A Retrospective on Retrospectives

I had an opportunity to help another team out with their retrospective the other day.  These guys hadn’t done one in over 3 months so I offered to help out.  I was curious to understand why they had stopped doing them although I was pretty sure I knew why already.  Keep in mind this team isn’t following Scrum, they practice daily standups but otherwise it’s (IMO) just adhoc process which suits the type of work they’re doing.

One of the team members was busy and couldn’t make it (which was a piece of data on it’s own) but we went ahead anyway and did a safety check first.  I don’t remember the exact name of the techique from Diane Larson’s and Esther Derby’s Agile Retrospectives book, but it’s the one where you ask people to write down whether they are an explorer (fully engaged), shopper (want to pick out at least one idea), vacationer (yes! I don’t have to do REAL work!) or prisoner (get me the H outta here!).  I was pleased to see all “E”‘s.

I explained to them as a facilitator I wouldn’t be participating and that I’d just be helping.  I offered a couple of suggestions, a retrospective on why they stopped doing retrospectives or a timeline of the last few months similar to a release retrospective.  They opted to go with the retrospective on why they stopped doing retrospectives.  I asked them to write down some positives and negatives about past retrospectives that I hoped would spark some dialogue.  The output was simple and we were done really quickly without much discussion:

Good Things:

– had a chance to slow down and talk about how things were going
– got to see thoughts from other team members’ perspective

Bad Things:

– they had been combining their retrospective with another team (it’s a small company, so they’d have about 10 – 12 people from 2 teams that work fairly closely in one retrospective).  As a result, the other team was dominating the retrospective
– they were too busy to do them

Those were the two main items from each after we clumped them together using an affinity diagram and after a quick chat they decided on one thing to start doing.  Start doing a 30 minute retrospective every 2 weeks.  30 minutes was enough time to ‘be away from work’ and I suggested they put up a timeline to capture good and bad things as they come up.  They thought that was a good idea and they also agreed that one person would take ownership of the retrospective every two weeks so they would be sure they’d do it.  Time will tell I suppose!

The energy was really low during this retrospective as well.   It felt a bit forced as I had to poke them to get them to open up a bit and try and focus on each other instead of me.  We wrapped up quickly since I sensed they were pretty tired and since we got to the point quickly, there wasn’t much reason to keep going.

I learned something too.  Next time I facilitate, I’ll get out of the way.  Like, physically out of the way.   We have a couch and a couple of chairs in the area that are setup great for discussions, next time I’ll stand outside the circle.

I had done something similar with the other team as they had mentioned their last few retrospectives ‘sucked‘.  Their reasons were similar and they also added that they rarely have any tangible or actionable output to move forward with.  They just end up talking and talking with a lot of “we should…” language.

Next time you experience teams going through the motions or feeling like retrospectives are getting in the way of ‘real work’, try uncovering why they feel that way.  Chances are there are some problems under the covers that you can clear up pretty quickly and get back on track.