynamics include team member interactions and emotions.
  • Managing time. The retrospective leader should respond to the needs of the group. He or she needs to pay attention to time and keep the group within the time. Time is precious, and the ultimate aim is to meet the goal and make the session productive. In fact, it is important for the retrospective co-coordinator to set the agenda at the beginning, so that everyone knows what to expect and will buy in and help arrive at agreements.
  • Managing himself. In addition to managing activities, group dynamics, and time, the retrospective leader needs to manage himself (or herself). He should remain neutral in discussions, even when strong opinions arise, and be able to manage the group during emotional situations. He should help ensure that there is a comfortable platform for all the team members to voice their thoughts.
  • Taking skills to the next level. Learning the skills for coaching, teaching, and training the team to help take decisions and implement them is one of the most important tasks. This not only builds the confidence of the team but also helps make the sessions productive, effective, and interactive.

Guidelines: Customize for the team

Retrospective meetings do not follow a standard formula. They have to be customized to suit the project types, project needs, and group dynamics. Factors to remember are:
  • Learning about the history and environment. It is important to know the history and the context of the project. This information helps the team set better goals, and it helps the retrospective leader better understand the team dynamics.
  • Shaping the goal for the retrospective. Useful and meaningful goals to improve our practices, understand reason behind missed targets, rebuild strained relationships, etc.
  • Determining duration. Factors that could be considered are length of iteration, complexity, size of the team, etc.

Structuring a retrospective

As mentioned earlier, it is very important to structure the retrospective meeting. Despite the lack of a standard formula, certain guidelines or conventions can be followed for structuring these meetings.

Below is a sample list of the distribution of the entire duration across the various phases of the retrospective in terms of percentage of total time:
  • Set the stage = 5%
  • Gather data = 30-50%
  • Generate insights = 20-30%
  • Decide what to do = 15-20%
  • Close the retrospective = 10%
  • Disperse = 5-10%

Benefits of the retrospective

  1. The most important benefit of the retrospective meeting is that there is an increase in the team's and individuals' morale and motivation. Everyone feels that everyone's opinions are considered valuable.
  2. Regular retrospectives help in better root-cause analyses (RCA's) and corrective and preventive actions (CAPAs). There is a sense of enthusiasm, ownership, and interactive participation.
  3. An obvious benefit of the retrospective is that it provides the team with a scheduled opportunity to reflect on the recent past and illuminate events, choices, procedures, and behaviors so each can be sustained or changed as the team desires.
  4. Another important benefit is that there is an end-to-end action and team members are involved not only in gathering data but also in generating a meaningful pattern to the data and in working on implementation of the identified action points.
  5. Retrospective meetings make a significant impact on individuals and the team in terms of productivity, effectiveness, and ownership.
  6. Retrospective meetings are extremely valuable, not just for the obvious reasons but also for the contribution they make in developing the cherished qualities of team spirit. They create an ecosystem of trust, goodwill, and cooperation as well as respect for individuals. These are key predictors of high performance.

Current trends and beyond

As mentioned time and again, retrospective meetings are one of the most important meetings in an Agile environment. These meetings have to be properly planned, structured, and regularly scheduled.

Improvement is at the center of any retrospective, and simply conducting a meeting will not help the team be successful. It is important to plan the improvements and implement them.

Conducting retrospective meetings is both an art and a skill. Usually the ScrumMaster plays the role of the retrospective facilitator. However, it is important that the ScrumMaster is specially trained in conducting the retrospectives so that:
  • The entire team is engaged.
  • Discussion focuses on the team rather than on individuals.
  • The team's Definition of Done is visited and (hopefully) expanded.
  • A list of actionable commitments is created.
  • The results of the previous sprint retrospective are visited.
  • The discussion is relevant for all attendees.
If any of the above points fail, the meetings does not turn out to be successful. It is important for a skilled facilitator to ensure that the discussions stay positive and professional, focusing on the improvement of the team as a whole. This is not an opportunity for personal criticism or attack.

Team members often view these meetings as just another formality and do not participate actively. It is important for the team to be honest and transparent while treating others with respect.

Another important aspect of why retrospectives are not always effective is that the teams don't make actionable commitments. When this is not done, the team loses confidence in the meetings and start considering them a waste of time.

Retrospectives are fundamentally a technique used to reveal the practices and behaviors of the team to itself. When a self-organizing system becomes self-aware, it self-corrects and deliberately improves. And so for retrospectives to be useful, they must be meaningful to the participants. If the focus isn't on something valued by the participants, benefits will simply not be realized. The team must be allowed to consider and improve in areas it believes are important. Furthermore, if a facilitator or dominant personality is driving the retrospective to a specific conclusion, the team avoids taking responsibility for itself and its work.

Topics visited should be relevant for all of the team members and the focus should be on the team, not on any individual and not on the broader organization. Focusing holistically allows the team to genuinely see itself as a self-organizing unit, rather than as a loose confederation of individuals.

Also, retrospectives are creative meetings where various techniques can be used, while maintaining the fundamentals. Trying different versions of retrospective meeting keeps things fresh and interesting.

Each retrospective should include a review of commitments made in the previous sprint and a discussion about the team's success in meeting those commitments. If this discussion isn't part of each retrospective, attendees soon learn their commitments don't matter, and they'll stop meeting them.

Further, the right place and time to review retrospective commitments is throughout the iteration, not just at the end. Once commitments for improvement are made, posting them publicly can help ensure they are considered on a daily basis.

A common example of a bad retrospective is one that deteriorates into a gripe session. It is much easier to remember that went poorly than to identify things that went well.

Some of the common signs that a retrospective isn't working well include:
  • Considering the retrospective a "postmortem" or "after-action" report rather than an opportunity to plan for improvement
  • Disengaged attendees
  • Critiquing a single person's performance
  • No resulting actionable commitments
  • Having no "what we did well" answers; teams need to understand and appreciate their positive as well as negative behaviors and practices
In all of the above situations, it is often easy to trace the root cause of the negativity to a lack of trust and commitment on the part of one or more team members.

Furthermore, sometimes teams stop focusing on retrospectives when they believe they are doing it right, and hence they eventually stop holding them.

Lastly, as much as a skilled facilitator is important, the team's attitude and participation is equally important. Taken together, these two sides make the retrospectives into effective improvement meetings -- planning as well as making it happen.

It requires more than a working knowledge of retrospectives to have positive outcomes; it requires facilitation skills and the ability to lead a group away from negative discussion and toward positive outcomes.

Conclusion

Retrospection is a tried-and-true, methodical process to help teams inspect and adapt. It helps the team take a complete and a comprehensive view of its methods and practices in totality.

Retrospectives enable the whole team to learn, act as catalysts for change, and generate actions that go beyond checklists, project audits, or closure meetings.

Retrospection provides a forum for the appreciation of the hard work the team did during the iterations and motivates the teams to perform better than the best they had previously performed.

If such meetings are conducted like any other meeting, their purpose is not met. If done effectively, retrospectives energize the team and not only help with continuous learning and improvement but also increase the team's capability, productivity, and capacity. Holding a good retrospective is a skill, which needs to be acquired by conscious effort.

There are many techniques available, and only a few of them are covered here. Teams can explore and customize existing techniques to best suit their own needs.

Creating a structured and creative way for people to talk about feelings makes it more comfortable to raise topics that have an emotional charge. When people avoid emotional content, it doesn't go away: It goes underground and saps energy and motivation. And without data about feelings, the team may not address the topics that are most important to them. When feelings  are addressed along with facts, people are motivated and energized, and they drive themselves.

After all, it is a meeting of the team, for the team, and by the team!

Acknowledgments
I would like to thank the following people who have directly or indirectly helped me to write this paper.
  1. Mr. Prabhakar Rao, who has been motivating and inspiring and provided the review comments for this paper. He has guided like a coach and always believes that I can do much better than what I have already done!
  2. Mr. Idris Khan, who is a motivating leader and always emphasizes the need for all of us to stretch beyond the normal chores of consulting.
  3. Mrs. Pragnya Misra, who provided all the necessary information about writing a white paper -- the references and samples and all guidance.
  4. Mrs. Gurmeet Rao, who is inspiring, provided all necessary information and guidance, and taught about all the necessary processes and procedures.

References
  • Derby E, Larsen D. Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great! 2006: Pragmatic Bookshelf.
  • Agile Alliance (www.agilealliance.org).



Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.



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