A Retrospective for End of Year or Project Reflection

Photo by AdNorrel

Photo by AdNorrel

How do you help a team reflect on learning and change over a long timeframe? I recently facilitated a retrospective for a team that had deployed to production after six months of development effort. Over that time, the team membership changed, impediments were discovered, and new technologies were learned. From the outside looking in, I sensed it had been a long and bumpy journey for the team. To help them reflect upon that journey, I first asked what they wanted to get out of the retrospective: the consensus was improvement items for themselves and learnings to share with other teams that are on similar technology journeys.

With the goal of the retrospective clarified, we were ready to move into the next retro activity. I asked them to imagine that the team was a spaceship. The spaceship had just completed its mission. I tasked the team members to individually draw pictures of their spaceship. What does it look like now? How damaged is it? What upgrades did it receive in its journey? Drawing took nearly 15 minutes as individuals added more details and iterated on their designs. Keeping with the creative spirit, I asked the team members to reveal their pictures on the count of three while also making the sound of their spaceship landing. It helped maintain a light and open tone as we then looked for commonalities across the images. We captured the similar themes on the whiteboard and further processed what they meant for the team.

As a facilitator, I noticed areas that the team spent a lot of time discussing and others that did not get mentioned; my role involved inquiring about the unspoken topics that seemed to be in their blindspots. Retrospectives on longer timeframes—even when a team has regular retrospectives—need an objective facilitator to notice what’s being said and what’s not being said to help the group gain a fuller understanding and learn.

A simple metaphor of a spaceship finishing a mission unpacked a lot of ideas and assumptions about their experience as a team delivering a project, and we could use it to talk about what future capabilities would be desired or future missions—the possibilities are endless on how this retrospective can be adapted to your teams!

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

A Retrospective on Listening (and Talking)

Photo by Britt Reints

Photo by Britt Reints

Do you know how to design a retrospective to be engaging, produce new thinking, and lead to clear actions for the next sprint?  I find it to be an exciting challenge to facilitate great retrospective, so much so that one of my friends refers to me as the “Retrospective Diva.”

This week I had the opportunity to design and facilitate a retrospective for one of my teams, and I wanted to share not just what I did but how and why.

Context

The team is working on a very large and important project, which has kept them feeling busy and overwhelmed.  In meetings, team members are often multitasking to keep up with the workload.  Talking to team members one-on-one, I found that they have ideas about how to address some of the project challenges better and feel like they talk about the same problems in retrospectives only to find that nothing changes.  Team members are ready to adopt changes, but there are some destructive conflict behaviors (both active and passive) that need to be addressed.

Defining the Retrospective Goal

After talking to individual team members about what they wanted to address in a retrospective, I found it difficult to identify a common theme.  I reflected on the situation more and realized that they were talking to their manager and me… and I wondered what it was like to not talk as a team about how things were going.  I recognized the indicators of unhappiness present in their body language and tone of voice, and I realized that they were too distracted in meetings to recognize what was being said and not said.  It was clear: the team needed to think about listening and talking more openly.

Designing the Retrospective Agenda

Now that I had selected the goal, it was time to outline the retrospective itself.  How could I provide safety for everyone to participate?  What activities should I use?  Where did the team need to look for future actions?

Set the Stage - 5 minutes

I would only have one hour for the retrospective, so I had to plan my time wisely; knowing how important it would be to have everyone participating, I wanted to engage them within the first five minutes.  In Set the Stage, I would explain the retrospective goal and how I selected it to gain their buy-in and approval to explore it for the hour.  To establish a light tone and invite participation, I decided to open with a quick show of hands--who liked to talk?  Who liked to listen?  Who liked to work alone so they didn't have to talk or listen?  I made sure to laugh as I said the last one.  

Gather Data - 10 minutes

As I thought about what kind of data I wanted to have the team reflect upon, I kept coming back to the question: what is it like to not talk as a team about how things are going?  I wanted them to recognize the differences between the open flow of communication and the communication they’d been experiencing.  The metaphor of a traffic light came to mind.

  • Green – Speaking honestly and fully what’s on your mind / hearing what is being said and how it is being said
  • Yellow – Guarded or cautious in what you say / hearing the words being said but distracted as a listener
  • Red – Not speaking at all or advocating strongly for your ideas / checking out or being closed to other ideas

To gather data, I described the red/yellow/green metaphor and gave each team member a piece of paper with a traffic light image on it.  They indicated on the paper which color best represented the last sprint for them and collected them; I shared the overall results on the whiteboard at the front of the room by putting a check mark next to the color indicated on each paper.  What did they notice about the results?  Were there any surprises?  

Generate Insights - 15 minutes

To generate insights, I wanted them to discuss in pairs what it was like to be in a particular color—red, then yellow, then green.  This way each person would be encouraged to participate and speak more openly.  Rather than let the pairs discuss all of the colors for a long timebox, I wanted to break it down into separate timeboxes for each color with some group sharing in between.  

Decide What to Do - 20 minutes

After reflecting on what it felt like to be in a particular color and what caused them to be in that place, the group could brainstorm options on how to get more green in the next sprint (decide what to do).  I made a note to myself to be prepared to ask questions so it would be clear what the actions are, who the owner is, and how the team would know they succeeded at the end of the sprint.  

Close the Retrospective - 5 minutes

To wrap up, I would recap the action items and how they would be reviewed periodically during the sprint and in the next retrospective, thank everyone for their participation, and invite them to give me feedback outside of the meeting.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Learning and Change Go Hand-in-Hand

Photo by *Psycho Delia*

Photo by *Psycho Delia*

Agile starts with and thrives on learning.  Teams are often introduced to agile frameworks like scrum in training classes, and they adopt practices over time.  The team is learning as a group, and we want to ignite a passion for learning in the individual team members.  Each team member will be going through change at some point in the agile journey—they will probably experience change multiple times rather than as a single occurrence—and a self-motivated interest in learning can facilitate change.  A person going through change is like a trapeze artist: you have to risk letting go of the bar and allow yourself to be suspended in space as you try something new.  And then, with relief and excitement, you find yourself able to grab onto a new bar—you have made the change!  It can be scary to take the leap for change, and a safety net might not always be visible. 

Getting comfortable with change is hard, and as I see it, change and learning go hand in hand.  Change might sound scary while learning seems safer.  An agile team “reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjustsits behavior accordingly.”  The team identifies changes that can be made and tries them; it learns new ways of working, new technologies, new techniques to deliver high quality products… change and learning are continuous.  The team culture includes learning.  When learning ceases, the ability to adapt to change decreases.  Teams become stuck in their ways, conflict increases, and complacency settles in.  Don't let your rituals become ruts.  Agile teams do not arrive at a destination; the goal is not to improve to a point of maturity or high performance and then maintain the status quo.  In the words of Flannery O’Connor:

Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.

As an agile coach and consultant, I am often brought in to organizations to jump-start and facilitate change.  I look for signs of learning in the organization to design the engagement and evaluate success.  If people in the organization are open to learning, then anything is possible.  I can provide training, mentoring, and coaching to incite positive change.  In the end, I hope people realize that success is not in what they know, but in their capacity to learn.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Facilitating Great Sprint Retrospectives

Photo by AlienGraffiti

Photo by AlienGraffiti

Last month's DFW Scrum user group meeting was on Overcoming the fear of Sprint Retrospective.  I love retrospectives, so I was excited that the group was going to talk about them for an entire night.  Here's why the topic was suggested:

Sprint Retrospective is by far the most underutilized and under appreciated meeting. Team members dread to go these meetings. Every Scrum Master has his own technique on how he overcame this and still there is always room to grow. Can we request a retro meeting please? Where we can share some thoughts on how different Scrum Masters of our group handle it & has seen success? :)  Thanks

I agree that retrospectives are probably the most powerful and most underutilized ceremonies in scrum.  And I think it's because most people don't know how to facilitate them well.  Excellent retrospective facilitators know how to instill trust for openness and sharing, inspire creativity and brainstorming to generate new ideas, read the room to pick up on what’s not being said, handle conflict in a positive manner, maintain the timebox, and guide group decision-making.  How do you learn to do all of that?  Below is a lunch and learn presentation that outlines the format of retrospectives with some tips and tricks:

Great retrospectives don't just happen--they are the result of good planning and facilitation.  Thankfully following scrum means a facilitator gets an opportunity to practice his skills each sprint!

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

About Estimation and Story Point Sizing

Photo by Daniel Mogford

Photo by Daniel Mogford

I was talking with some peers recently about story points and estimation.  It's a subject that confuses many people who are new to agile, and many trainers and agile coaches don't agree on what a story point represents, when backlog items should be sized, or if estimation should be done at all.  To help Scrum Masters and agile coaches who might be struggling with the topic, I collected a few articles on the subject to help you get going:

It's not a topic that I am especially passionate about, but it is one that Scrum Masters and agile coaches should be familiar with to help teams and organizations.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Improving the Agile Assessment

Photo by Jessica Lucia

Photo by Jessica Lucia

Agile assessments are fraught with nastiness, and I've learned a lot about how to conduct them through the mistakes I've made in the past.  Today I led an agile assessment for another coach's team, and the overall experience was positive (for the coaches and for the team).  Here's what I did to foster that:

  1. Explain "assessment."  Part of our client organization's goals is to have teams achieve a certain level of maturity, which unfortunately pressures the teams to reach a particular "score" because it will be compiled in a report.  That's pretty scary for a team.  I disclosed the organization's goal upfront (there's little sense in hiding what we all know) and went on to explain that the assessment is actually designed to be a deep-dive retrospective tool for teams to reflect on how they're doing and areas to possibly improve.  The concept of the assessment becomes more familiar since the team already conducts retrospectives regularly.  An assessment also helps the coach provide the support the team needs.  
  2. Discuss the maturity model.  We've developed criteria for defining maturity levels based on Shu-Ha-Ri, so I quickly review what they mean at a high level.  They are part of a team's agile journey, and I like to highlight the positives of each level.  Our assessment covers with different focus areas, which I list upfront, so they understand the structure.
  3. Review the process.  I've helped modify our assessment process quite a bit, and the one part that bothers me about our current practices is that the coaches take electronic notes during the assessment.  It can make teams nervous when we start typing as they're talking.  I told the team that we'll be taking notes throughout, and this time I went on to let them know that we're typing the good things we hear as well as the things they are recognizing could use improvement.  These notes allow us to reflect back to the team afterwards to help them create their self-improvement plan.  I think explaining the notes that we're taking contributed significantly to the team's ease during the assessment.
  4. Get to know the team a little.  I teased that just as their coach had not told them previously about the assessment process, he had not told me anything about them.  We were in their team room, and the information radiators were already giving me some insight into their work, but I wanted to know a little more before we started and put them more at ease.  How long had they been together?  What products do they support?  What is each person's role?  After all of the introductory talking I had been doing, it was good to get them speaking and engaged.
  5. Let them talk.  I gave the team the assessment questions and told them to read the first one aloud, answer it as a team, and when they felt like they had said enough, move on to the next question.  After the first few questions, their answers started leading into the following questions or touch on other areas--this is all ok.  I make notes where I need to and don't interrupt them.  We didn't have enough time to finish the full assessment in one meeting, and I felt it was more important to let them have full conversations rather than keep to the time box; after finishing the questions for the first area, we discussed how much time was left in the meeting and how much of the assessment remained.  I told the team that I liked the type of conversation we were having and did not want to lose that in the remaining time--the team chose to focus on completing an additional area and schedule an additional meeting for the remainder.  Each team takes a different amount of time to go through the full assessment, and I've found it is a disservice to cut them off or try to expedite the process.
  6. Listen, make eye contact, and smile.  This is an elaboration of #5.  Odds are, the team has some accomplishments under its belt and some good challenges ahead.  Listen to their stories and be present with them.  Smile as they reminisce and brag and even as they touch on the stuff they are struggling with--focus on how far they've come as a team.  It is an honor to partake in their learning, and it is exciting.  Show thanks for their openness.  As coaches conducting the assessment, we are scanning an excel spreadsheet for areas to type notes, but we must not get bogged down by the tool and disconnect from the team.

Even after making the assessment a more positive experience, the fun part for most people is later--celebrating the team's results.  Regardless of whether they are Shu, Ha, or Ri in maturity, going through the assessment is a passage rite that helps the coaches to recognize the team for its past learning and growth.  I like for the team to celebrate as a team and be part of an additional celebration to recognize all of the teams that have been assessed within their organization.  Multi-team agile celebrations will have to be a topic for a future blog post!  

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

End-of-Year Retrospective on Learning and Change

Photo by Roy Wangsa

Photo by Roy Wangsa

It's the end of the year, which makes it a perfect time to reflect and show gratitude, and I facilitated an organization-wide retrospective at a lunch and learn to do just that.  It's been a long year with a lot of hard work, and it feels like the benefits are becoming visible to all.

As a quick check-in, I asked the group to describe 2013 in one word, and to further set the stage, I followed their thoughts with a short summary of the organization's wins.  There was a lot of learning and growth that took place over the year, and it was worth exploring.  They broke into small groups and drew pictures of what it felt like to learn and change in 2013.  The creativity was great--an exploding brain, a juggler, a rainbow above blooming flowers and rainfall…. WOW.  This gathering of data and generating insights revealed that learning and changing had been difficult, but it had been worth it--YES!

As an agile coach, I felt obligated to ensure some valuable action came out of this retrospective even though the year is nearly over, so I asked the group: who helped you to learn and grow in 2013?  Each person wrote down names of individuals and then selected one person to thank by the end of the week.  We closed by talking about what people are excited about learning next and how to best use the lunch and learns in 2014.  It was an overwhelmingly positive session.

I've already seen some Thank You notes floating around the office, and I'm hopeful to see more over the next few days.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Using Games in Retrospectives

Photo by David Maddison

Photo by David Maddison

Retrospectives have been a hot topic amongst my Scrum Masters recently as they focus on their facilitation skills and helping their teams improve.  They're channeling the true purpose of sprint retrospectives and experimenting with different activities.  It's amazing to see this group learn from each other and watch the excitement spread to their teams.  Activities from Innovation Games and Agile Retrospectives are being used; one Scrum Master tried the Non Musical Chairs game from Tasty Cupcakes and shared feedback via email with me:

It was  HUGE hit and very successful!!

I think they loved being ‘not just sat there, writing or talking’ as it as an active retrospective, which involves moving, thinking quickly and working as a team.

I’m very happy with the retro method and so is the team.

Only problem now is to find something better to do for the next one!! A great problem to have!

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Creating Safety for Teams

Photo by Laura Bittner

Photo by Laura Bittner

My friend/mentor Gary likes to say that a good scrum master knows when to let a team feel some pain so that it can learn and grow, but he keeps the team from injury.  It can be difficult at times to know if a team's decision will cause pain or injury, but it is a question that should be asked before rushing to solve problems for the team.

Scrum masters, agile coaches, and managers need to create safe environments for teams to experiment and grow.  Yes, it can be nerve-wracking to watch a team make decisions contrary to what we would do, but learning may be stifled if the team is not free to make those "painful" decisions (again, we do not want teams to injure themselves).  It is our responsibility to provide relevant information to the team regarding any constraints so it can make wise decisions, to encourage open communication and collaboration, and to eradicate fear through knowledge sharing. 

One of the teams that I am coaching has its sprint retrospective this week, and there have been a number of challenges and issues that they've faced in the last 2 weeks that need to be discussed as a team; the scrum master and I chatted briefly about some of the issues that might come out during the retrospective and how to facilitate the meeting.  As a facilitator, he needs to stay neutral in the content of the meeting so the team feels a sense of ownership in improving its processes, practices, and working agreements.  He has decided to try the Constellation activity.  It's a great activity to "hear" from all of the individuals on a team without pressuring people to talk, which can help quieter team members to feel safe.  I've participated in this exercise a few times myself, and I am anxious to hear how the retrospective goes.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Remembering to Breathe

Photo by Deanna

Photo by Deanna

When I am trying a new exercise or my trainer is pushing me to do more reps at the gym, I find that I have to remind myself to breathe.  If my breathing feels off, I struggle to focus on what I am doing.  Similarly, if a team isn't remembering to breathe, its cadence might be off and members might be struggling to focus on the right work.  I recently talked with a team that has had challenges meeting its sprint commitments, and their release date is approaching quickly.  In a panic, the team had agreed to change its sprint length, cut short its retrospective, and not focus on creating a clear plan during its sprint planning.  Needless to say, the team's challenges have not been resolved through these actions.  In fact, the team was on track to continue down its murky path until one team member suggested what had been in the back of others' minds: cancel the current sprint.  The team had been in such a hurry to deliver that they didn't know what they were supposed to be delivering.  Story conversations were churning, and the end was not in sight even though the release date was getting closer.

So they agreed to cancel the sprint.  And change the sprint length to be shorter but of consistent size.  And to work with their Product Owner to rewrite the backlog so the stories were clear, estimatable, and small enough to be completed in their shorter sprints.  Bold moves, but as an Agile coach, I think the team is in better shape.  Now we can all breathe a little easier.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.