The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Retrospective (Page 2 of 5)

Reflections on Agile 2012

Another year, another agile conference. It’s time for reflecting on the conference and uncovering lessons learned. Dallas, Texas hosted this year’s Agile Conference. More accurately, the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine hosted this year’s Agile Conference. Loved by many at the conference (notably less so by Europeans) the resort reminds me of the Eden Project and a weird biosphere (see picture below) that is self-contained and fully air-conditioned. Although maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing with a West Nile virus outbreak in Dallas.

Needless to say that I stepped out quite a bit to try to get some fresh, if not, refreshingly humid air.

Onto the conference. It was very well organised, very well run and even rapidly responded to feedback (such as moving rooms when demand proved too much for some of the anticipated sessions. Food came out very promptly in the different breaks. We didn’t have to queue too long and the variety was pretty good. The only breakdown was probably the Tuesday lunchtime where it wasn’t clear we had to get our own food and with a limited number of on-site restaurants in our self-enclosed bubble world, proved to be a bit of a tight squeeze in schedule.

The people at the conference seemed to be a bit of a mix. Mainly lots of consultants like myself sharing their experiences, but as one person noted, an extraordinary number of agile coaches all apparently looking for work. On the other extreme there seemed to be lots of companies adopting agile and lots of people selling tools and training to help them.

Lots of parallel tracks meant lots of choice for many people but I often found it hard to find things that worked for me. I’m less interested in “enterprise agile adoption”, and more interested in the practices pushing the boundaries, or the deep insight offered by people. The few technical sessions I went seemed to be aimed at a bit more of an introductory audience. I particularly avoided any of the “do this with scrum” or “do this with kanban” as these appeared by be pushing.

In terms of keynotes, I thought they did a great job of assembling some diverse and interesting sessions. Although Bob Sutton (No A**hole Rule author) felt like he didn’t do much preparation for his keynote from the text heavy slides that jumped at different paces, he had some good anecdotes and stories to share. My biggest takeaway from that session was thinking about taking away practices just as much as adding practices, something that I think I do implicitly but should try to do more explicitly. The other keynotes were pretty inspiring as well, with Dr. Sunita Maheshwari behind Telerad talking about her accidental experiment moving into doing remote radiology to support the night-shift need of hospitals in the US and the interesting growth of their business. The other really inspirational keynote was by Joe Justice, the guy behind the amazing Wikispeed project taking sets of agile practices and principles back into the car-making industry. I felt he really knew his stuff, and it’s amazing how you can tell someone who really understands the values and trying to live them in different ways and then translating them into a different world. Very cool stuff that you should check out.

In terms of other workshop sessions, I left half way through many of them as the ideas were either too slow, or not at all interesting (such as one on Agile Enterprise Architecture that spent 30 minutes trying to go back to the age-old debate of defining Enterprise Architecture.)

Two of my most favourite sessions was one by Linda Rising who gave a very heart-felt and personal Q&A session that left many people in tears. Her stories are always very personal, and I really admire her ability to look beyond someone’s words and really uncover the true question they are asking with a usually insightful answer as well! The other session was listening to the great work that Luke Hohmann of Innovation Games has been doing with the San Jose government to change the way they make decisions about where the money goes through the use of games and play. Very awesome stuff.

I had my session in the last possible slot on the Thursday and had a large number of well known people in competing slots such as Jeff Sutherland, Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. I’m very happy with the turn out as we had a lot of fun playing games from the Systems Thinking Playbook including a number of insightful conversations about systems thinking concepts and how they apply to our working life. One of my most favourite exercises (Harvest) that demonstrates the Tragedy of the Commons archectype played its course and we finished in just three years (iterations) only due to a constraint I added early into the game. I love this exercise for its potential for variation and the insightful conversations about how this applies to agile teams, organisations and functions.

You often can’t come away from conferences without new references, so here’s the list of books and web resources I noted down (but obviously my summary is without actually reading into it, so YMMV):

The Retrospective Handbook

I’m very proud to announce the release of The Retrospective Handbook: A guide for agile teams now available on

I wrote this book as another resource to help agile teams make the most of their retrospective practice. It contains the distilled experience of facilitating and participating in retrospectives for the past eight years as well as the advice gleamed by talking to, and observing skilled facilitators from numerous conferences and agile gatherings over the years.

Author of Agile Retrospectives, Diana Larsen kindly wrote the Foreword for this book.

8 years at ThoughtWorks

Friday marked eight years since working at ThoughtWorks and thought it’d be a useful exercise to reflect on it. During that time, I’ve seen the company grow and the number of opportunities grow with it as well. I was at the pub last night (one of those ThoughtWorks UK traditions) and was trying to explain my role to someone. On my business card, it’s the title of Generalising Specialist. I’m a developer most of the time and although as a Technical Leader you don’t develop 100% of the time (who does?) I still get to do a huge amount.

Reflecting on the past
I’ve had plenty of opportunities to do a lot of public speaking and was proud to be invited to speak at Øredev, QCon and this year to Goto Aarhus (formerly JAOO). I see it as a great way to share knowledge and contribute back to the development community and to continue to spread great ideas. As I always tell people there is a lot of value in being a meme-carrier and helping introduce memes into newer communities.

At the same time, I’ve worked as a trainer, facilitator and an advisor doing some short term pure consulting engagements working with CTOs and CIOs on how they run their software organisation, how they’ve architected their software systems and helping them build a roadmap to a better pace. My passion for Systems Thinking, Lean thinking and the belief of constantly being open to new approaches and ideas helps me see and explain things that others often get stuck on.

Work wise, I’ve now worked in many places. Last year I spent a significant portion of that time in Germany, Berlin to be exact. It’s not the best place to learn German, but my passion for learning drove me to self-learn enough that I can hold a conversation in a bar reasonably well. I’ve got plenty more to go before I can start writing any blog entries or immerse myself in a completely German speaking work environment but pretty happy with the progress so far. Overall I’ve worked in Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom for my clients with travel for conferences to many more.

I continue to appreciate the different opportunities and the continuous mix of people that I get to work with. As an example, we have a project of about 15 people all representing about 12 different nationalities. We have four females on our project (2 of which are developers) and so many interesting approaches and conversations with a consistent focus on trying to do the right thing for the client. I have to always remind myself other companies or contractors do not stand for the same values and I constantly appreciate.

Thinking about the future
Although I’ve been published in a book before, my goal is to finish a book, The Retrospective Handbook some time this year. Leave a comment to let me know what you think or tell me about your interest.

I will continue to write code, although this year I plan to specifically deepen my javascript and ruby skills. I will continue applying systems thinking but deepen its application into the software realm and how it can be made more appropriate.

I plan on cutting back on the number of speaking engagements. Last year it was almost one or more every month and the variety proved rather stressful at times when trying to balance life and work.

Book Review: “Get Better Faster: Ultimate Guide to Practicing Retrospectives”

I came across this free e-book, “Get Better Faster: Ultimate Guide to Practicing Retrospectives” via twitter (though I can’t seem to find the tweet that led me to it anymore) and thought I should write a review of it, like any other book. I’ll use a variation of the perfection game for this review.

Things I wouldn’t change
Firstly, it’s licensed under Creative Commons so anyone can use it. Yay. Then there’s the fact that it’s an eBook so it makes it quickly accessible to every. I guess it’s a bit more like giant slideware than a typical book, but that makes it easy to digest when reading on a computer – generally not to much text and nice little break out sections to help keep it varied.

The book references a number of interesting related practices such as After Action Review (AAR) developed by the US Army, though note they refer to it by the After Review Cycle that seems to be coined by a single consultancy. I will point out here that I disagree with the disadvantages of AAR that they list to compare them to retrospectives. If you read it, for instance, replace “ARC” with “Improvement” or “Learning” and it still reads the same. My point is that the inherent disadvantages are not an essential quality of the tool itself).

I like the 8 tips for better retrospectives that are widely useful for many teams and environments, mirroring many solutions to those I’ve suggested in my previous serious on, “When Retrospectives Go Wrong“. I like the way they highlight the importance of a facilitator role (which, in my experience, definitely helps make any important meeting more successful) and the provide some tips directly for the facilitator.

Finally they provide some good advice on making recommendations more tangible and, hopefully, more likely to be implemented.

Things that are different
Many people often ask the question why bother running retrospectives, and they have a page on metrics on retrospectives. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the metrics, it does answer some immediate questions managers and executives often have (unfortunately it is often the wrong question, in my experience, to answer).

Things that would make it perfect
It saddens me that, in the book, they make no reference, nor no acknowledge to other books on the topic. There is a small list of articles linked to some web resources, but I find it strange that they made no references to Kerth’s “Project Retrospectives” book, or Derby and Larsen’s “Agile Retrospectives” book. Nor to websites such as or

It also pains me the whole eBook is covered in excessive branding (twice on every page!) Fair enough they built it to market themselves, but really!

There is very good advice in the book, such as “set the meeting for one-to-three hours, with one hour often being ideal”. These novice rules/guidelines are important however I feel prevents people from achieving true mastery without explaining why these are the cases. In this example, the question best answered is, “Why is one hour ideal?” The lack of explanations is a problem as people who start to break these rules don’t know where to look next, or what to try, when the context isn’t appropriate.

Six Years at ThoughtWorks

For the first several years at ThoughtWorks I ran an annual personal retrospective looking back at the year gone by. I value celebrating success, making time to reflect and finding ways of continually improving. I ran them for the first few years before collapsing them back into each New Year’s review.

So what has happened six years on?

When I look at first starting at ThoughtWorks, I was just another developer, almost considered a graduate, because I’d only a small amount of real world experience. I worked for ThoughtWorks in Brisbane when we had an office presence, staying there until itchy feet drove me overseas. I could have moved to another Australian capital city, but London ended up much more of a drawcard with so many more opportunities and access to more interesting aspects to life harder to reach in Australia, such as exposure to so many different cultures (music, food, entertainment), personal travel opportunities and the presence of many professional communities.

To this day, I still can’t fathom working with the same company for six years. When I left university, I assumed two years would be the most I would work for in any company. Being lost in one of Oracle’s massive divisions only served to reinforce this view. So what’s changed? Working for a consulting company brings a variety similar to working for many different companies, yet without being tied to any particular one. Each project brings with it plenty of learning opportunities to uncover new contexts, problems and solutions.

Since being based in London, I’ve worked on at least nine projects of great length (a handful of much smaller ones as well). Unlike many of my colleagues, I’ve worked on many projects beyond web technologies (although I’m sure they’re just as fun). Some of these applications integrated with lots of hardware (think RFID readers, barcode printers, scientific equipment), server side REST applications with extremely high performance requirements, lead several development teams, taught fellow colleagues through our lateral training induction programme in India, and coached some very large organisations on appropriately using and understanding agile methods.

In this time, I’ve been fortunate to work with plenty of bright people, both within our own company and at our client, and grown great personal satisfaction by helping others find a passion for learning and taking pride in what they do.

Seeing a variety of situations and working with lots of different people in lots of different roles has lead to significant growth as well. One of the aspects I appreciate the most about ThoughtWorks is the ability to move between roles and develop skills in different areas. Although we’re trying to put a little bit more structure in place, it’s not a place that thinks you have to grow up or get out like many other consultancies.

So the upsides:

Consulting – You develop many experiences and see many environments, giving you better insights into how people behave and how to overcome undesirable behaviour. This first hand experience is invaluable as you apply it to new environments and new clients. Not being independent means I don’t always get choice of what I work on, but I have to be thankful for some of the opportunities over the last six years (partly of what I’ve made it as well).

Growth – Not everyone takes the time to explicitly focus on learning from people around them. This is one of my core principles. Being surrounded by people who think and have great conversations helps me grow. Being put into new situations, slightly beyond my comfort zone increases my confidence and skill set as does dealing with difficult client situations. I can’t thank of many other organisations where I could develop facilitation and coaching skills whilst moving back and forth between hands-on technical work.

Opportunities – I’ve been fortunate to present at a number of conferences over the years. This isn’t an easy path and isn’t one that happens overnight. I’ll be the first to admit, fantastic story telling at the level of Dan North isn’t one of my strong points, but I like to think many people enjoy the experiential workshops I put together. Opportunities are about making the most of what you find yourself in, such as finding yourself, unwillingly, to work in Copenhagen over the summer lead me to finding that lone free booking at Noma, the world’s third best restaurant in the world and enjoying one of the best meals I’ve eaten in my life.

People – ThoughtWorks prides itself about hiring great people. That’s not to say that we always hire perfectly. However I’m glad to be surrounded by other people who take pride in their work, care about learning and passionately applying themselves in whatever they like. I’ve lost count over the years for the number of work colleagues who’ve inspired me to get better at things that I do, and challenged me to better understand the work that I do. I continue to meet more people like this everyday, and am thankful for that dimension.

And the downsides:

Support – Part of not having clearly well defined structures for people as they “advance” make it harder to plan for the right level of support and to time it correctly. I know of some people who moved on by not getting the right support at the right time, and those who failed to get the right sort of support. This isn’t to say that there is no support but it’s a bit random at times. I know that I was particularly let down during my last year although I recognise I have higher tolerances than most.

Travel – I primarily moved across to the UK because of the strong correlation between project work and the office. This has definitely changed over the years. Travel is a necessary part of consulting, yet made harder when traveling greater distances and amplified by the lack of support.

Consulting for clients is different from working in the office – This is definitely one frustrating elements for working for any consulting firm, and I don’t think that ThoughtWorks is any different here, with a different cultural divide between those working in the field and those working in the office. It’s taken me years to see some of the systemic effects, although I’m sure it will be much more before there is something significant I can do about it. Ask me about in person and I’d be happy to run through my current theory.

The key to retrospecting is about learning, so here’s some of the lessons I’ve learned:

Leadership is not about titles – People I talk to see leadership as a role you are explicitly given. I disagree. Leadership implies taking ownership of responsibility and this is true whether or not you are given it or not. It’s not about a role, or a title. It’s about the way you act and the things you say. The leaders I’ve most respected were those that owned the rewards and pitfalls of responsibilities, regardless of it not being an explicit part of their role. The best teams I’ve worked on ensure all responsibilities are taken care of despite the varying titles amongst the people on it.

Everyone is responsible for passing the experiences on – Working for six years for any consultancy is rare, and part of that comes with a certain responsibility of passing on the right culture, and creating the same opportunities for others new to the organisation. Every individual in an organisation should feel the burden of this responsibility. I’m grateful for feedback from co-workers the difference that I make to them everyday. It’s amazingly gratifying to know that I made a positive contribution to people’s growth, even more so when I already hold each one of them in high regard. It’s so gratifying to receive that random text or email from previous co-workers telling me how they’re still doing, or doing things differently as a result of the small investment I made with them.

People move on – People leave companies. That’s a fact of life. The way I look at it, an individual’s needs and wants change more quickly than what an organisation can adopt. I think it’s the organisation’s responsibility to ensure that it does as much as it can to keep people. I think an organisation’s failure is to not to do what it *could* have done to keep them there. This sometimes happens and it’s frustrating. I think we can also get better at keeping in touch with alumni because we definitely aren’t very good with that.

Consulting is a sharp, double edged sword – The change that brings about new experiences and opportunities also often requires travelling or something not quite matching up. Some people in our organisation believe growth will solve these problems, something I also disagree with. I think growth will simply make it much more complex to solve. Having more people on hand simply makes it harder to get the right people to the right place at the right time.

Learning is a lifetime endeavour – I continue to argue how our education systems force us to stop thinking and learning. We focus on teaching (push) over learning (pull) and worse, we focus on absorbing facts instead of thinking. Our environments offer learning opportunities all the time, yet we’re trained to turn a blind eye to them, or to fail to respond to them. Living and breathing agile methods has taught me to learn first, and judge later.

Retrospecting Resources

I was really pleased to stumble across a new site for Retrospectives dubbed the “Agile Retrospectives Resource Wiki“. I can’t find who put it together but thank you for putting it to the public. Some other resources that I know about and is worth making more linkable on the internet include:

  • Retrospective Facilitator’s Gathering – Wiki website detailing the yearly gathering of people passionate about facilitating retrospectives
  • Retrospectives – The first website Kerth put up describing the practice of Project Retrospectives.
  • Links to retrospective resources – A good collection of links to blogs, articles, etc that are related to retrospectives

I’m really pleased to fin

Lack of retrospectives a smell?

On our current project, we haven’t run many retrospectives. Gasp! Anyone who knows me might be shocked to hear that.

I’ve pondered whether or not that this has been a bad thing for our project. I’m a huge advocate for using retrospectives to help encourage people to create change on their projects. I’m a huge advocate for using retrospectives to bring the team together and understand what’s going on. Fortunately I’m lucky that our team has some very strong people with probably 40% of them having true skin-in-the-game experience working on agile teams that things just get done and more importantly, things continuously improve.

I definitely believe that without all the experienced agile team members, we wouldn’t have overcome all the different and sometimes bizarre situations (ask me if you see me!) thrown our way. Do I think retrospectives still offer us some value? Yes, but probably not for the reasons that most people use it for.

It’s amazing what a bunch of energised, passionate and people with the “solve the right problem once” attitude can achieve. I’d only wish that more teams were made up of people like this more often!

A model for understanding retrospective impact

Steven List asks the question, Are Retrospectives an Anti-pattern? Of course, retrospectives are a topic close to my heart so I naturally wanted to share my view of them. The conversation apparently started on the Kanban Development mailing list and Steven’s post already captures some great discussion. I won’t repeat it here, but I find the dialogue echoing the same sentiments about other agile practices and whether or not they’re useful. For me, it’s too extremist and not particularly helpful. They make it sound like you need to choose from two positions: Either you run retrospectives, or you don’t.

I think the more interesting question is, “When are retrospectives most useful?” To help explain my thoughts, I’ve put together the following: A Model for understanding Retrospective Impact (click on it for a slightly bigger view).

A model for understanding Retrospective Impact

What is a retrospective?
Being specific and clear about this term is important in the discussion about whether or not retrospectives are useful. Some people’s understanding of a retrospective can differ from other people’s depending on each of their experiences. The conversations on the Kanban list seem to imply retrospectives are solely an iteration focused ritual (and of course, there is no such concept of a Scrum or XP iteration in Kanban). Though I appreciate Kerth’s original definition, I think in the agile community, Derby and Larsen’s definition better captures its essence:

A special meeting where the team gathers after completing an increment of work to inspect and adapt their methods and teamwork.

I like this definition best because its ties the concept of improvement (inspect and adapt) based on a shared understanding (the team) according to some unstated time period (an increment of work, noting it’s not specifically tied to an iteration).

What is impact?
I think it’s also important to define the term impact. One of the definitions by the Oxford Dictionary seems most appropriate:

a marked effect or influence

I want to emphasis that you can have a high impact retrospective without necessarily taking a lot of time, and that the opposite is entirely possible too (a long retrospective with a low impact). Note that I’m not going to discuss how to run retrospectives that have the highest impact (a totally separate topic worth its own set of posts).

Effect of team dynamics
The state of the team has an enormous influence on the impact of retrospectives. A high performing team will naturally have better communication amongst its members, and are more likely to fix things that get in the way of their goal. There will naturally be better and more frequent individual improvements, identified and implemented more frequently without the call for a specific meeting. This doesn’t mean that retrospectives are never a practice they call upon. Rather, it’s a practice that has less impact as there are many other items in the toolkit that get called upon. Sometimes it’s important for the group to get together, establish a common understanding and to inspect and adapt noting there may not be any specific regularity to these particular meetings.

In contrast, a dysfunctional team are less likely to call upon individual improvement practices, and thus, retrospectives play a more important role, providing an explicit opportunity to improve. I use the term dysfunctional in this sense to capture a broad category including newly formed teams, or simply groups of people. This does not necessarily mean the team cannot advance, nor that it hasn’t had a chance to advance, just simply the state it exists in.

Environmental Effects
I would classify a majority of environments as chaotic. In chaotic environments, improvement isn’t second nature. Through practices that start with good intentions such as auditing (“I want to have confidence you are doing what you say you are doing”), people in these environments become afraid to suggest changes, and are often fearful of attempting anything different because they’ve been punished for a failed experiment in the past. In these chaotic environments, retrospectives have a significant impact by providing an explicitly safe environment for teams to make, commit to, and hopefully be supported in making changes. Retrospectives have a higher impact in these environments because the majority of other activities doesn’t encourage learning, innovation and improvement.

In contrast, a nurturing environment welcomes fail fast innovation, rewards learning from failed experiments and supports continuous improvement in an explicit, non document centric approach. In these environments, the outcomes from implementing improvements and passing on tacit learnings is more important that meeting audits and compliance. Retrospectives have less impact in this environment because individuals are more likely to suggest and implement improvements without the need for a special meeting, and without the need for an entire team. Once again, it doesn’t necessarily imply that retrospectives are not useful (some issues require a shared understanding across the entire team) or that they are regularly scheduled events.

Avoid deciding between whether or not you run retrospectives. Consider when is it best for you to run a retrospectives instead.
Understand what situation you find yourself in using the model above and ask yourself whether or not retrospectives have the potential for the most impact (dysfunctional teams and chaotic environments), or where energy is better spent pursuing other activities because retrospectives have less, but not zero, impact (high performing teams and nurturing environments).

In the next set of posts, I hope to describe different situations I’ve seen first hand and what impact retrospectives had in relation to them.

Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

Retrospectives are not the only place for continual improvement

Teams adopting agile, and even frequently teams who consider themselves agile, often hit a stumbling block. Here’s how the thinking goes… agile is about improvement. Agile projects do retrospective to improve. Therefore, retrospectives = improvement and improvements (only) happen in retrospectives.

Unfortunately many teams suffer without realising improvements go beyond retrospectives. Everyday there is an opportunity to improve, an opportunity to learn. It sometimes takes a while to see them. It often takes much longer to unwind the restraints of organisational “process” on people’s desires to experiment and fail fast, and learn from those mistakes.

Don’t get me wrong. Retrospectives also have their place. Sometimes teams don’t have an environment safe enough and retrospectives are one way of helping establish some safety. It takes commitment from leaders to create this environment of safety, and something I encourage greatly when I work with teams.

Do you recognise your team falling in this pattern? Break out of them, and remind them that improvements don’t have to wait for a meeting to be attempted.

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