How to Improve Your Retrospectives Part 2 - Setting the Stage

Anthony Mersino
July 18, 2015

This is part two in my series of posts about improving your retrospectives. As I mentioned in my previous post, the retrospective is a key part of the Scrum Framework. It is designed to help the team make their processes and practices more effective and enjoyable. This post focuses on the first part of the retrospective where we set the stage for the rest of the retrospective meeting.

What is the point of the “Set the Stage” Phase of the Retrospective? Derby and Larsen say it is to get the team to focus, to orient them to the goal of retrospective, and to create an atmosphere for collaboration. Let’s talk about why these are important.

If we want to get the maximum benefit from the retrospective, we need the team to come ready to engage and participate. People are usually coming in to the retrospective from other meetings and may need a moment to transition to a state of productive discussion. We want them to be in a position where they feel safe, open, creative, scientific and curious. This doesn’t take a lot of time - perhaps as much as 10 minutes out of the meeting.

Don't underestimate the importance of creating safety in the first part of the meeting.  If team members don't feel safe, they aren't going to be as open to discussing their own shortcoming or sharing what they think about others.  Amy Edmondson is a Harvard professor that has written extensively on the concept of psychological safety and how that relates to team performance.  Psychological safety was also a key finding of the Google Aritstotle project which examined the factors that led Google to create high performing teams. You can read about Googles research in my post, How To Create High-Performing Teams - What I learned from Google.

Here are some specific things that I do in the “Set the Stage” Phase:

  1. Get Them Talking - I always strive to get people talking within the first 5 minutes of the retrospective. If people don’t talk at the start of the meeting, Derby and Larsen say that you give them tacit permission not to participate for the rest of the meeting. This can be as simple as asking each participant for 1 word that represents how they feel, or their hope for the retrospective. You could also ask each team member to answer a question. Almost any question will work and if I am pressed for time I simply do a roll call and require each person to answer.
  2. Use the Prime Directive - One thing I learned from my first Agile coach was to use Norm Kerth’s Prime Directive at the start of the meeting. The idea is to read the directive aloud and then ask each person to agree. Aloud. This addresses the previous item of getting the team talking.
  3. Leverage Your Team Agreement - If you have a team working agreement or values list, it might be good to remind the team of these things at the start of the retrospective. If you don’t have a team agreement, perhaps that is an exercise that the team should take.

To set the stage well, we have to be prepared in advance. Here are somethings that you can do to be organized and prepared for an effective retrospective. Note that most of these apply to any meeting you are facilitating but are especially important for the retrospective.

  1. Plan in advance - Develop an agenda for the retrospective with timeframes for each stage of the retrospective so that you can manage your time and complete within the timebox. I’ve seen many retrospectives come to a crash when the time expired, people left for other meetings, or when the team was kicked out of the conference room.
  2. Plan for Tools and Supplies - Related to the previous item, the facilitator needs to think through the various exercises they will use and the tools and supplies that will be required. If the team is co-located, perhaps no tools are are required and the only supplies are a few sticky notes or flip charts. If the team is distributed, then the facilitators job is more difficult. Webex, GotoMeeting, and Lync can all be used, but frankly they suck for collaboration. I’ve seen teams used TastyCupcakes, Innovation Games, or even simple Google Docs and they were all more effective at encouraging collaboration. As a facilitator, think through what tools you will use, how people will access, permissions and technology requirements, etc.
  3. Plan for Full Participation - A typical team will have a few members who are very vocal about what they think and share their opinion freely. Other team members will be more thoughtful and introspective and will need quiet time to process what they are thinking. Plan specific activities that will leverage input from everyone. In particular, team members should all have a say in which improvement actions they will undertake. So do voting or other participatory decision-making techniques are very important.
  4. Enroll Others - Even though you are the facilitator, it doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself. Invite others to participate in the meeting as timekeepers or recorders, or to facilitate a specific discussion or the entire meeting. There is no need for you to do everything, and their participation will give them more ownership and appreciation for your role.
  5. Arrive Early - Perhaps this goes without saying, but as a facilitator for any meeting, you need to be there early to get yourself set up and mentally prepared so that YOU are ready to facilitate. Lyssa Adkins recommends a consistent “Daily Practice” to gather yourself and to come to the team free of your own agenda. If you rush in at the last moment (or late), you aren’t really going to be there for the team, and the retrospective will be less effective.
  6. Set the Mood - For in person meetings, I like to play music, have refreshments, or greet people as they enter the room. Doing something similar with a virtual meeting is more difficult, but still doable. You can still greet people as they join the call or meeting. Think about what you can do to help people to feel welcome.
  7. Check The Attendees - If you are trying to create safety in the retrospective to get people to be open and frank, then you need to make sure you have the right attendees. People won't feel safe to speak if they feel that the words will be used against them. In Scrum, it is the Scrum Team that is invited to the retrospective which means the development team members, the Product Owner and the Scrum Master. There should be no stray customers, SMEs, or other stakeholders. There should be no managers of team members in the retrospective. It is up to the Scrum Team if they want to include anyone else in the process - even including myself as a coach. I was recently in a retrospective meeting that was treated as simply the extension of the Sprint Review. There were attendees from the review which stayed on through the retrospective and the Scrum Master seemed oblivious. Not good.

These are just a few ideas about the importance of the retrospective as a continuous improvement tool, and how to set the stage and plan for the retrospective. What do you think, what has worked for you in the past? Do you agree with these ideas?

In my next post, I explore some specific techniques that I have found helpful for running the retrospective.  Great coaches and Scrum Masters will vary the approaches they use in the retrospective to keep them fresh and effective.

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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