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 with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

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 with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

“Too many topic ideas leave too little time to talk in-depth” – Retrospecive Problems

Scrum Master Ellen wrote me about a problem with running out of time during retrospectives:

“I have a team that is quite elaborate in their retrospectives especially in the gathering data and insights part. Perfect, but this leaves less time for deciding what to do and transforming problems we face into action. Do you have suggestions on how to keep the teams focused on only the really important things they want to fix in the next sprint? The thing I try now is to minimize the number of post-its each person adds, but I would love to have some other suggestions.”

Yep, I definitely know that problem quite well. As I facilitate short retros (45-90 minutes) time is always an issue. Even small teams can come up with a multitude of topic ideas. And the more topics a team suggests, the fewer it can actually talk about.

Regarding minimizing stickies, there are at least 3 different ways to do it, all with their own trade-offs:

A) Give only very little time to write down topics
Con: Stresses some people

B) Limit the number of stickies to write (“Write 3 stickies with your most important topics”)
Con: Gives some people analysis paralysis

C) After writing, tell people to go through their stickies and only keep a certain amount (“Please count your stickies. If you’ve got more than 5, only keep the 5 most important ones and discard the others”)
Con: People have to throw away some of their work

[Z) You or the team set the topic beforehand and only explore aspects of this limited scope – Completely valid option if there’s an “obvious” topic to tackle]

Between options A-C, I use C most often but choose depending on the team. I pick the way I think they can best live with.

Alternatively, you can try to shorten the time that people take to present their topics. By 1) making them aware of the time problem and 2) intervening whenever people dig into a problem pre-maturely and start discussing instead of moving on to introduce the next sticky.

In my context (mature teams, very short retros of 60min every 2 weeks) “Gather data” is strictly for broadcasting: Everybody hangs up their sticky ideas, says one sentence per sticky and that’s it. Clarifying questions are okay, but no going into detail. Participants are great at reigning themselves in, when they go too deep into a topic. Everybody is used to postponing until after dot-voting and then discuss the agreed-upon topics.

That’s certainly learned behaviour. I’ve recently started to freelance on the side and now sometimes introduce retrospectives in other companies that are new to it. I noticed how easily participants get into details before it is clear, which topics are shared concerns. I stepped in a number of times. That’s when I realised how rarely (if ever) this happens “at home”.

One way team members can help each other stay on track is with Jeff Patton’s Cups.

Hopefully, some of these ideas help you carve out more time for the important topics 🙂

PS: Now I wonder what a “normal” amount of topics per retro is. Across several teams I found we typically cover 2-3 topics in a 45-75 minute retro.

How many is “normal” in your retros? And how long are those retros?

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

Phases are not always linear in retrospectives

If you facilitate retrospectives then you’re probably familiar with the 5 phases from “Agile Retrospectives” by Derby and Larsen:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Gather data
  3. Generate insight
  4. Decide what to do
  5. Close the retrospective

Whenever I talk about them and in all the material I’ve created, it always looks like the phases are strictly linear. But that is not how they work in the majority of my retrospectives – because I rarely have single-topic retros. I usually run a “gathering potential topics”-activity like “Speedboat” or “I like, I wish” and then the team works through 2 or 3 of these topics.

It would be strange to first talk about 3 topics in depth and afterwards come up with action items for all of them. Instead we talk about 1 topic in depth and create an action item for this topic. And only then start with the next topic. Like in this highly elaborate diagram 😉 :

I thought it might be worth stating this explicitly as it’s not necessarily obvious for beginners.

What about you? When do you decide on action items?

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

“How can I motivate people for retrospectives?”

… or “Retrospectives are only Step 1 (of 2)”

“How can I motivate people to do retrospectives?” is a question I used to hear frequently.

If you ask me, that’s the wrong question. It’s wrong because you don’t have to motivate people to do something that they perceive as valuable.

Which makes the real question:
Why aren’t they getting value out of their retrospectives? And is there anything anyone can do to get them their money’s time’s worth?

The only time, when the “motivation” question is admissable is if you’re trying something for the first time. You’ve never done a retro before? Yes, then you’re asking for a leap of faith from participants. And maybe the first one is wonky and you need a second one to make it count. But that’s it. From then on retros have to pay their own way – just like any other meeting should. If it’s not creating value then why are you doing it?

Btw, the retrospective itself is usually not the problem. It’s what happens afterwards. Which is often enough: nothing. It’s unfair to tell people “come on, we’ll look for improvements” and then not implement a single improvement idea. The actual meeting is Step 1. Following up on the agreed upon action items is Step 2.

When is a retrospective successful? Change happens.

Sometimes this problem with Step 2 originates in the retro: The improvement ideas are too vague to be actionable. Other times it’s outside: There’s not enough time or money to do anything. If retrospectives don’t affect any change or these changes aren’t beneficial the majority of times, then yes, people don’t want to do them anymore. And rightly so. They shouldn’t. In these circumstances, retros are a waste of time.

Ironically, I’d use a retro to figure out what’s going wrong and how to actually make them more valuable 😛

But only after I did my homework. And I’d try something new, not the same format that failed people before. Maybe this one.

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

Things happen in their own time

[The following is my piece of advice for Yves Hanoulle’s collection “Tips from the Agile Trenches“.]

What type of person picks a relatively new career like “Scrum Master”? A role that often involves working in organizations that transition to agile and go through lots of uncertainty. A role that focuses on “inspect and adapt”, e.g. change. What type of person indeed? Probably a person that is curious and excited to try new things. Does that sound like you?

Here’s the thing though, different people have different degrees of “eagerness to try stuff out”. As a Scrum Master you are likely very near the “Yay, let’s try this”-end of the scale. Which means that most of the other members in the team will be closer to the “tried and true”-end scale than you, i.e. less eager for change.

It can be frustrating if you can hardly wait to experiment while others want to wait and see. At least it was for me. I was sooo impatient. Why didn’t the others feel the same urgency and thrill I did?

I’ve since realized that things happen in their own time. We’re asking people to think and act in a new way after they’ve been seeped in the “traditional” way for years and years. That takes time. You can only help people with what they are ready to hear and with the problems they are aware they’re having. Nowadays, instead of pushing harder against ever-increasing resistance, I’m planting seeds – ideas for what the team can try. Sometimes the team runs with something right away, sometimes they come back to a suggestion after weeks, sometimes they come up with a different solution, sometimes the problem goes away. All of these are fine.

So please don’t beat yourself up (or forcefeed the team) if things don’t seem to move fast enough. Remember that they are likely not on the same page. Yet. Be patient, sow the seeds and be there to water the seedling when it breaks out of the soil towards the sun.

And the best of all: Change is like a muscle. The more new things you try out as a team, the easier it gets. Eventually big changes become easy.

[Curious about the other tips in “Tips from the Agile Trenches“? Use this link for a 75% discount :)]

Print Retromats are back!

Exciting news: Print Retromats are back and you can get yours here. After my “Help to make Retromat sustainable” post in October 2019, German consultancy it-agile reached out to me and offered me a great partnership.

They take over production and distribution of the Print Edition, i.e. all the time-consuming bits and I can focus on content. I’m super grateful to it-agile (and especially Wolf-Gideon Bleek) that after more than two years without Print Retromats, they’ll be available again.

You don’t know what Print Retromats are? Check them out!

I’m so glad that all the many people who asked for Print Retromats can finally get one. Enjoy!

Help to make Retromat sustainable

Hi, my name is Corinna Baldauf. In 2012, I had a month of free time between quitting my old job and starting at a new company. During that time I created Retromat. Before Retromat, it took me at least an hour to plan a retrospective, looking through various blogs for inspiration. I was sure that there must be a faster way to find a wide variety of ideas. AFAIK there wasn’t one at the time, so I built it. Retromat launched with 16 activities.

Afterwards I spend large chunks of my free time adding activities to Retromat, blogging and creating 1-page summaries. For a while all was well and I was a happy creator.

2014 came along and 2 things happened: 

  • I became a mom. From then on, my free time belonged to my daughter. 
  • Retromat became popular. With it came “community work”. People suggesting activities, asking questions, sending photos etc.

Invisible work

As someone interested in Open Source, I eventually recognized that I had landed myself in the Catch-22 that successful OS projects suffer from: You have a successful project. Yay, that’s awesome! People are using your brainchild. But it means community work (bug reports, pull requests, questions, contributors that need onboarding – if you’re lucky). Community work is not why you started the project. It’s mostly invisible work and takes away time to improve the original project.

In my case, community work soon became 95% of what I did. After a job and family I just didn’t have much energy left. What little energy I had went into answering emails – and feeling guilty about the ones I hadn’t answered yet… It took me months to answer emails.

I might sound ungrateful. I’m not! It’s still remarkable to me that so many people use their time to translate Retromat into 6 languages, suggest activities and so on. Still, in 2015 I realized that the current situation was not sustainable. (And we’re big fans of a sustainable pace over here in the agile camp, aren’t we ;))

Goal: Work part-time

You probably know the phrase “Time is Money”. The opposite is also true: “Money is Time” as in, “money can buy you time”. Money that the projects earn is money I don’t have to earn in my day job. If I want to have time and energy for my original projects (i.e. new activities and features for Retromat, new summaries, new blog posts), I have to find some way for the projects to support themselves.

Retromat is the only project with an audience big enough that it might pay for itself. So I started looking into possibilities to “monetize” with the goal of me going part-time at my regular job. Below I’ve listed the things I’ve tried or consciously decided not to try.

tl;dr: In a cruel twist of fate every monetization attempt paid about for as much time as it took me to implement it. But not for more. If I had taken the “monetization time” to create new content I’d probably have been happier. Creating is what makes me happy. Selling… not so much. Well, no use crying over spilt milk. Maybe someone can learn from my fails. If you’re not interested in the details, scroll past the boxes.

How have I tried to monetize? Let me count the ways:

PRINT RETROMAT

Actually this one doesn’t really count: I’ve created the print edition before Retromat became popular. I wasn’t even sure I’d break even. I did. The Print Retromats are the only thing on this list that made serious money.
Upside: That pays for a nice holiday.
Downside: After a round of selling I really need that holiday! It’s largely manual labor. Each and every Print Retromat is hand-cut. 

But Corinna, can’t you produce them pre-cut? Yes, but that completely changes the game for me. Right now I fall under a very nice VAT tax exemption for small businesses. For pre-cut Print Retromats I need to order much larger numbers and pay VAT, making them more expensive. Also lots more bureaucracy for me. And the risk of not knowing how big the market actually is. Could I sell 5000 Print Retromats without being able to give huge discounts to bulk orders? It’s complicated.

DONATIONS

This one was the least effort to implement but also the lowest return. Donations were typically 5-10 dollars. A one-time-donation of 10 bucks every 2 weeks is not sustainable. Still, thank you donors! Especially to Steve who donated 50 bucks 🙂

To be fair, I never really pushed donations. AFAIR I’ve never even mentioned them on my newsletter. I was too ashamed. Donations feel like begging, not like being compensated for valuable work.

SPONSORING

Next I thought I’d go big: Instead of asking lots of people for donations I’d ask a few companies for bigger amounts. Companies usually have more money than individuals. And on Retromat the audience is a very desirable niche. I know how much it costs to find a new employee via a head hunter -> a sponsorship on Retromat to find a new Scrum Master is a great bargain.

Sponsoring would be close to viable if we had a sponsor every month. Alas, we’ve had 1 per year. At least they’re both cool, worthy organizations! Thank you Emendare & Teammood.

EBOOK

This one is still around and does earn money. Unfortunately, I started selling the eBook around the time I exposed the newsletter more and subscribers skyrocketed. In most months the eBook pays for the Mailchimp account. So no extra time to work on projects either…

That’s all the monetization efforts I’ve tried so far. For completeness sake I’ll also list the options I rejected:

Considered and rejected

ADS 

I don’t like ads. I use ad blockers. I’d prefer not to put them on one of my sites. And AFAIK the earning potential is very limited so not a big loss either.

PATREON

Lots of people suggested Patreon. I perceive Patreon as a platform for individuals to support content creators. In contrast, I view Retromat as something that companies should pay for, since we use Retromat for our work. 

Plus, Patreon is based on extra content for Patrons. I’m trying to carve out some time to create at all. When would I create that extra content?

A NATIVE APP

Lots of extra work and risk for very little expected pay-off: App prices are low and the potential audience is not big enough to off-set that. Plus, I don’t really know what an app could offer that the website couldn’t.

GOING FREELANCE

Many of the people who put out valuable content are freelance consultants. Sometimes I get the impression that this is the only viable way: Freelancers (in IT) usually get paid very good day rates. The difficult bit is getting hired. That’s why it makes perfect business / marketing sense to put content out there, have a newsletter, etc. 

For me, as a full-time employee, it would be the other way around. I would go freelance to subsidize the time to create content under the risky assumption that it would be relatively easy for me to get jobs. 

I’ve actually tried that route. I never advertised workshops or facilitation but when someone asked for one, I’d usually say yes. I like preparing for the engagement and the actual job. Judging from repeat bookings by customers, I’m good at it. But consulting is a very different lifestyle, including traveling, etc.

It doesn’t seem like a good trade-off to completely change my life just to make my side projects viable and “sensible marketing”. And most importantly I really, really like my job. It’s where most of my content ideas come from – grounded in long-term experience at the same (awesome!) place. This long-term perspective seems valuable to me. I like what I’m doing. I love my colleagues. I don’t want to stop working there. I’d just like to work fewer hours.

What now?

I always tried to monetize something “extra” although I think the most valuable thing Retromat has to offer is … Retromat itself! Think about it: What would you do without Retromat? How much time does it save you? How much better are your retros because you can find activities that fit to your team’s situation?

I’ve narrowly avoided burn-out earlier this year. Without my doctor I’d be burned-out right now. Something has to change. Either I stop having projects or I find a way for them to be sustainable, i.e. earn enough money. I’ll give it one last shot:

Does Retromat create enough value for you to support it on a regular basis? Take the poll:

If enough people pledge their support, I will implement payment and billing. There are lots of providers in the US, not so many in Germany. I’ll have to look around. The bill will look like a regular bill for a SaaS.

If it doesn’t work out, don’t worry, Retromat will stay free and online. My projects will freeze in the state they are right now. The amazing agile coach Timon Fiddike will continue to take care of the Retromat backend. Retromat translators can still work and we would add new translators, but that’s about it. Requests regarding new activities, photos, features, questions etc. get a polite “This project is not maintained anymore”-email. I just don’t have it in me anymore after a day’s work and family time with 2 children.

How can we help?

A number of people have offered their time to help. Thank you, I appreciate it! Unfortunately I can’t think of anything that I could easily hand over to someone else. And if I could, the handing over, keeping track of it, reminding people, … Managing other contributors is work too and not the fun kind. So right now it’s down to money. If that ever changes, I’ll publish it here.

Money will help me tackle my huge backlogs: At least 30 activities for Retromat; features  for Retromat (comments, anyone?); 50 ideas for Wall-Skills summaries; 40 topics for blog posts; 2 3 book outlines; projects like Lift-off-O-Mat, Planning-O-Mat; physical products like the Scrum Master Emergency Kit; …

My ideas are endless. Obviously I won’t be able to realize all of them. But looking at my track record, a lot of my ideas turn into realities given some time and space to breathe.

Thank you for reading and considering to support Retromat

How much money has been pledged?

Update: As of Feb 5th, 2020, 40 people have pledged about 500 Euros. After deducting income tax and a realistic no-show-rate, this is not enough to take significant time off. At least, on its own.

But maybe the “time-off”-money doesn’t have to come from a single source: I’ve partnered with German consultancy it-agile for distributing Print Retromats. So part of the “time-off”-money will come from this source \o/

And I’m working on setting up a subscription / member system. Thank you and stay tuned.

Our retrospectives are complain-fests :( – How to turn blame and whining into action

How’s this for a retrospective problem: “Our retrospectives are huge complain-fests. All the team ever does is blame others and whine, whine, whine. Honestly, I don’t know what to do…”

It’s common for newly agile teams judging from how often I have heard descriptions like “The team eternally blames external parties. They never come up with any action items.” Well, why would they when it’s all somebody else’s fault anyway…

Blaming others is a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility and changing oneself. So how do you get a team out of this attitude? I describe several tactics in the ebook “Retromat – Run great agile retrospectives” and wanted to share them with you, too:

“What are you going to do about it?”

I start by stressing “you” a lot, as in “What are _you_ going to do about it?” Here are activities supporting this angle:

Solution focus

Surprisingly you can also try a very positive angle: Talking about what the team did well sometimes opens up a window to also talk about what didn’t work out, e.g. with Appreciative Inquiry.

In general, I’m a fan of the solution-focused approach, where you avoid analyzing the problem and look for things to try out instead. The following activities fit this approach:

Change perspective

A change of perspective can help the team to empathize with their scape goat and see things in a new light. It can also do wonders if the scape goat attends the retrospective and shares their view and reasoning.

Try:

If all else fails I try an intervention along the lines of “We can’t change other people. We can only change our own perspective and behavior.”

Have you ever tried one of these with a finger-pointing team? How did it turn out?

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook

Retromat is not meant for beginners

Apparently, there are newly-appointed facilitators out there who just use whatever random plan Retromat spits out. Oh, my God, no!

I never, ever meant for anyone to do this. The random plan is a starting point from which everyone should merrily click left and right to create a plan that fits their and their team’s needs.

That’s what I mean with the “tweak it” in “Planning your next retrospective? Get started with a random plan, tweak it, print it and share the URL”. It might have been too subtle. To me it’s obvious that random combinations will not work well together. It’s obvious to me, because I’ve facilitated retros before and I’m experienced. It’s not obvious for someone new to retros.

How could I not realize this for so long? I guess I only get emails from people for whom it works. I don’t hear from those that fail with a random plan or those that “have to pick up the pieces after an inexperienced colleague unleashed a random retro on a team” (actual quote!). I’m so sorry!

If you’re a beginner, try my best shot at an out-of-the-box, beginner-friendly retro plan. It’s practically guaranteed to be better than a random plan.

To reiterate: Retromat is a great source of inspiration for people who know what they’re doing. It’s not a good place to start for people who lack the experience to know whether activities will go together well. In theory Retromat offers millions of plans for retrospectives. In practice only a fraction of these combinations work well. A random plan is unlikely to work out!

When you plan a retrospective with Retromat you have to make sure that you know how the results of one activity will be used in the next activity. That’s what the arrows at the sides are for: To flip through the activities to find one that fits to the activities before and after it, as well as your team’s situation.

Retromat needs some experience. Please do not recommend it to beginners without a disclaimer! Recommend Agile Retrospectives instead and if it’s urgent, this plan. Thank you!

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook with all activities from Retromat, plus tips and tricks? Check out the eBook