What’s a good action item?

9 points that make follow-through more likely

tl;dr Small, concrete, team has control over it, clear first step, responsible person, follow-up date, success criteria; there are only a few AIs, visualize


Retrospectives are only meaningful if they result in change. Sometimes this change is sparked just by everyone reaching a better understanding of everyone else’s perspective. More often we reach change through experiments, i. e. by trying something new for a set period of time. Obviously, you would like your experiments to improve things, but they won’t always. You have to try out many things to find the ones that are an improvement and discard the rest.

Experiments come in two flavors:

  • Action Items (AIs) – concrete todos; usually one-time-tasks
Examples: “Invite the devops team to our refinement meeting”
  • Rule changes – how the team handles their interactions, routines, rituals or events; usually on-going and repeating
Examples:
    • “everybody will answer these 3 questions in the daily standup”,
    • “we will groom upcoming stories every Wed 3pm”,
    • “we will prepare the product demo the day before the review”

I’m sloppy and use “action items” to mean both types – yes, also in this post. My recommendations apply to both types.

Okay, so we’re in a retrospective and try to come up with good experiments to try out. But what is a “good” action item?

For me, a good action item is something that has a high chance of actually being implemented by the team. You don’t get brownie points for coming up with ten AIs. You get points for those two AIs that you actually carry out and observe the results of.

Great. And what exactly increases the chances of follow-through for an AI? Glad you’re asking!

Small

Aim for small experiments. Go for the smallest change that could possibly make a difference. Small changes are easier to agree on. They have a higher chance of actually being implemented, because they are not such a big effort. If an experiment works: Great! If it doesn’t you haven’t invested much and can try something else. Rinse and repeat for continuous improvement.

Don’t underestimate the power of baby steps! Small changes quickly add up to big improvements. It’s like compound interest. Additionally, people experience that change is possible and gain momentum. Change is like a muscle: It gets easier with practise. Eventually big changes also become possible.

Concrete

Let’s assume, the team has a high-level goal such as “We want fewer failed stories”. There are many different ways to get closer to this goal. The team decides to go with limiting work in progress, e. g. “Work on fewer stories in parallel.” I would not be happy with this. How few is “fewer”?

How about: “We’ll work at most on 2 stories simultaneously”. Better. It’s EASY TO CHECK whether or not the team fulfills this.

In Control of the Team

Now it’s time to check if the goal and their strategy to reach the goal is within their control. In any given system there are

  • parts that the team Controls
  • parts that the team can Influence and
  • parts that they can’t change. But they can Adapt to deal with them better

Make sure that the goal and strategy reflect where the teams stands regarding “CIA”. It’s okay to pick a goal that they can only influence as long as their plan is about who and how to influence.

When you’re clear on that, ask them for the first step.

First Step

People often lose momentum, when they don’t know exactly how to start. Aim for a concrete change in behavior – including events that will trigger the behavior such as “During our daily standup, we’ll make sure that we work at most on 2 stories at the same time”.

Owner aka Responsible Person

Who is going to take care of this AI? Either by doing it themselves, by finding other people to implement it or by reminding people. For our example this could be: “Timm will add the WIP-check to our standup-checklist”.

If there are no volunteers for an action item, then it is obviously not important enough to the team (right now) and is discarded. Being explicit about not having the capacity or desire to do something is important information. Know thy(team)self 😉

If nobody voluntunteers, “What would have to change so that you would volunteer?” is an interesting follow-up question.

Review date

For todos, this is straightforward, until when will it be done.

Rule changes often need a longer period of time to see them in action, before you can review them. So how long will the team try a new rule? When the trial period is up, the team review the rule to see if it solved their problem.

Metric

And how do they know that they solved the problem or at least improved? What are their success criteria? “Gut feeling” is an okay metric in my book as long as the team is explicit about it.

So far, all the points were for a single AIs. The next one applies to the set of AIs that come out of a retro:

One of Few

I once heard someone boast that they got 17 AIs out of their last retro. They thought that that wos a good thing. To me, it’s not. There’s a proverb “Those who hunt two rabbits will catch neither”. If you have too many goals you will reach fewer of them than if you had a small number to begin with and are able to focus. Out of a 60-90 minute retrospective we will typically get 2-3 action items. Anything more than 5 would make me very skeptical.

Last but not least:

Visual Reminder

Find a way to keep the experiments on everyone’s minds. Some ideas:

  • Big AIs can become stories in the Sprint backlog
  • Visualize 1-time-todos on the team board
  • Have a running list of ongoing experiments
  • Maintain a “Working Agreement” to list all current team rules
  • Calendar reminders
  • Added to existing checklists

Keep AIs in (the vicinity) of / on other boards and (digital) documents that the team use on a daily bases.

Summary & Mnemonic

It feels like I’ve got a prime opportunity to coin a mnemonic here. Like “INVEST in Good Stories” this could be “Great Action Items are …”

SCIFORMOV? – Small, Concrete, In Control of Team, First Step, Owner, Review Date, Metric, One of few, Visual Reminder

I’m not impressed. What does SCIFORMOV even mean? And yes, I’ve played around with alternative names for the various criteria. See the “tl;dr” to see the first way I phrased them 😀

What if I change around the order of the letters? I don’t want to change the order in the article, because it reflects the chronological order in which you address these when writing down an AI during a retro. But I guess I can ignore the order for the sake of a mnemonic. So, here we go. I give you… Drum roll please:

MOSCOV FIR!

Forgive me, it’s late and I think I’m hilarious 😉 And yes, I realize that’s not how you spell “Moscow”. Anyway, great* action items are MOSCOV FIR. You’ve heard it here first.

* “Great” as in “have a high chance of being implemented”

And for full disclosure: I have no idea what the average follow-up on AIs is. For my teams it’s between 60-80% of the action items. Dropped action items often “belong” to problems that sorted themselves out in other ways. So I’m not aiming for 100% follow-through. I think 80% would be cool. But even at 60-80% the teams are happy and improving. So there’s that.

What the average follow-through in your teams? Are you happy with that?

Raise your hand to speak

For somebody who spends as much time as I do on thinking about what we do at sipgate and why it works, I missed a tiny, big detail for a really long time: Our meetings work much better than at most other places because we raise our hands when we want to speak. And we talk in the order of hands being raised.

I once had plans for a book on how teams facilitate can better their own meetings. And it never occured to me to include raising your hand in the book. I had thought about talking sticks and keeping a visible list for big groups, but not about “queueing” to speak.

After all, isn’t that just how it works in school? Yes and no. Yes, you raise your hand to speak. No, not everybody gets to speak and you are not responsible yourself to figure out the order of speaking. The teacher calls on people to speak.

But if you think about it, not interrupting each other and letting other speak first is the basis for all the other things that work well in our meetings. AFAIR, Richard Sheridan calls stuff like that “kindergarten skills” in his book “Joy, Inc.”. These kindergarten skills, i.e. playing nice with others is the first thing they check for in potential hires.

I only realized this how important the hand raising thing is, because I recently was in a meeting with someone who didn’t wait their turn. It was sooo irritating. It ruined the flow and also made it more likely for others to display bad meeting manners: Interrupting others becomes more frequent because everybody is anxious to get their thoughts out.

Even now that I’m writing it down, I feel like it’s too basic, too obvious to be mentioned. I mean: “You want nicer, fairer meetings, in which people are not talking over each other? Gee, have you tried taking turns by raising your hand to get the word when it’s your turn?” Duh.

But then again, I rarely see the hand raising in other environments and meeting flow is worse for it. So, I’ll be happy to state the obvious, if it helps some team, somewhere.

You’re meetings are going smoothly without hand raising? Great! Maybe it’s because you’ve got a facilitator? Facilitators can often guess who wants to speak, based on body language. And give the floor to that person either explicitly or also using subtle body language. I often give somebody the floor, by raising my open palm towards them or just looking at them with my head cocked.

But facilitators are not mind readers so even then the hand raising bit helps. And when there’s no facilitator it helps a lot! If they know who wants to speak, the more confident team members can give the floor to shyer ones, who wouldn’t just talk over someone else to be heard.

So, yeah, queue to speak and get more orderly meetings with a fairer distribution of “air time”. Peace Out 🙂

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

Responsive Retromat

Big news: As of March 2021, Retromat.org is responsive and adapts to all screen sizes. We’re a teeny tiny little bit late to the party, but better than never 🥳 🥳 🥳

This is the biggest change since Timon Fiddike rewrote the backend in 2016. It’s been on my ToDo-list for forever. At least 5 years. I mean, mobile devices are not exactly new 😉

Now, I finally, finally get to close this tab in my head and Retromat is much more accessible! In the end, the rewrite was both easier and harder than expected: It was easier because Past-Corinna was pretty smart about decoupling the Java Script logic from the layout. Plus, Flexbox is cool and my SO helped me with grid (CSS). It was also harder because there were many small things I hadn’t thought of. And one big one: Thank you Timon, for setting up a test server!

The Retro Mates’ support gave me the energy to finally tackle this. Shout out to them! And may we all bask in the glorious feeling of finishing something big-ish 🙂

PS: If you want to help make Retromat more awesome, why not become a Retro Mate?

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.

Continue reading “Story Cubes for Retrospectives”

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:

Continue reading “A Christmas Retro”

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.

Continue reading “Give feedback to new team members with SaMoLo (#17)”

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.
Continue reading “A Retrospective for Many Participants”