Matt Grommes wrote another thought-provoker today on sprint retrospectives; my comments started wandering and found their way into this post...
The few retrospectives I've facilitated have taught me a few tricks. Matt is correct when he says that a retrospective can turn into monster vetching session if allowed to do so. In my opinion there are two keys to avoiding this:
- provide a structured way for the team to express their input;
- timebox everything.
I've found the following retrospective structure to be effective in producing actionable feedback....
I show up to facilitate a retrospective armed with the following items:
- a white board with working markers and an eraser;
- green, pink, and yellow post-its;
- a kitchen timer;
Sometimes I bring a yummy treat, but I've had that backfire when the sugar rush ebbs and the team starts to wander mentally. I also try to schedule the retrospective as the last event in the workday for everybody, but early in the week. This seems to keep the team at ease, but focused.
First: Establish Trust in the Process
Like confessions extracted under coercion, feedback is worthless when obtained from someone who doesn't feel secure enough to be honest. Agile processes in general rely heavily on open communication, and I found that my non-agile team displayed a lot of mistrust in the retrospective's goals.
I begin each retrospective with a technique described in Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great that is aimed at measuring the willingness of the group to communicate. Each person writes on a post-it a number between one and five inclusive, indicating their willingness to participate in the discussion to follow:
- I will not speak;
- I will be quiet and let others talk;
- Some things I will discuss, some things I will not;
- I'll talk about almost anything;
- I'll talk about anything.
The anonymous post-its are collected, tallied, and discussed briefly. Obviously the goal is to have all fives, maybe one or two fours in the mix. The times I've seen anything else, it's either because a communication problem exists on the team, or the goal of the retrospective is in question (e.g., QA feels like they will be scapegoated for a missed deadline).
I keep discussion to five minutes, reiterating the retrospective Prime Directive, making sure that everyone knows they are expected to keep the conversation productive, and that the goal is to make the team work together better.
Second: Discuss Good Things
Next I pass out the green post-its and pens, and ask everyone to write down as many things as they can think of that worked well during the sprint. I ask them to include team and personal efforts, new or existing processes, anything they can think of that made a positive contribution to the effort. I use the timer to box the task to 5 minutes.
I collect the anonymous post-its and start going through them one at a time, collating as necessary. I read each Good Thing aloud and open the floor for discussion. I try my best to categorize them on the whiteboard as we go, so the team can see common trends. For example, several post-its may comment on positive effects realized in documentation and QA from adding a bit of structure to the developer's subversion commit notes.
This part of the retrospective is generally pretty easy. There isn't a lot of gray area in terms of choosing to maintain a practice that has a positive effect on the team. In addition, I find that discussing the positives first helps the team open up more during the next task...
Third: Collect and Categorize Bad Things
I pass out the pink post-its, set the timer for 5 minutes, and have the team jot down anything they felt impeded their work. I emphasize "anything" - I would rather someone write down 10 also-rans and 2 gems than to spend the entire time deliberating on what to write at all.
Against the advice of most retrospective experts, I ask the team *not* to exclude personal remarks about other team members; however, I do remind them that the remarks should be constructive, and that the retrospective is not a performance review. For example, I would consider this appropriate:
Jim would benefit from writing more unit tests, having regular peer reviews, and mentoring.
but this inappropriate:
Jim's code sucks and never works.
As usual, I collect the post-its anonymously (I like to use a coffee can with a slit in the lid, BTW), during which time I draw two columns on the whiteboard: "Under Our Control" and "Out of Our Control". I read each Bad Thing aloud and ask the team a single question:
Do we have control over this?
Their answer is usually unanimous, and it dictates which column the post-it falls on the white board. There is no discussion of the Bad Thing at the point - the purpose of this task is only to isolate whether the Bad Thing is something team can fix themselves.
Finally: Discuss Solutions and Take Action
Once the team can see what they can control and what they can't, the discussion can begin. I spend a few minutes on the "Out of Our Control" items, but only to alleviate fears and to keep the discussion solution-focused and positive; I then remove those items from the board.
Moving on to the remaining post-its classified as "Under Team Control," I align them down the left side of the board in no particular order and draw racing lanes across the board for each. I then ask the team which Bad Thing they believe had the most negative impact on their work, and we start the discussion there.
This is the part where I find the role of facilitator to be most important. It is very easy for the team to drift off-topic, or for to get bogged down in complicated solutions to simple problems. I find it helps to focus discussion by reiterating one simple question:
What can we do today to prevent the Bad Thing from happening tomorrow?
Most of the time the team will produce a viable solution. If the team can't gel on a fix, I pass out the yellow post-its, we storm out fixes for a few minutes, collate them in the racing lane, and then discuss. The point is to keep the conversation on-target and constantly moving forward. Once the team settles on a solution, I jot down the actionable items in the racing lane.
I repeat this process for each Bad Thing, allowing the team to choose the ordering, spending at most 10 minutes on each one. If we get through them all in the retrospective's timebox, I'll open the floor to general discussion; however, my experience is that there is little else to discuss at that point if I've done my job.
Offline: Summarize and Reiterate the Solutions
Once the retrospective is over, I write up a short summary. I list all the Good Things, and all the Bad Things and their proposed solutions. I send this out to everyone involved, both pigs and chickens. I also keep a copy handy to remind myself and others of the specific commitments we made as a team to better ourselves.
So there you have it Matt. In my limited experience, what I find makes an effective retrospective is lots of structure to focus the team on one thing at a time and curb the naturally vetching tendencies.