The agile ritual series: Retro

<- previous post in this series on planning

Cartoon word "retro" flipped horizontally to read backwards.

My favorite ritual is the retrospective. The retro is a look back on the previous sprint with a specific focus on actions to take in the future. What I enjoy so much about retro is that it aims to give every person on the team a voice. As a member of the team, retro is an opportunity to make your mark. If you identify themes, own your words, and accentuate the positive you will bring something new for your team to build on.

Note: In my teams, I always encourage transparency. For example, if your team does a survey for efficiency purposes, make sure that the surveys are not anonymous. If your team cannot openly share with each other, then you have bigger problems.

Identify themes

All teams have their flaws and those flaws will change over time. Rarely are team dynamics consistent over the course of the year. New faces, project changes, vacations and life events all contribute to the fluid nature of how teams operate. As people, projects and the organizations change, the processes that worked before may no longer work for the team. One goal of retro is to pinpoint team habits and process inefficiencies that hold a team back from a higher velocity. To do that, you need to identify themes. Themes, especially if you have data to back it up, will give your ideas more weight.

Keep two related guidelines in mind:

  • Avoid focusing solely on sprint specific issues
  • Compare this sprint to the last sprint (or several sprints)

Sprint specific issues

There are road blocks each sprint. Someone outside the team did not deliver or a production issue distracted half the team for a day. Blockers and one-offs should be mentioned in retro, but before you decide to offer solutions for them, you need first ask if they have happened before. There is no reason to over engineer or invent a process to solve a problem that was seen for the first time. When you start to solve for sprint specific issues the team will get bogged down in action items and process. Both will have a negative impact on velocity!

Sprint vs Sprint

Look at the current sprint and identify what worked and what did not work. Then think about how that compares to the prior 2 or 3 sprints. How has velocity been trending? How has the team’s mood been? Is your process for getting work done keeping up with the changes in the team, projects and organization? Keeping other sprints in perspective will allow you to identify the systemic problems that are holding your team back.

Own your words

Be aware of what you are saying at retro. Retro is not time to:

  • Get on your soap box
  • Launch political grenades
  • Be passive aggressive
  • Offer hypothetical situations

As a member of a team, you need to own your words. What you say, regardless of your position on the team, has impact. If you toss out and idea or a problem to the team, you own the conversation that follows. That means that if the conversation starts to go down a rabbit hole or takes a turn towards being unproductive, you are responsible for wrapping the conversation up. This can be done by saying something as simple as, “My idea was not fully thought through and that is why this discussion is going nowhere. I’d like to think about it some more and come up with something better. If anyone wants to meet with me later.” Own it.

When you give an idea or point out a problem you should:

  • Frame problems and ideas in the context of the team
  • Offer solutions instead of problems as much as possible
  • Be assertive and state your needs
  • Have specific situations in mind

Accentuate the positive

A retro should be filled with praise. A “bad mood” retro will happen occasionally, but that should be the exception rather than the rule. Be cognizant of how you are representing yourself at retro. Are you always complaining or are you balancing the struggles with the good wins? Please do not whine during retro. Work is not that bad. If it is, go find a new job that makes you happy.

Here are some quick ones if you are having trouble thinking of good things. If during the sprint:

  • Someone helped you, thank them publicly
  • A process change made a positive impact, acknowledge that accomplishment
  • A production issue was triaged, call out those who helped
  • The team shipped something big, celebrate enthusiastically

Back to work

Love retro. I insist. My humble opinion is that if you are not enjoying retro, your team might be doing it wrong. Everyone has a voice in retro and you should feel comfortable giving your team feedback and offering suggestions for improvement. To represent yourself well in these discussions, I recommend that you:

  • Identify themes
  • Own your words
  • Accentuate the positive

Do you love retro as much as I do?

<- previous post in this series on planning

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