The Retrospective Formula: The mindset — Part 1

The Retrospective Formula: The mindset — Part 1

Repetitive and too similar retrospectives often lead to demotivating teams and retrospectives without any outcome, or even output. The meeting loses its purpose, becoming the event the team down prioritize first, when under pressure. The evil circle continues, making the need for improvement more and more imperative.. After 3–6 months, they call for a savior to help facilitate a super retrospective, and fix their issues. This article offers one approach to help avoid above scenario.

About the Author:

Let me get it out of the way first; I am not the perfect retrospective facilitator. I still make mistakes, and therefore always spent time to reflect and learn from them afterwards. I have facilitated a fair number of retrospectives both as scrum master for my “own” teams, as well as for other scrum teams. I have observed my share of retrospectives, and I highly recommend that approach. As an agile coach, I have facilitated retrospectives or rather “inspect and adapt” sessions for larger teams, areas and organizations. My first job was as scrum master, and so I am “born” with this mindset. I currently work as Agile coach in a large Danish bank, where I support the existing organization, and help promote and grow the agile mindset, values and principles.

Introduction — The formula to a good retrospective

When getting into a new area, whether its facilitation, new tools or practices, I prefer a structured approach, in order to fulfill the basic need of the given topic or event. This article series is not a silver bullet, and you will have many failed facilitation attempts even though you follow this formula I’m suggesting. See it as guiding principles that should be adapted to the person, team and context.

The retrospective is from my perspective one of the most important events for any agile team, because it has the ability to improve everything else in product development setup. What I have experienced both as scrum master and agile coach, is that most teams do not get the full benefit compared to the time invested, and many teams get close to none.

This formula is for everybody who is planning to facilitate a retrospective:

A good retrospective = Mindset + Context + Facilitation + Consistency + Follow-up

As can be seen, this approach includes five principles that should be in mind when planning, facilitating and following up on a retrospective. You could do with less, and you could add more principles. Through the numerous retrospectives I conducted, these are the five I have come to find important enough to address as guiding principles.

In the following weeks, we will dig a deeper into each principle. This article will focus on the retrospective mindset. Next week will be about the context, and so forth.

Mindset of the Retrospective

In order to get the full benefit of a retrospective, the participants need to have the right mindset and understanding of the retrospective. This include the different stages you go through in order to use empirical data to inspect and adapt.

The word retrospect means looking back. Getting an understanding of the past is one of the key elements of the retrospective mindset. However, we all have different perceptions of past events. It is important to keep an open mind to better understand the experiences of the other team members, and arrive at a shared understanding as a team. Here, the scrum values are key elements: Openness, courage and respect. If the participants do not open up, and respect each other, the output of the retrospective will likely not address the most important things. When setting the stage, I typical talk about the mindset and values, to remind everybody why they are here, and what they are here to achieve. Opening up to one another also requires a high level of trust in the team. If it is a new team, or the level of trust is low, you may want to invest more time in trust and team building exercises, before going into more regular retrospectives. Without trust, team members are less willing to open up and handle the conflicts that exist. You can read more about trust in the book “Five dysfunctions of a team” by Patrick Lencioni.

Further, I also spent time on the “How”. Here I typically use the 5 stages of the “Retrospective” as defined by Diana Larsen and Esther Derby. This lets me clearly communicate what mindset/stage the team should currently be in. Combined with the scrum values, this is a good way to begin setting the stage.

Let me share some examples: Teams that are lagging the mindset and/or trust are typically also teams that have rather short retrospective sessions. In short, they want the event to be over with as soon as possible. The normal flow of such a team is jumping directly into a board with what was good, what was bad, and what should we change. There will be an excess of post-its, many of which in their own right have value, but due to the amount of suggestions, insufficient time is allotted to thoroughly process them. The winning post-it is typically the one that is tangible, offers a quick-fix, or suggested by a very extrovert person. While there may be improvement potential, it is more like a lottery. Aino Corry calls this the Wheel of fortune antipattern. You may win every now and then a few times, but often, there will be little or no outcome. In sessions like this, team members lack the shared understanding of one another’s experiences. Coming back to Derby/Larsen’s 5 stages, the 3rd stage is generating insights. Just because there are 3 words on a post-it, the meaning behind it and the potential improvement could be huge. Yes, it was tedious that the sprint planning took 30 min longer than usual, but one developer may not be utilizing his/her full potential, and the post-it could have written, “boring task”. Improving the sprint planning seems obvious, but if we have a demotivated person that expresses his/her opinion via a simple post-it called Boring task, no one will vote on that by first look. As a facilitator, you must step in, and ask bridging questions: “What do you think about somebody in the team writing “Boring task”? How would that make you feel or perform?”. This way they get insights, and start the journey towards a shared understanding.

This first part focused on setting the stage for the Retrospective formula, and explore the mindset needed for a successful retrospective. Next week, we will explore the importance of understanding the team’s current context, in order to adapt the retrospectives format and agenda.

Keep improving!

A big thanks to Giuseppe De Simione, Javier Garcia and Niels Peter Holling Yttensen for reviewing this article

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