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3 habits that keep retrospectives relevant

Mark Barrett
Apr 12 - 5 min read

Our engineering group is a big believer in continuous improvement and we think retrospectives are a valuable tool as long as the sessions remain relevant and productive.

An example of how retrospectives can be beneficial is found within 

Kevina Finn-Braun’s post From Blame to Blameless. Rather than running a postmortem to analyse incidents, our site reliability team now holds a retrospective because it creates a much more productive and non-confrontational environment.

The premise of a retrospective is an honest one; ask the team to look back and fix problems from their last sprint as well as highlight the good methods that have been successful. Then why is it so common to see team members roll their eyes when the retrospective invite is sent out or even worse, have retrospectives drop off the calendar altogether?

Here are 3 approaches that re-established our faith in retrospectives by keeping the sessions fresh and rewarding:

1. Never facilitate your own retrospective

The facilitator is a key ingredient for a successful retrospective. If the individual running the session is part of the team it becomes very difficult to facilitate and contribute at the same time. The end result is both roles are performed badly. By handing over the facilitation, it frees everyone on the team from the distraction of running the session. It also has the added benefit of including an unbiased outsider who can ask questions that the rest of the team may not think of.

To be a good facilitator is tough. It takes patience and practice but in time you can gain the required skills to keep the conversation relevant and engaging.

A decent facilitator should be an advocate of active listening, be adept at taking relevant notes, provide questions when appropriate and keep an eye on the clock to make sure the session remains on track and within time.

2. Build a toolkit of exercises

An obvious technique to avoid boring retrospectives is to have a number of different activities that you can choose from as opposed to facilitating the same session over and over again.

One of our favourites is ‘STOP, START, CONTINUE’. What should the team STOP doing, what should we START doing and what is working well that we should CONTINUE. A similar approach to the ‘MAD, SAD, GLAD’ exercise.

Both of these activities lead to open discussion so we prefer to use this technique across large groups of people. The activity provides an opportunity for discussion to flow around the room whilst at the same time giving the session some structure.

For small teams (6 people or less), the ‘Like to Like’ game can be really effective. Prior to the activity, it is necessary for the facilitator to prepare 6 cards that capture a specific quality with vaguely positive or negative connotations. For example, ‘productive’ or ‘fun’ for positive, and ‘flawed’ or ‘nervous’ for negative.

We begin the session by asking each team member to write 6 post-its: 2 things that went well, 2 things that went badly and 2 things they want to do more of. A quality card is picked and each team member has to choose one of their post-its and explain how it relates to the quality card. Each member’s post-its will keep the conversation varied, while the quality cards provide a common focus for discussion. For example, if the quality card is ‘productive’ the team can talk about anything that they found productive whether on the post-its they wrote, or something they may have just thought of. The idea is to keep the conversation structured but still open and inclusive of all team members.

At the end of the round, the person who first picked the quality card will choose a winner based on who had the most creative answer linking the quality card to their post-it. The game can become quite competitive as each team member tries to win a round for themselves.

This activity is great for smaller groups as it promotes team member contribution. There is no hiding place and everyone is given a platform and an opportunity to voice their opinion. With a little guidance some very insightful thoughts come out of the session. This activity is also a useful method of encouraging friendly competition. Individuals generally respond in a fun way when a little competition is introduced.

These are only a few examples of activities you can facilitate in your retrospective. Be prepared to get creative. Some sessions will work, some will not. Concentrate on variety and when things feel a little stale be ready to change the activity. There are plenty of good resources online and in reference books which you can get inspiration from.

3. Promote team authority

During a retrospective you will often hear, “Why did we do it like that?” or “We should really fix that.” Spin these suggestions into actions by writing them on the board and assigning someone responsibility.

This is where facilitation is important. Make sure the action is relevant and achievable within the next sprint. Break it down and take baby steps if necessary. A good question to ask is, “What is the first thing you would do to fix this after you leave the room?”

Once the actions are written down make sure to follow up at the start of the next retrospective by reviewing any actions that are incomplete. Tread carefully though, we do not want to introduce a level of blame which leads to an unhealthy team dynamic.

A common mistake that can damage team authority is to continually assign actions to the team lead or manager. This could mean that actions become stuck in one person’s to-do list, the same problems may occur, and the lack of improvement may make the team begin to question the value of retrospectives. They may see it as more of a ceremony vs. a means to healthy improvement over time.

Instead of assigning to one person, assign the action to the person most passionate about solving the problem.

Also, focus on continuous improvement. If there is something you can do, no matter how small, write it down and make someone accountable. Show them that the team has the authority to act and improve the environment around them.

By implementing the practices outlined above our engineering team has transformed retrospectives for the better. Rather than falling into ceremony, our retrospectives foster a culture of continuous improvement and support a healthy, productive team dynamic.

Further reading

What’s an Agile retrospective and why should you do it? (Ben Linders)
Great retrospectives (Yassal Sundman)
12 retrospective exercises (Nick Oostvogels)

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