The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Retrospective (Page 3 of 5)

When Retrospectives Go Wrong: Too Many Goals

signpostsTeams run retrospectives for many different reasons. I’ve found that trying to meet too many goals in a heartbeat retrospective severely limits their effectiveness. When I prepare for retrospectives, I normally ask the sponsor (the person who asked me to facilitate) what they want to achieve. Sometimes they don’t know themselves, so it’s a useful exercise, by itself, to clarify their intended goals.

When I’ve sat in teams new to retrospectives and the goal is not made clear, people start to bring up too many different issues, and it’s difficult to resolve anything. One hour seems to be the maximum that teams are willing to set aside, and when you’re dealing with team issues, technical issues, process issues and more, all that time literally flies by. The result… nothing is improved and people get frustrated with the vehicle that brings some visibility (the retrospective).

What you can do about it
I use a rule of thumb, “One Goal Per Heartbeat Retrospective”, and make it clear at the start of the retrospective. It helps, if you’re the facilitator, to agree on what that goal is before you start, and do whatever you can beforehand to make sure everyone agrees. It helps if you’re working with a team that is already is formed (see the Tuckman Model) and you confirm this before hand.

Place the goal in front of everyone where they can see it, both as a subtle hint, and as an aid if you feel the retrospective veering off. Run retrospectives with a different goal in mind to address those that you don’t get around to talking about.

Photo of the cross signs taken from Gregkendallball’s Flickr stream under the Creative Commons licence.

Retrospectives: Making Issues More Visible

Magnifying GlassI remember reading about the Cause, Made Visible and Not Related story on Esther Derby’s blog a while back. My biggest takeaway was that retrospectives aren’t normally the Cause of issues, instead creating Visibility into the issues already present. People constantly surprise me when they say that don’t like retrospectives because it doesn’t fix their issues. Guess what? Simply holding a retrospective won’t magically fix all your issues because it isn’t the Cause of them. Yet how do you go about fixing your issues if you don’t take the time to identify what issues you have, what impact they’re having and how you’re going to fix the true Cause?

Image taken from Dr Pat’s Flickr photostream under the Creative Commons licence.

When Retrospectives Go Wrong: Poorly Formed Action Items

How you facilitate a retrospective impacts the success for a retrospective. Inexperienced facilitators often don’t know how best to achieve the Decide What to Do part of a retrospective, often resulting in action items too broad, or too difficult to actually achieve. Revisiting them next time results in frustration as the team hasn’t made any progress on them.

Failed Pottery

Photo taken from Opheliates Flickr stream under the Creative Commons Licence

What you can do about it?
Sumeet writes about using SMART (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant and Timeboxed) to help focus forming better action items. He also writes about giving them an owner and a time frame. I will often use this to guide the discussion – “Is this achievable in two weeks time? How can we break this down to ensure we make some progress? Does everyone understand what you need to do to call this item complete?”

I also like Bas’ Plan of Action approach, linking short term actions with long term goals – allowing people to break down large changes into more achievable ones, or to help align short term tasks with longer, more strategic goals.

As a facilitator, be aware that how you deal with the last part of the retrospective will influence the result, for better or worse. Learn how to facilitate the group towards something more likely to result in an observable change.

When Retrospectives Go Wrong: The Faciliator Did Not Prepare

Ever been in a meeting where the organiser doesn’t really know why they brought everyone together, or even have an agenda to start with? It devalues your time and you feel pretty frustrated. I’ve seen the same happen when facilitators don’t prepare for their retrospective. Preparing well demonstrates to participants respect for their time. Conversely a clear lack of preparation shows disrespect. Even though it doesn’t guarantee it, proper preparation ensures a better chance participants will be more willing to engage.


Image taken from Meredith Farmer’s Flickr photo stream under the Creative Commons licence.

What to do about it?
In preparing for the retrospective, I like to go through this list of questions:

  • Who is the sponsor for the retrospective? – Sponsors may have extremely different agenda. Some of it may be about spreading lessons learned, others just want to understand the root cause of some major problem. You want to be clear about who the sponsor is and why you’re even running a retrospective. Is there just one person, or are there more of them?
  • What are their goals, and what are you going to end up by the end of it? – Looking for ways to improve client relationships will have a completely different focus than understanding what new technical innovations came out of the project. The goals will heavily influence what exercises you plan for.
  • Do you know how long the retrospective will be looking back? – Planning to look back over 1 week will be different from 3 months and different again from 1 year.
  • Do you have an idea about what topics might come up? – A retrospective for a project where significant negative events dragged the team at certain stages will be different from a retrospective for a project that had less troublesome issues.
  • Have you planned for enough time to cover everything? – You want to have enough time for people to tell their stories, unload any emotional baggage and get to understand what lessons are worth sharing.
  • Do you have a good representation from team members? – Just having development members in a retrospective will skew what you talk about, perhaps missing important elements all the way from the sale, client relations, etc.

Just before starting the retrospective, also ensure that you have all the materials prepared – this may includes markers, pens, paper, sticky notes, handouts. Also ensure you have the room prepared with any posters or whiteboards you plan on using.

Retrospectives go beyond the report

One of the things that constantly surprises me about facilitating retrospectives is about the energy that a well run session can result in. For most heartbeat retrospectives, I feel it’s not normally that useful to write up a comprehensive report, as the team should feel ownership of the action items.

An important aspect to the role of the facilitator, is to do as much as they can to sustain the energy of the group and to tap into everyone’s capacity for embracing and dealing with change. Helping people contribute their story to the retrospective helps. Letting people tell their story in full helps. Facilitating difficult conversations towards a non destructive outcome helps. Moving the team towards specific, tangible actions or concrete lessons learns helps.

After the retrospective, I’ve always wondered what responsibility the facilitator has for ensuring change. My conclusion is that, in reality if they are truly independent, it’s none. Of course, the facilitator may care (and I can assure you I do) about following through on the change, yet all the systemic forces that push for and against change tend to be out of the influence of a truly independent facilitator.

In short, retrospectives are agents for change, yet ultimately it comes down to the empowered team to make sure the changes really happen. My advice to managers is to give teams responsibility and, with that, the decision making authority, to help them make the changes they need to.

Retrospective Exercise: Mr Squiggle

I’ve pondered on a question from the last Retro Gathering where someone asked how do you prompt people to tell their story by starting them with a common seed. I’ve thought about a couple of them since then, and got to run a new exercise with some people at the Calgary Mini Away Day we just had (thanks all for participating!) This exercise was inspired by the childhood TV show in Australia, of the same name (Mr Squiggle). Kids would literally send in a set of squiggles to the show to be put in front of a blackboard, where the main character, a puppet with a pencil on his nose, would turn them into complete drawings. See this link if you want to know more.

What is it: A variant of the Art Gallery exercise except using a common drawing to start the creative juices.

Time needed: 10 minutes

Mr Squiggle Template

What you need:

  • An index card per participant prepared in the same way (see below)
  • A marker pen

How to run it:

  • Before the retrospective, prepare each index card by drawing a set of symbols on it (I started with two lines and a circle)
  • Hand out the cards
  • Explain that you all have the same set of symbols and you would like everyone to spend the next five minutes turning it into a picture that represents the state of the project
  • After five minutes, ask participants to share their story with the group

Tips for facilitating Mr Squiggle

  • Ask participants to avoid writing words as this exercise is meant to be a visual, creative process.
  • Provide other colours and markers to help with the creative process.

Mr Squiggle brings a different take on the Art Gallery picture at demonstrating how a simple set of symbols can be converted into completely different stories when explained by participants.

When Retrospectives Go Wrong: Controlling the conversation

One of the most important points that Kerth, Larsen and Derby emphasise in their books is that the facilitator should not have an interest in the conversation. As I heard someone once say most succinctly, “If you have a point of view to share, you should not be facilitating”. This particular bad smell typically happens when this rule is violated. I’ve first hand seen this the most when a person in a naturally authoritative position (think project manager, technical or team lead) facilitates.

I remember sitting in one retrospective where the facilitator (a project manager) ran the retrospective pointing at people asking them for a single item (what went well/less well). They would often literally drill the person, asking for more details, and often commenting on their input, saying things like “that’s a pretty stupid idea”, or “you really should’ve done … instead of …” before turning around and writing it up on a flip chart. When they had finished, they decided which topics they wanted to talk about further, then returning to the group without even involving them in the decision making process. I sat, aghast, silently observing as people uncomfortably shifted in their seats wanting to get their stories out in the open yet afraid it wouldn’t go anywhere productive, and worse, be judged for it.

The result… an empty ritual, empowering a single individual, and the only outcome of no beneficial change.

Crowd Control

The above image comes from Misschelle’s Flickr stream under the Creative Common’s licence

What to do about it?
The first step is to get an independent Retrospective Facilitator. Try really hard to get one. I know that finding facilitators are easy, and finding a retrospective facilitator may be more difficult though I’m sure you’ll find the results will be much better.

If you can’t find one and you’re the one facilitating, focus on the process, and less about the content. Your goal should be to ensure everyone has an opportunity to build the shared story, everyone has an opportunity to add their insights and everyone has input into the final solution. Do not push for the solution you think is best, and do not ignore people when they have something to say. Make it clear when you are expressing an opinion as a person-with-a-stake. Empower the group with a mechanism that gives you feedback when they feel you are directing the conversation too much. Believe me, it’s hard but it’s definitely worth it.

And what about the previous situation? Continue reading

Reflecting on the 2008 Retrospective Facilitators Gathering

Every year, a group of Retrospective Facilitators gather for a small residential conference alternating between US and European borders to share, inspire and better further the retrospective practice. This year, we ran it in Radstock, located just outside of Bath, UK. As far as I know, the conference has always run using Open Space rules – the result? In this case, thirty five participants (almost 35% of them new) ran and participated in sessions throughout a week.

Recurring Topics
Similar questions returned to the community including best ways to run retrospectives across distributed locations, what to do to ensure change is long lasting, and how do people run retrospectives differently.

Lessons (Re-Learned)
The conversations at the conference reminded me of a number of lessons I’ve learned before and certainly reinforced my own thoughts. Some of these include:

  • Retrospectives aren’t just limited to What Went Well/Less Well or the Retrospective Starfish – In one open space session, the community contributed another 30 or 40 different new exercises to the fold. See the Project Retrospectives or the Agile Retrospectives book for some more ideas. Try something new! Facilitation is a difficult thing – Not everyone makes (or can be) a great facilitator. Poor facilitators will have a negative impact on retrospectives.
  • Facilitators and participation create a conflict of interest – The most ideal situation is to have an independent facilitator. Those coming from an agile community seem to run into this dilemma the most.
  • Preparing for retrospectives is essential – People don’t spend enough time working out who is the sponsor, what they want out of it, and how to design the session to meet those goals.
  • Retrospectives have many outcomes – Some of these include a common story, shared vision, and a point of change
  • Change is hard – Retrospectives play a role in change, it doesn’t guarantee it. Ensuring change happens or is sustained goes further than a retrospective.

Stories and Retrospectives
Norm wrote the original book on Project Retrospectives and intentionally focused it on telling stories. The retrospective was designed to ensure everyone has a chance to talk about their story, and also to work towards some sort of long lasting change. With heartbeat retrospectives and even project retrospectives, sometimes we don’t spend enough time on either of these aspects.

A really good model I learned that works even beyond this, and what every effective conversation is has is based on the ORID model (Objective, Reflective, Interpretive and Decisional). In many teams I’ve worked with or on mailing lists I read, I’ve noticed most statements formed in terms of only Reflective and Decisional. As an example, “I think we should do … because I feel this is wrong.” Effective conversations include all ORID aspects.

The People
I noticed the majority of people at the conference came from the agile space (of whom, seemed to label themselves as Scrum practitioners). Only a small handful of people seemed to come from outside the agile space, and in one way, I felt it diminished the conferences with many of the conversations focused around retrospectives in agile situations.

I would like to see more people practicing retrospectives who work outside of the agile space to attend to bring a different focus.

Beware the Meta Monster
Last year, I felt like something wasn’t quite perfect at the gathering and couldn’t quite place my finger on it. One metaphor that might explain it is the Meta Monster (talked about at previous gatherings). The metaphor of the Meta Monster exists when you put a bunch of experienced facilitators together. Instead of participants fully participating in each session, participants facilitate the facilitator (or at least suggest ways they would do it better). I would find it interesting to compare the gathering to a conference by the International Association of Facilitators. It’s not especially noticeable perhaps tempered by the retrospecting nature of this community. There is still something there though.

Meta Monster

Here’s my quick attempt at picturing what the meta monster might be like (made online here)

New Books to Read

  • The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander
  • The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • The Art of Making Things Happen by Philip B. Crosby
  • The Reflective Practitioner by Donald Schon
  • The Skilled Facilitator by Roger Schon
  • Art of Focused Conversation by R Brian Stanfield
  • Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most by Stone, Patton, Heen & Fisher

New Links
NASAGA ( – An organisation who also run a conference around simulation games

Memorable Quotes
“There is no resistance to change – just a lack of support”
“People don’t like to talk about their fears, so talk about challenges instead”

Current Reflections on the Retrospective Gathering 2008

It’s near the near the end of my second Retrospective Facilitator’s Gathering and just thought I’d post a few observations I’ve already made. I’ll write up the conference report soon enough.

It’s great to be part of a community of people that remain passionate about a tool, and in many ways, share many other passions about sharing, learning and teaching. I’ve been able to reconnect with participants I met last year, connect with many more new people and even got to spend some time with some Thoughtworks alumni.

This year’s gathering included thirty five people, just fewer than ten more than last year. It’s still small enough to build relationships with people and just the right size to still have those great conversations. We held it just outside Bath, UK this year, and if not for my current project in Calgary, I probably would have been more coherent the first two days without the jetlag.

For me, the conference has been great so far. For some reason, I look back at last year and still think that I had some much deeper conversations with people. That doesn’t at all mean I haven’t had any great conversations though. I haven’t put my finger on why just yet. The community continues to impress and re-energise my own beliefs in the usefulness of this tool, and I’m very proud to be a part of and help contribute towards growing it even more.

Expect the conference report soon enough.

When Retrospectives Go Wrong: Conflict of Interests

I heard one story recently from a colleague where a technical lead facilitated the retrospective. They’d collected sticky notes from everyone, placed them around an exercise at the front and began reading them out. The strange thing is that they read only the ones they wanted to read out, blatantly skipping many of the others.

Why the lead would only read out the ones they did, I don’t know. Perhaps they thought they were the most important (based on their point of view), perhaps they were a random selection. I’m not sure. It’s clear what impact it had on the participants. People became frustrated that they weren’t being listened to, didn’t feel appreciated for their input, and I’m sure many of them felt the activity a waste of time. Apparently it broke down to the point where they started shouting out for the lead to read out the notes.

Tug of War

Image taken from TimmyGUNZ’s Flickr photo stream under the Creative Commons licence.

What to do about it?
Kerth emphasises getting an independent facilitator (though versed in the industry) to run your retrospective. From experience I know this to be difficult for heartbeat retrospectives. If so, people who have direct significant influence (i.e. typically project managers, technical or team leads) either shouldn’t facilitate, or be extremely aware of this conflict of interests and do something about it.

I’ve learned it’s important to be clear which, of your roles, you represent when you say something. Something like, “With my technical lead hat on, I’m wary of this suggestion because of …” Another technique is to accept you will be biased and ask the group to raise a flag you when they don’t feel you’re being neutral. If you see the flag, you must do something about it.

Concluding Thoughts
Facilitation is not for everyone. Participants and facilitators should understand where conflicts of interest lie and how it may affect some of the conversations. Mitigate for this by planning to have an independent facilitator or by putting another system in place to prevent these biases creeping in.

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