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”

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?

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

What can you do if retrospectives repeatedly go wrong?

Not all retrospectives go well. When you support a team as a Scrum master, there are all kinds of strange behaviours or team dynamics that can make retrospectives go sideways, time after time. A facilitator can’t always prevent that. At least I can’t. Not always. Got lots better, though. Over the years I’ve picked up several different angles to get retros back on track (what I think is the “track” anyway). Enjoy:

Choose specific activities

When I started out as a Scrum master I thought my only option was to carefully choose activities to nudge people into the direction I thought they needed to go. And for some situations that works well.

The team acts the victim. Others need to change, there’s nothing they can do? Try Outside In, Circles & Soup, If I were you, …

There is a specific “weak” area they don’t like to look at? Communication Lines for (surprise!) flow of information, Quartering for Tickets, Company Map for Power Dynacmics, …

Talk to individuals

Then I started to address individual behaviour in spontaneous 1:1s whenever I could snatch the person alone. For instance: “I’ve got the impression that you often address me during the retrospective (/standup/…). The information is not for me, it’s important for the others. I would love for you to try to look at the others more.”

Continue reading “What can you do if retrospectives repeatedly go wrong?”

Postcards (#42)

[This post was first published in 2012 when Retromat was tiny and new. Seems like a lifetime ago.]

I’m always looking for inspiration for retrospectives e.g. over at Thorsten Kalnin’s or in the retrospectives wiki. Time to give back! This is a format I tried out some time ago: The basic idea is to let the participants describe the issue with a metaphor.

A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible object to represent a less tangible object or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., “Her eyes were glistening jewels.”
(Source: Wikipedia)

There are several ways to have participants come up with metaphors, e.g.

  • “Which movie title would best describe our sprint?”
  • Drawing the sprint as described in this blog entry
  • Or… Choose a postcard as a representative!

There are two reasons to use metaphors in a retrospective:

  1. It gives a shared understanding of someone’s perspective
  2. It can open a path to find new solutions. It’s similar to an approach you sometimes take in math: Say, you have a problem and don’t know how to solve / approach it. Some problems can be transformed into an analoguous form in a different field of mathematics, where it can be solved. Afterwards you transform the solution back to the originating field and have a solution to the original problem. Tada

Enough theory, this is how the session went down:

Situation: The developers and PO were going through a rocky patch back then and I wanted to help them overcome this.

Preperation: I selected about 30 postcards for 5 participants and 2 rounds. For most postcards I had a loose association how they might relate to the topic. On top of that I stacked a few random and / or abstract images for good measure. (Who would have thought my impressive collection of postcards would come in handy for my agile endeavours?) I scattered the postcards all over the room on the floor, so that the participants have to get up and wander about.

Session plan: The postcards were part of the Information Gathering phase:

  • Pick the postcard that best resembles how you see the team right now.
    (No shared postcards. If you’re not fast enough, pick another one.)
  • Write down 3 keywords that describe how you see the team (with regards to the postcard)
  • In turn everyone hangs up their postcard and keywords and explain their choice

Usually you’d only have one round but we had a second round on the question “How would you like the team to be 3 months from now?”

Followed by:

  • Brainwriting: How could we get from the Now-state to the Wish-state?
    (I often do written activities to level the playing field for quieter team members.)
  • Collect all Brainwriting ideas, cluster and dot-vote which 3 suggestions to talk about.
  • Create action items (preferably as SMART goals)

It was the most productive brainwriting session I’ve ever seen.

[This Change Management training gave me the idea with the postcards.]

PS: Need more ideas for retrospectives? Try out my very own Retr-O-Mat 🙂
The Postcards are Activity #42, Brainwriting is Activity #66 and SMART Goals are Activity #13.

How to transition from Set the Stage to Gather Data

Here’s another interesting question about retrospectives I got in my inbox, this time from Claudia: 

I just became a Scrum Master and will have my first Retrospective ever. What I find difficult for the beginning – I’m sure this will change after doing some Retros – is the transition from Set the Stage to Gather Data. After setting the stage, how do I go the Gather Data? Do I simply say “thank you, now, we’ll continue to gather data…“ or do I comment anything from Set the Stage to Gather Data.

[If you are new to retrospective and have never heard about the phases you can find out more here.]

Questions like these are great, because they make me examine something that I don’t consciously think about and “just do”. So yeah, how do the heck do I frame the transition? As always, the answer is: It depends 😉

It depends on what I want to achieve with “Set the Stage” (StS). Let’s look at the different cases:

Default case: I want everyone to speak, preferably about something positive and true and relevant to the last iteration

In this case, yes, most of the time it is close to “thank you, now, we’ll continue with gathering data…“ I wouldn’t use that exact phrasing because it implies that the 1st phases content is throwaway, when it reveals something about the last iteration. I can’t remember ever picking a starting activity solely for the fun of it… 

My default opening method is a question that goes around the circle. Here are some of these questions and a transition to “Gather Data” that lends itself to that question:

Of course, the transition has to also match the activity you’re leading to in “Gather Data” (GD). But yeah, usually the sticky notes from StS just keep hanging on a board and are not re-used. If people have the same point again for GD, they can rewrite the sticky or re-hang the existing sticky note. I don’t care either way.

Special case: Testing the waters – with a new team or in a conflict situation 

When I facilitate for a team for the first time or in a conflict situation I like to test the waters with ESVP: Do people want to be here? How much engagement can I expect from them?

If I expect problems, I might use Constellation or Team Radar to explore questions like “How likely are you to speak openly?”. It might be necessary to adapt these to a written form that participants fill in anonymously.

The important thing is that you have to be willing to deal with problems that come up. What if half the participants are Prisoners – How will you handle it? What if nobody dares to speak openly – What will you do?

In short, you’ll have to have at least a rough idea of a Plan B. The more problems you expect, the more solid your Plan B needs to be.

Btw, “normal” opening rounds and retro activities can also derail, either because something “traumatic” happened to a single person (divorce, sick loved one, …) or the team as a whole (someone being fired, new boss, …) that you hadn’t been aware off. In these cases, don’t try to follow your original plan. The retro is not an item to tick off a list. Stay calm, sometimes it’s okay to just let people talk. But I digress …

Special case: Outcome Expectations

Related to the previous case: Some activities are about the retro on a meta level, e.g. asking for Outcome Expectations. I’ll try to help meet the expectations or at the very least check if they’ve been met or not throughout the retro.

Special case: StS is already data heavy

There are some data heavy StS activities in Retromat that can easily be fleshed out for use in GD, e.g. Amazon Review or Postcards. Don’t be limited by the phase that is assigned in Retromat. There are many activities that also fit into a different category.

Actually, when you look at my retrospectives individually, you’ll usually find only 4 to 4.5 distinct phases in them. The middle three phases kind of bleed into each other. Which one I stress varies. But whatever I do, you can spot Lean Coffee in each one of them, just rarely as a standalone technique.

(If you plan your retrospectives with Retromat, you can get around the strict “5 phases” layout by manually changing the IDs in the URL and hitting enter.)

Anyway, the above are all the special cases I can currently think of. Do you have any to add? How do you transitien between StS and GD?

Thank you for the question, Claudia! It was fun to think about this!

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

My most important retrospectives were horrible

I’ve got a confession to make: I think fun in retrospectives is overrated. And I never bring cookies, when I facilitate.

Don’t get me wrong, I prefer having a good time to moping about and yes, I prefer participants to be in a good mood. Light hearted people are more creative and willing to try new things.

But all my most important retrospectives – the ones I still remember years later – were horrible! Or at the very least deeply uncomfortable. That holds true regardless of whether I facilitated or was a regular participant.

The important retrospectives, the ones that really counted and made a profound difference were about troubling topics: When something or someone wasn’t working out despite everyone’s best efforts. These retros had a big impact like teams dissolving; people leaving teams or even the company. That’s category of events I’m talking about.

Something like that is decidedly not fun. But it’s necessary to have these conversations. I’m grateful to people who have the guts to bring up the crucial topics even if it hurts in that moment. After the dust has settled everyone is better off, because a harmful situation has turned into a new beginning. And work in general, not just retrospectives, has a chance to be fun again.

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

Activities for Checking up on Action Items

There are a lot suggestions for Retromat that I can’t  include. Sometimes because the strict 5-phases format can’t accommodate them. One example: Anja Schwarzpaul developed the  following activities for “the new Phase 2” (that I used to call “Phase 0”) aka “the phase in which you check what happened to last retro’s action items”. So far, there are very few activities for this new phase described out there. That’s why I’m extra excited to have Anja’s permission to share these two with you!

Her reason for coming up with these?

I feel it’s important to analyze successful or completed experiments in at least as much detail as failed or incomplete ones. Success doesn’t just happen. There’s always a reason. Real life success example in my team: The phrasing was clear and concise, leaving little room for misunderstandings and making the item easy to follow.

And here are Anja’s activities in her own words:


Flow Chart

Use a good old fashioned flow chart to dissect a single action item. (Probably scales to 2 or 3 actions). Duration is flexible and largely depends on the number of questions.

Photo courtesy of Anja Schwarzpaul

From a start node, draw an arrow to a decision node labeled “Done?”or “Success?”. Now branch to “yes” and “no” paths along one or more boxes containing questions to be asked. Near the end of the diagram, merge both branches into a final box “Anything else?” and end in a final state.
Follow the path that the team indicates. If the result is ambiguous, use the “no” branch until just before the merge, then the “yes” branch.

You can either display the entire diagram at once or draw it as you go along. I outlined the start and decision nodes with a marker and sketched everything else with a pencil, in real time outlining only the path we used. This allows for adapting the question(s) to the situation.

Possible Questions:

  • Why did / didn’t it work?
  • How did / didn’t it work?
  • What could we have done to make it work?
  • What does it do for us as a team?
  • Is this something we can use / try again…
  • on a regular basis?
  • in a different context?
  • at some point in the future? (for non-continuous activities, e.g. release estimation)

Improve the Improvement

Suitable for 2 or more action items. Duration depends on the number of items and questions.

Write each hypothesis / item / experiment on a large-ish index card or sticky note. Lay them out on the table or stick them to a wall or board. Let the team rank them from most to least successful, top to bottom. Now ask a few strong questions to help the team analyze the outcome of the experiments. The goal is to get some general ideas of why and how experiments work, and put these ideas to use during the “decide what to do” stage, thus improving the improvement.

Possible Questions: What would have had to happen in order to…

  • make the least successful item come out on top?
  • reverse the order?
  • make all items an equal success?
  • move item <no.> move up a spot?

And maybe:

  • Under which circumstances would you not be able to rank the results?
  • How do you feel about the success to priority ratio?

If I ever have more time (fat chance…) I’ll figure out a good UI to include the new phase in Retromat. Until then, thank you Anja for sharing these with us!

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

Activities to say farewell and reminisce in a retrospective

Teams go through stages. They form, clash, perform well, quarrel, perform, and so on. Until they  eventually disband. Tuckman called this stage “Adjourning”.

A while ago, Stephane asked for activities for a retrospective for an adjourning team. Here are some suggestions:

My team is awesome” would be a great opener.

Appreciative Inquiry” would also work well, if the questions were tweaked a little to serve the purpose.

If you’ve got a budget to take the team out to eat, “Retrospective Cookies” are an excellent option.

I guess it depends a little on whether you’d rather the team takes away a farewell lesson that they can carry over to the next team or you’d rather let them bask in their team spirit and appreciate each other.

What activities do you recommend for an Adjourning retro?

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