Improving Your Retrospectives Part 3: Techniques

Anthony Mersino
September 21, 2015

In previous posts I wrote about the retrospective process, how it doesn’t need to be fast, how to improve retrospectives, and how to set the stage for a successful retro. I also compared the agile retrospective to the traditional project post mortem review, and talked about removing fear and blame from the retrospective process. In this post we will look at gathering data, generating insights and deciding what to do.

You may recall the 5 phases of the retrospective that were proposed by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen:

1. Set the Stage

2. Gather Data

3. Generate Insights

4. Decide What to Do

5. Close the Retrospective

In this post we are going to focus on steps 2-4. We will look at techniques that help us to gather data, generate insights, and then decide what ideas we want to pursue for improvement. These improvement ideas are viewed as mini-experiments that can last a sprint or two. The ideas are documented, action items are created, and they are tracked during the next sprint. It is this process of experimentation that provides a powerful mechanism for improvement. Teams experiment every sprint and that results in many opportunities for improvement over the course of a year. The most basic format for the retrospective is to address three questions:

1. What went well during the sprint?

2. What did not go well?

3. What do we need to improve?

Skillful Scrum Masters will quickly move beyond this basic format as they notice that the retrospectives yield less fruit over time.  In fact, effective Scrum Masters will have a series of different techniques that they will use to generate insights and spark experiments to improve. Listed below are a set of techniques that can move beyond the basics.  

Sample Techniques for Co-Located Teams

This first set of retrospective techniques work best when teams are co-located and sitting together in one room.  Some are more focused on learning, some are on having fun or building safety.  These techniques may need to be modified to work with distributed teams and some additional techniques are included below for distributed teams.

1. Experiments from the last Sprint - Teams should always start their retrospective by reviewing the action items or experiments from their last sprint.  Did the team actually take the actions that were planned?  What results did they get?  Should you continue those actions?

2. Speedboat - This technique is useful to help the team examine what is helping and what is hindering their progress.  Document the things holding back the team as anchors.  Document the things that are moving the team forward as propellors.  Find ways to increase the propellers and eliminate the anchors.  (I’ve also seen this as a sailboat exercise.)

 3. Triple Nickels - The triple nickels approach involves silent brainstorming/collaboration.  The entire team sits in a circle.  If the team is too big, you can make 2 or more circles (4 or 5 persons per circle is good).  Each team member writes their ideas about the topic you are brainstorming, be it a general topic like what could be improved or a specific topic like reducing technical debt.  After 5 minutes, everyone passes their paper to the person on their right within their circle.  The second team member reads what his colleague wrote, and adds to it or responds to it.  After another 5 more minutes, the team passes the papers again then continues until the papers come back to their original author.  At this point, everyone has had a chance to read and reply to the ideas of others. As facilitator, debrief with the entire team.  The approach is great for engaging the entire team, particularly when you have a mix of vocal and quiet team members.

4. Timeline – For the timeline exercise, the facilitator shows a large timeline of the sprint or release on the screen or whiteboard, and then ask the team to identify significant events that occurred.  If everyone is in the same room, they can post sticky notes of significant events along the timeline.  It is often interesting to me to see which events or significant activity each person identifies.  You can flag “positive” items as green and “negative” as red.

5. Learning Retro – This is a fun technique that can be useful after a difficult sprint.  In the learning retro, the team goes off for the first 20-30 minutes of the retro to learn something new from somebody in the organization.  They come back and spend the remainder of the retro sharing what they learned with the rest of the team.

6. Recognition Retro – This is a teambuilding exercise.  Everyone puts their name in a hat, and a name is drawn out.  That person then describes how they want to be recognized and celebrated during the upcoming sprint.

7. Appreciation Game - This can be an effective exercise at the start or close of a retrospective.  Face the person you want to recognize and then complete the following statement:  “< name >, I appreciate you for … …”.   Response Rule: “Thank You.”  cannot say more than this.   Keep this going until everyone is done recognizing/appreciating other. Example: Mary: “John, I appreciate you for helping me out when I was stuck with my compile error, you took the time to really explain the issue and I appreciated that.”  John: Thank you!.  As a facilitator, you may need to just be quiet once you start this until the team begins to generate ideas.

8. Team Strengths Assessment (Radar) – This is a helpful team self-examination, based on a set of characteristics.  If the team has team values or norms, they can be helpful.  You can also rate yourself against the 5 Scrum Values or the 4 Agile Values, or some other characteristics that make sense for your team.

9. Start/Stop/Continue, (or + / Delta) – These are two different approaches used to generate ideas for improvement.  Plus means what should we build on or what is working well, and delta is what should be changed.

10. 4 L’s (Liked, Lacked, Learned, & Longed For) – This is similar to the previous idea, only using slightly different categories.

11. Force Field - Force Field Analysis is a general tool for systematically analyzing the factors found in complex problems. It frames problems in terms of factors or pressures that support the status quo (restraining forces) and those pressures that support change in the desired direction (driving forces). A factor can be people, resources, attitudes, traditions, regulations, values, needs, desires, etc.

12. Silent Brainstorming - One of my favorite techniques that I learned from Tom Cagley was to use silent brainstorming in the following 6 categories:  More, Less, Same, Frustrating, Puzzling, Enjoyable.  We would write these up on a whiteboard and then have participants place their ideas on sticky notes under each caption.  It is a useful technique for quickly generating ideas.  As the team had an idea or two, they would write them on a sticky note and place them on the board, announcing them as they went.  One team member’s idea would often spark someone else who would then write an idea.  After about 5 minutes or so, the flow of ideas would slow or stop and we would move on to the next stage.  If participants are slow to come up with ideas, I will sometimes announce that we have a quota of 5 ideas per person.  The picture below shows one team’s brainstormed ideas. I usually use silent affinity mapping after brainstorming to group similar ideas into clusters. 

13. Silent Affinity Mapping - Affinity mapping can be used anytime you have a large list of ideas from brainstorming.  In silent affinity mapping (or mute mapping), the entire team works together to cluster similar ideas without talking.  I will ask them to go to the whiteboard and move similar ideas close together and dissimilar ideas far apart.  They don’t talk; rather, everyone engages to move the sticky notes around.  As the groups of ideas begin to firm up, the facilitator or a team member names each of the clusters, based on the ideas.

14. Dot Voting - Dot voting is not necessarily a technique by itself, it is more of a way of encouraging participatory decision making.  If you had groups of brainstormed ideas, you could use dot voting to narrow down the ideas you would choose to act on.  In dot voting, each team member is given a number of votes that they can use.  They can place all their votes on one item, or spread them around.  To determine how many votes each person gets, take the total number of possible items, divide by 3 and then add one.  So if there are 10 items, each team member would get (10/3 + 1) or 4 dot votes. The team members go to the board and put their votes by the items - either with a sticky dot or using a whiteboard marker to make a dot. 

15. Ideas in a hat - For this approach, you ask each participant to write down a suggestion, idea or even something they are afraid to say to the entire group.  Then put them all into a hat and have people pull them back out.  Ask each person to articulate what they think the point that the author was trying to make. An alternative approach is to write the ideas out on a card or piece of paper and put them in the middle of the room face down.  Team members can each pick up a card and share what is on it.

You may note that several of these techniques are expected to be done in silence.  The idea here is to engage everyone in the process through parallel processing.  What can happen when this technique is not used is that one person speaks, while everyone else listens or simply checks out.  Left unchecked, one person can ‘run the clock out’ and exhaust all the time for the retrospective.  His teammates may actually appreciate this if they don’t really want to engage in the retrospective process!  Scrum Masters need to use effective facilitation techniques to engage everyone and unleash the ideas and creativity from those that are vocal, as well as those that might be more reserved. 
 
As noted, most of the ideas above are described for teams that are in the same room, but what about those teams that are distributed?  Without the benefit of face to face communications, retrospectives can easily become less effective.  Here are some tools that can help:

1. Webcams - Adding Web cameras can really help to make the discussions for a distributed team more personal.  Plus, it will usually encourage focused participation, rather than multitasking (Oh, sorry, can you repeat the question?).

2. Virtual Whiteboards - Several meeting tools like Webex and Lync have a whiteboard component that will allow everyone to participate on one board.  This can be very helpful for active participation.  I’ve noticed that teams that are using English as a second language will often feel more comfortable writing out their suggestions rather than speaking them aloud.

3. Google Docs - Google docs allow real time collaboration with multiple participants.  They can be helpful for capturing and sharing ideas during a retrospective or in support of one of the techniques above.

4. IdeaBoardz - IdeaBoardz provides a platform for teams to conduct retrospectives using the 3 basic questions, the starfish (Keep, Start, Stop, Less, More, Action Items), and the six thinking hats among others.

5. Innovation Games - Similar to IdeaBoardz, Innovation games has a number of tools that can be used to facilitate retrospectives across distributed teams.  They also have product visioning tools for teams.  

6. Tasty Cupcakes - Tasty cupcakes has an extensive inventory of games and team exercises. I tend to get lost in it but many people like it.  

This is just a sample of all the techniques that are available.  Please feel free to comment and share your favorite techniques or online tools.

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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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