Story Cubes for Retrospectives

In a guest session at one of our Open Fridays Cynthia Hohlstein and Kevin Plechinger hosted an inspiring session on and with Story Cubes. Because neither of them blogs, I get to share their idea with you: Story Cubes are sets of 9 dice with images on them. The images cover a wide range of motives, such as speech bubble, sheep, star, hand, walking stick figure, … The idea is that you roll 3 dice and then tell a story that contains the 3 motives you rolled.

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A Christmas Retro

It’s getting christmassy in my corner of the world. Red, green, glittery. Old bearded men in red overalls 😉

So, just in case you are looking for ideas for a Christmas themed retro to end the year with, here’s the bonus Christmas retro from my new book “Plans for Retrospectives“.

[Disclaimer: This plan is from a chapter on how to create custom activities and it is tailored to German holiday traditions. Adapt to your culture’s storylines as needed.]

A Christmas Retro

Pre-Corona I would have brought ginger bread, fir branches for the smell and flickering light to invoke the holiday spirit. Since Corona numbers are high in Germany, I’ll try to create a cozy background for the video call. I might go with a fireplace or a Christmas tree. Also, there’s one team I might ask to dress up – either truly festive or “Ugly Christmas Sweater” style.

When planning this retro I looked through all activities in “Set the stage” to make one christmassy. None seemed fitting. One search for “Christmas retrospective” later, I see Santa faces and voila:

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Visualize time with TimeTimer

How do you keep track of time when you facilitate a retrospective or other meetings? How do you make sure you keep timeboxes? A timer on a smart phone is one way to do it, but for me it lacks visibility. I forget the timebox and only remember it, when it’s used up. And it’s even less visible for participants.

What works beautifully are TimeTimers. With a TimeTimer you set the timebox by pulling out a red disk. As soon as you let go, the red disk slowly starts retreating back below the white parts. That way you always have a pie chart of the remaining time. Elegant, easy to use and it communicates time very effectively!

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books

New Book: 15 Plans for Retrospectives

A few years ago, someone told me that they had witnessed several newly minted Scrum Masters take a random plan from Retromat and run a retrospective with it. The plan that was displayed when they opened Retromat. Or one they got hitting the “New random retro”-button. The resulting retrospectives had been confusing.

At first, I was unbelieving, that anyone would do that: Just take the five activities that were randomly combined and call it a “plan”? No way!

Then I was shocked: A random combination doth not a plan make. It wasn’t surprising that these retrospectives were trainwrecks.

Upon reflection, I realized that for a beginner it is really hard to see that a random plan will not work. In order to protect new SMs and teams from a terrible first retro experience, I wrote “Retromat is not meant for beginners” and added clarification on the Retromat homepage.

It didn’t feel like enough, because I couldn’t point new facilitators to something readily helpful and applicable. That’s why I came up with the Best Retrospective for Beginners. The name is exaggerated but the plan is solid. The people using it have gotten great feedback from their teams.

But I didn’t stop thinking about how to better support beginners. Because all the books out there contain building blocks, not a finished stable building. Makes sense, because the books (and Retromat) are by experienced facilitators for experienced facilitators. We love to mix and match activities. But how is a beginner supposed to mix and match with the same level of confidence and success?

Today, four years later, I finally improved on that single plan: I assembled 15 plans for retrospectives + 1 bonus plan so that newly minted facilitators can hit the ground running. The plans cover a variety of common situations in agile teams: Dealing with reluctant participants; helping complainy teams take responsibility; working on better stories and requirements; talking about expectations; increasing follow-through; …

Maybe you can spread the word among the budding facilitators in your life 🙂

PS: There’s also a bundle for this book + the book with all 135+ activities in Retromat.

Give feedback to new team members with SaMoLo (#17)

Many of the activities in Retromat are also useful outside of retrospectives in other meetings or workshops. Point in turn: SaMoLo (#17) is how we first started giving feedback to new colleagues at sipgate.

It’s helpful for newbies to hear how they’re doing in order to adjust to their new workspace. In traditional companies this might be done by a team lead or superior. At sipgate, this is the team’s job.

Although new members tend to come up as a topic in the team retrospective, it’s usually as a side note and only when they’ve just started. We felt that onboarding new colleagues is important enough to give each their own dedicated meeting with the following structure:

All team members except the new one meet and collect feedback in 3 categories:  “Behavior we’d like to see the same amount of”, “More of” and “Less of” (SaMoLo). They discuss the issues, group them and decide who will present the feedback. Then the new colleague joins to hear and discuss what they’re doing great and where they can improve.

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A Retrospective for Many Participants

Every once in a while, there’s an opportunity to involve more people than 1 team in a retrospective. Could be a second team that you’re working with closely; managers that don’t usually see each other; stakeholders and customers; people up the hierarchy; representatives from other teams and departments; … You name it.

This plan works for up to 25 people. Maybe 30. For anything bigger, look into World Cafe or OpenSpace. Once you facilitate for more than 12-15 people, things get a lot harder. And everything takes much longer:

  • Lots of clarification is needed. There will always be someone who didn’t catch it the first time. Or the second time.
  • If you want everyone to be heard, well, there are now lots more people to speak.
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Cause-Effect-Diagrams (#25)

Problems in the real world often have more than one root cause. Worse, the causes tend to be intertwined and reinforcing (aka vicious circles). It’s easy to get caught in circular thinking, unable to begin implementing any changes. A neat way to overcome this are cause-effect-diagrams:

Henrik Kniberg wrote an excellent description on how to create these diagrams. I highly recommend it. In the meantime, here are the instructions in a nutshell:

  • Take a “problem” that’s currently bugging you as the starting node
  • Go up – Try to find the real problem by repeatedly asking “So what?
    (Your starting node will often turn out to be a midway symptom and not a problem in itself.)
  • Go down – Try to find root causes by repeatedly asking “Why? How come?
  • You can have more than one cause and/or effect per node and may end up with a complex graph
  • Look out for vicious circles; breaking them should help a lot

I’ve done several diagrams and so far, they’ve always helped me:

  • to better understand how everything is related
  • to discover new effects / causes through the methodic approach
  • to find a starting point for changes, when I was paralyzed before

Groups can use a whiteboard, sticky notes and markers like in the photo.

Actually the diagram in the photo is a good example for finding an unexpected cause (and consequently solution):

Our sys admins had “Lack of visibility – The board doesn’t reflect what we do” as a starting point with “Stress” as its ultimate effect. The unexpected cause turned out to be: “No shared understanding of what tasks a story entails”. Transparency and using the board had been the topic of several retrospective and the aspect of “shared understanding” had never been mentioned before. So instead of coming up with a solution centered around the board, the team committed to daily joint task breakdowns to achieve a shared understanding of the stories. 3 weeks later, that had already solved a number of problems! Hooray, for cause-effect-diagrams and the sys admins 🙂

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books

Improve your retrospectives with this 1 weird trick: Liftoffs

When health is concerned, preventing issues altogether is often easier than treating them once they manifest. The same can be said for retrospectives:

“In retrospectives we often make up for the fact that we didn’t have a liftoff”

Either Deborah Hartmann Preuss or Steve Holyer said that in a conversation and it rings true. Very few teams get a proper liftoff and they lose weeks and months of productivity to initial friction. In contrast, a proper liftoff sets up a team for success by laying a solid foundation of agreements and shared understandings. Then the team doesn’t have to spend their retrospectives patching up problems that could have been avoided.

What are liftoffs exactly?

You might know them as kickoffs, jump starts, launches or project starts – a meeting at the beginning of a team coming together and / or starting to work on something. I’m going with the name “liftoff” because of the book by the same name written by Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies.

A huge chunk of “Liftoff” describes Agile Chartering as a way to clarify purpose, alignment and context of the team and work. Srinath Ramakrishnan summarises it like this:

“Agile chartering is a lightweight minimum documentation approach to creating initial understandings, agreements and alignment about the work and how it will be accomplished.”

A liftoff is a longer event, lasting from a day up to a week. All the necessary people take part, i.e. the team, the project sponsor and whoever else is needed to provide context and insights. Many liftoffs are also off-site which improves focus.

If you forgo a liftoff you often spend a lot of retrospectives on clarifying things that should have been clear from the get go. Of course, there are retro activities that can help, such as:

But you try to compensate for a lack of alignment in short stretches of time and typically with crucial people & their knowledge missing. You really wanna do liftoffs, trust me. Your retros will go a lot smoother.

So, what if you missed the start? The project is already underway and you find yourself with a team patching up cracks in the foundation instead of “clicking”? Well, it’s never too late to reboot with a mid-project liftoff to (re)gain footing.

Check out “Liftoff” for details on how to run one 🙂

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books

“I just can’t get her to engage!” – Retrospective Problems

A Scrum Master from the financial industry shared a gnarly retrospective problem with me:

My gnarly problem is that I have one member of my team that doesn’t like to participate in our ceremonies. Her body language shows it, but her words never do. She doesn’t really talk during any of the ceremonies, just tells our manager that she thinks they are a waste of time.

I keep trying to play games and spice things up and I’ve tried the boring, to the point method of: works well, not so well, and needs improvement …

I just can’t get her to engage! Any help on this?

I hear this problem a lot and I’ve certainly had it myself. That’s why I want to share an edited version of my answer here. I try to keep a focus on retrospectives although it seems to be a larger problems.

In a live coaching situation there are loads of good questions to ask: How does the team react? Was there ever a retrospective during which she was engaged? What is she like outside of the retros?

Without knowing many of the specifics, here is some generic advice.

Prologue: We can’t force agile on people

In general, I’ve stopped forcing people. As Marshall Rosenberg said, you cannot make people do anything. We certainly can’t make them “be agile”. If she doesn’t want to be there, she won’t engage. What would happen if she didn’t have to come? How would that affect the team? How does it affect the team now that she’s not engaging?

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