Our guide to running effective retrospectives.

For Scrum Masters, team members, product owners, and everyone else developing amazing things.

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Why you need a toolbox of retrospective techniques

Introduction

At Retrium, we like to say that a good facilitator has a toolbox of retrospective techniques at his or her disposal. Just as a handyman knows how to pick the right tool for the job depending on the task at hand (can you even imagine a handyman who only knew how to use a screwdriver?), a good Scrum Master knows how to pick the right retrospective facilitation technique based on the impediments the team is facing. To understand the importance of having a toolbox of retrospective techniques at your disposal, let's see how a good Scrum Master might help a struggling scrum team improve its performance.

The Scenario

Imagine you've recently been hired to be the new Scrum Master of a team that has been working together for over a year. As someone with a good amount of emotional intelligence, one of the first things you do is meet with each member of the team, grab coffee with the Product Owner, and take the project's sponsor out for lunch. Besides getting to know your colleagues a bit better, you're also trying to get a better sense of what impediments the team is facing.

It takes some time to get on everyone's schedule, but before long, you've managed to meet with everyone. You sit down to think through your conversations. What were the main messages you heard? What are the key problems the team is facing? You take out your notebook and write down the following:

Key Problems
  1. Most of the developers on the team feel that the Product Owner tries to unilaterally impose deadlines rather than listening to the views of the team.
  2. The team's lead developer is stressed because she feels that she is the only one who produces "production quality" code.
  3. The Product Owner is frustrated because he feels that the project's sponsor, a senior executive, is an overly assertive micromanager who tends to get involved at a low level with the team mid-sprint.

Clearly, the team has room for improvement. With only a few more days before the end of the current sprint, you draft an email to the team to let them know the time and place for the upcoming retrospective. You click send. "I love my job," you think to yourself.

Within minutes, you can almost hear the collective groan of the team.

Oh no, not another retrospective! Those things are such a waste of time! All we do is complain, but nothing ever gets better!
Why the Negative Reaction?

At the end of every two-week sprint, the previous Scrum Master had the team get together for an "open-mic, all-hands" retrospective. The Scrum Master would always open the retrospective by saying the same thing:

"This retrospective is a chance to air your concerns to the group. Be open and don't hold back. There are no hurt feelings here. What's said in a retrospective stays in a retrospective. Let's start with you, Charles, and then we'll go around the table."

What do you think happens in this scenario? The short answer: nothing good.

There are a number of problems with this setup
  1. Discussion is dominated by two types of team members: its extroverts and its "most respected" members (whether through positional authority or technical competency).
  2. The team's introverts and junior members barely participate since they don't feel comfortable speaking up in a group setting and their ideas are usually shot down anyway.
  3. As an open-ended discussion, time usually runs out before the team has a chance to come up with a plan of action. While ideas for improvement are shared, no one is responsible for follow through.
  4. Since the retrospectives rarely lead to meaningful change, team members tend to mentally check out before the sessions even start (Candy Crush Saga under the table, anyone?).

Things don't have to be that way. Retrospectives can deliver on their promise of continuous improvement. And when they do, the productivity gains they catalyze -- whether as a result of better technical practices or increased team cohesiveness -- can be game changing.

The Importance of Facilitation

So how does one improve on the "open-mic" retrospective? The answer lies in using techniques like Mad, Sad, Glad, 4Ls, Lean Coffee™, or Start, Stop, Continue. What do all of these techniques have in common? In short, they facilitate.

Let's go back to the scenario in which you are the team's new Scrum Master. For your first retrospective you decide to use the 4Ls technique. It's simple, effective, and might even be a bit fun.

As the retrospective starts, you stand in front of the group and say the following:

"Thanks everyone for coming. I know from my conversations with all of you that retrospectives aren't exactly your favorite thing. So let's have some fun today by playing a game. I've hung four poster boards around the room labeled Liked, Learned, Lacked, and Longed For.

I've given each of you some sticky notes and a marker. I want you to take the next 10 minutes to go over this past sprint in your mind. What went well? What didn't go so well? What did you learn? Jot down your ideas on the sticky notes. When everyone is done, we'll all place our ideas on the boards on the wall. At that point, I'll give you the next set of rules for the game."

You sit down and watch how, like magic, everyone on the team starts to write down their thoughts. The team is actually engaged with the retrospective process for once!

What is it about facilitation techniques like 4Ls that's so effective?

1. Discussion is Democratized
Unlike open-mic retrospectives which, due to their lack of structure, can be intimidating and overwhelming, 4Ls levels the playing field by giving everyone a "safe space" to brainstorm. Introverts, for example, generally don't mind writing their ideas down; they just don't feel comfortable verbalizing them in front of the entire group. 4Ls allots a certain amount of time upfront for individual, personal brainstorming.

2. Everyone is Engaged
With open-mic retrospectives, only one person can speak at a time. During this time, if you're lucky, everyone else is actively listening. More likely, the other "participants" have zoned out. 4Ls fixes this problem by requiring everyone to participate from the moment the technique begins. As a result, team members feel that they have a stake in the game throughout the retrospective.

3. They Lead to Real Change
The best facilitation techniques end with the creation of an action plan -- a list of concrete steps the team will take in order to follow through with their ideas for improvement. Good action plans don't just list what will be done, but who is responsible for doing it and when it will be done by. Action plans lead to a sense of individual responsibility and commitment, which is what truly leads to change.

The Retrospective Toolbox

Facilitation shouldn't stop with the short list of techniques listed above. Why? First, if the Scrum Master runs the same technique sprint in and sprint out, the team will inevitably tire of it and disengage with the process. That's why having a toolbox of techniques is so critical. It keeps the team interested.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, different scenarios call for the use of different techniques. Mad, Sad, Glad for example, focuses the team on its emotional state. Lean Coffee™ tends to be more focused on practical and/or technical ideas for improvement. Having a toolbox of techniques available enables the right technique to be used at the right time.

Don't Settle for Anything Less than Great

Whether your team is new to scrum, struggling to deliver a time-sensitive project, or already in the flow and performing at a high level, there are bound to be things it can do to improve. Having a toolbox of facilitation techniques at your disposal can be the key to driving this improvement process.

Remember: a good Scrum Master might know how to facilitate, but a great Scrum Master knows the power of a facilitation toolbox.

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