“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?

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

  1. An idea that came to my mind is that the “health” of the team is not in a good shape. Lots of “fires” or points of improvement open. This ends up on lots of concerns, lots of ideas…

    In this case, what I think could be good ideas would be:
    – To do retros more frequently, it’s better to keep retros short and with fewer points but, probably you will have enough material in less than 2 weeks. I think this should be something elastic depending on the issues the team experience and not something religious every 2 weeks.
    – It’s important to listen all the team members and all their concerns, maybe an asynchronous exercise sharing the not so important points of friction and try to classify them or take non-priority actions could help to make the teammates feel they are listened.

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