How to Improve Your Retrospectives Part 1

Anthony Mersino
July 15, 2015

In my last post I talked about the Scrum Retrospective meeting and how the speed of the retrospective was not the most important thing.  The retrospective is critical element of the Scrum Framework. It is a continuous improvement process to help the Scrum Team become more effective and enjoyable.  In this post, we are going to explore how the retrospective helps the team improve, and introduce a structure for planning retrospectives. 

One of my favorite metaphors for the retrospective comes from the carousels you might find at a children’s playground. They were common when I was a kid but I see fewer of them now - perhaps due to safety. Anyway, you’d get a running start and hop on the carousel and it would be spinning around. To increase the speed, you needed a friend on the ground to grab the carousel and spin it. If it was an adult, they could really get the wheel spinning. Heck, kids got sick and threw up. Or, they fell off and broke an arm, like my friend Steve did in 5th grade. Actually, he may have fallen off the monkey bars, I don’t remember.

But I digress. The point of the carousel story is that is was that continuous spinning from someone off the wheel that really caused it to spin faster. That’s how the carousel is like the retrospective meeting. If a Scrum team wants to improve, they can do it anytime. In fact, they should be working on improvement activities continuously. But to really improve, a Scrum team should leverage the retrospective process as part of their sprint to inspect and adapt. They explore what is working for them and what is not, and they make improvements or experiments toward improvement. They can improve each and every “spin” or every sprint. And they just keep on building on what they’ve done, going faster and faster up until they hit some sort of upper limit. Jeff Sutherland calls this upper limit “hyper productivity”. How specifically do teams strive to achieve this level of hyper productivity using retrospectives?

The retrospective process is actually quite simple, if you think about it. Teams use empirical process control to continuously improve by:

  1. Discussing as a group what went well and what could be improved
  2. Discussing specific changes that could be made to get better results in the future
  3. Voting as a team to choose just one or two improvement items that everyone agrees to own
  4. Taking on specific actions to achieve those improvement items in the next sprint as an experiment, and tracking the results

Esther Derby and Diana Larsen have a wonderful book on this topic called Agile Retrospectives. If you have $49 and 4 hours to read it, stop reading this blog right now, get this book on your iPad or Kindle and consume it immediately.

Hey, you are still here, wonderful! I’ve got some great ideas as well and maybe I can save you the $49 and 4 hours. One smart idea that I will quote from Derby and Larsen is that of using 5 distinct phases during your retrospective meeting. This one concept from them had a big impact on how I thought about the retrospective process, and it really helped me to organize and plan better retrospectives. Here are the 5 distinct phases that they propose for the retrospective:

  1. Set the Stage
  2. Gather Data
  3. Generate Insights
  4. Decide What to Do
  5. Close the Retrospectives

Using this outline allows me to think about each step, plan the timebox and exercises, and get myself organized in advance for the discussion. 

In my next post, we will explore some helpful practice for step 1, "setting the stage".  Please see How to Improve Your Retrospectives Part 2 - Setting the Stage.  Then we will explore some specific techniques for running the retrospective in Improving Your Retrospectives Part 3 - Techniques.

About Anthony Mersino

Anthony is passionate about helping technology teams THRIVE and organizations TRANSFORM.  He loves partnering with organizations to help teams with Agile thinking and the Scrum Framework.  He teaches Agile and Scrum as well as the cultural elements that are necessary for an organization to gain true business agility. Anthony has  authored numerous articles and two books: Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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