Retrospectives

Retrospectives are critical for teams that are serious about continuous improvement. They allow the team an opportunity to take a moment to inspect and adapt how they work. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Entropy is always at work, so we must choose to change so that change doesn’t choose us.


Successful Retrospectives

A successful retrospective has five parts:

  1. Go over the mission of the team and the purpose of retrospective.
  2. The team owns where they are right now using Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) they’ve agreed on as a team.
  3. The team identifies whether experiments they are running are working or not.
    1. If an experiment is working, the team works to standardize the changes as part of daily work.
    2. If an experiment is not working, the team either adjusts the experiment based on feedback or abandons the experiment to try something else.
    3. Both are totally acceptable and expected results. In either case, the learnings should be shared publicly so that anyone in the organization can benefit from them.
  4. The team determines whether they are working towards the right goal and whether the experiments they are working on are moving them towards it.
    1. If answer to either of the questions is “No.” then the team adjusts as necessary.
  5. Open and honest conversation about wins and opportunities throughout.

Example Retro Outline

  • Go over the team’s mission statement and the purpose of retrospective (2 min)
  • Go over the team’s Key Performance Indicators and make sure everyone knows where we are (5-10 min)
  • Go over what experiments the team decided to run and what we expected to happen (5 minutes)
  • What did we learn this week? (10-15 minutes)
    • Should we modify any team documents? (2 minutes)
  • What went well this week? (5-10 minutes)
  • What sinks our battleship? (5-10 minutes)
  • Are we working towards the right things? What are we going to try this week? How will we measure it? (10-15 minutes)

Organizing Retros

There are some important things to consider when scheduling a retrospective.

  1. Ensure Psychological Safety
    1. If the team feels like they can’t speak openly on honestly, they won’t.
    2. Any issues with psychological safety must be addressed before any real progress can be made.
  2. Make them Regular
    1. Agree to a time, day, frequency as a team to meet.
  3. Include everyone responsible for delivery
    1. Ideally this will include business colleagues (PO), operations, testing, and developers involved in the process.
    2. If there are more than 10-12 people in the meeting, your team is probably too big.
  4. Co-location concerns
    1. If the team is split across timezones, then accommodations should be made so that the team can effectively communicate.
    2. If the time separation is extreme (i.e. India/US), then in may be better to have each hemisphere retro separately and compare notes asynchronously.
    3. Schedule meetings to be inclusive of the most remote. Don’t schedule rooms with bad audio/no video if there are remote participants. Have it via a remote meeting solution (Zoom, etc.)

Tips

  • Create cards on whatever board you are using to track your work for action items that come out of retrospective
  • Treating team improvement as a deliverable will help the team treat them more seriously.
  • Do not work on more than a few actions/experiments at a time
  • If the retrospective has remote attendees, ask that everyone turn on their cameras so that the team can look everyone in the eyes.
  • Outcome over output: If the format of retro isn’t helping you improve, change it or seek help on how to make it better. The teams that cancel retro are almost always the teams that need it most.

Known Impediments

“Typical” Retrospectives

Normally, a scrum-like retro involves 3 questions about the previous iteration:

  • What went well?
  • Would could we improve?
  • What are some actions we can take?

This is pretty open ended format that is very simple to go over in a training class. The challenge is the nuance of facilitating the format.

While it can be effective, what we have found is that this particular format can actually stunt the improvement of many teams when used incorrectly. And since the format is so open ended, that’s extremely easy to do.

Retrospectives that follow the above format are something that many teams struggle with. They can…

  • Feel Ineffective, where the same issues crop up again and again without resolution.
  • End with a million action items that never get done or tracked.
  • “Improve” things that don’t actually move the needle on team productivity or happiness
  • End up as a gripe session where there are no actionable improvements identified.

This is such a waste of time. I'd rather be coding...

It can be extremely frustrating to team members when it feels like retrospectives are just another meeting that they have to go to. If that ever becomes the case, that should signal a huge red flag! Something is wrong!

Psychological Safety

If the team feels like they are going to be judged, punished, or generally negatively affected by participating in retrospective, then they are going to keep their opinions to themselves. Without the safety to have their voices heard or take moderate, hypothesis driven, risk, the team will not improve as fast as they can (if at all).

However, if leadership feels like they are being disrespected, they aren’t being listened to/considered, or feel like they are going to be negatively impacted by the outcomes of the team they are more likely to restrain a team from their full potential.

It’s a delicate balancing act that takes trust, respect, and empathy from all sides to come to win-win solutions.

Last modified February 2, 2022: Switch to hugo (#2) (a244f74)