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As a retrospective facilitator, one issue you'll face time and again is keeping the conversation focused. Even if you use a consensus-based retrospective voting technique (like dot voting) to enable the group to pick the topic(s) that they want to discuss, agile teams still have a tendency to “go down rabbit holes” or start talking about other things.
So what do you do?
Keep in mind that as a facilitator it’s not up to you to decide whether the group has gotten off topic. It’s up to the group. Your job is to give the group the tools to enable them to decide whether they’ve gotten off topic, and if so, to help redirect them.
My favorite way of doing that? Set a ground rule that conversations will be timeboxed.
The timeboxing model is a time-management technique that involves allotting a certain unit of time to one topic or task in your agile meeting. Adherence to the timeboxing model allows you to keep your team focused on the meeting agenda. For example, if you set a strict limit of 8 minutes for a topic on your meeting agenda, everyone should stay focused for that 8 minute time period. No talking about your beach vacation for the first 5 minutes of your retrospective meeting...it's all business.
(That's not to say talking with your colleagues about non-work related subjects is a bad idea! But perhaps it's better over lunch?)
Even just by itself, the timeboxing model can help groups stay on track. By setting a timebox, many agile teams will naturally stay more focused on the topic at hand because they are aware that there is a time limit to their discussion. In other words, these teams self-regulate - a primary goal of timeboxing!
But be careful! Many new facilitators make a classic mistake with timeboxing: they enforce the timebox as a rule. In other words, at the end of the timebox, they tell the team: “Time’s up! Let’s move on to the next topic!” But if the team is in the middle of a good discussion, this can not only be distracting, it can derail the flow of the retrospective.
So, if you aren’t supposed to enforce the timebox, what should you do when the allotted unit of time is up and the team is still talking?
To remove the discomfort around the timeboxing model, you can utilize roman voting. Roman voting is a retrospective voting technique that gives the entire team the power to decide when to keep discussing the current topic at hand, or when to move on. And good news - this critical component of timeboxing is simple to integrate into your retrospective meeting! At the end of a timebox, have each person in the group do one of three things:
An example: let's say you're holding a sprint retrospective, and your scrum team is discussing what went well in your last sprint. If the team is interested in continuing this conversation, reset the timebox for a slightly shorter duration. So, if the initial timebox was 10 minutes, try 7 minutes next time. If the initial timebox was 5 minutes, try 3 minutes next time. And so on.
You can repeat this process of timeboxing + roman voting as many times as necessary until the conversation naturally comes to a halt, or the group indicates it is ready to move on.
What’s neat about this retrospective voting technique is that it can happen in the flow of the conversation. Once the group understands how roman voting works, there will be no need to interrupt the discussion of your sprint retrospectives or daily standups. The group will learn to roman vote while the conversation is happening!