To achieve a project or product team's goals, you need a solid group of like-minded people to work together. Finding such a group of people is one thing; maintaining and improving their qualities is another. Luckily, agile development has the solution: a retrospective.
A retrospective is a defined reoccurring time to look back and evaluate what went well and what went (horribly) wrong during a project. Doing this correctly can create enormous value for the team's efficiency and morale. Sadly, it has the opposite effect when done incorrectly. And, oh boy, there are a lot of pitfalls when it comes to retrospectives.
The Sprint retrospective is an opportunity for the Scrum Team to inspect itself and create a plan for improvements to be enacted during the next Sprint. - Scrum.org
Retrospective: key subjects
A couple of critical subjects are essential when preparing for a retrospective meeting. To ensure these key subjects are integrated, you should answer three questions at the end of each retrospective.
- How can we improve efficiency?
- How can we improve the team vibe?
- How can we improve the personal morale of each team member?
In this blog, we will dive deeper into these three key subjects.
Efficiency might be the easiest subject to discuss during a retrospective. Simple questions like, what went wrong during our development process? What blocked us from going forward? And why did we have so much firefighting to do? Bring enough fuel to the table to talk about how the team can improve on working together.
If asking these questions doesn't suffice, you must look for facts. Gather some insightful data to create a discussion. Examples are throughput numbers, burndown charts, ticket lifecycle information, or roadmap planning changes.
This subject becomes increasingly more difficult when the team becomes more mature. A mature team has fewer problems to deal with, so the focus, in this case, is to create minor iterative improvements in the development process. This way of working requires open-minded people and a lot of trial and error.
An excellent team vibe is fundamental. Intellectual capabilities have zero value when every team member hates each other. A team with high morale and motivation will perform better even if they lack experience and technical skills. Asking straight up what the mood is within the group might give you an unrealistic answer. Peer pressure plays a big part here.
An ideal way to counter this is to gather the data passively during the retrospective. Listening and observing are super valuable methods here. Something might be off if there's low engagement during the retro or heated discussions arise every five minutes.
You could choose to act on it immediately, but this can lead to long, elaborate conversations. The better option is to acknowledge it and gather more information, do some root cause analysis, and plan a dedicated meeting to discuss the causes and potential solutions. Alternatively, you can let each team member rate the team vibe anonymously on a scale of 1-5.
Just like team vibe, individual morale is something crucial within a team. However, this is a delicate subject and should be treated with the most caution. If an individual feels bad within the group, it can start to create bottlenecks within the development process, and eventually, it will direct the whole team into a downwards spiral.
Like with the team vibe, listening to and observing the team's behavior during the meeting can give you the necessary information. A closed rating system works well because individuals can open up without peer influence. Issues that arise here should always be handled behind closed doors. Avoiding embarrassment toward an individual should be one of your main concerns. Improving your interpersonal skills can benefit you in nailing this part of the retrospective.
Facilitating a retrospective
Knowing what you want to achieve from the retrospective meeting is one thing. Executing a meeting is an entirely different thing. Here are three crucial subjects to consider when facilitating a retrospective meeting:
- Make sure results are delivered and measured
- Use tools to help you and the team through the retrospective meeting
- Time management within the meeting
The retrospective meeting is perfect for discovering problems or creating opportunities. Even more, it is a meeting with a high level of communication that impacts every team member. However, discovering is not enough.
Creating measurable actions based on the discussion is crucial to bringing positive change. The SMART Principle is handy when executing these actions. It feels a bit strange to create a SMART action based on the emotional feeling of a team/individual. This is understandable, but try and focus on the time-related, realistic, and measurable part. When your team can create these actionable items every retrospective, reviewing them is very interesting. This way, you can confirm that the issue has been resolved or that the improvement is successful.
Many tools are available for project/product development, from budget management to gathering user feedback. Retrospectives are no exception. Most retro tools focus on a ticket system. With this system, users can create tickets and sort them into various categories. These categories come in the standard form of "went well", "went bad", or "action items".
There are even Harry Potter-themed retrospectives where you must choose one of the four houses. This customization mainly goes to entertaining and engaging the team, resulting in a more open and communicative retro. We'll end this subject with a list of interesting tools for you.
- Basic post-it
This subject is not only relevant for retrospectives. Anytime you are preparing for a meeting, time management is something you should take into account. A retro should not take longer than 2 hours, and this ritual should have an uplifting effect when it is over since you are tackling and acknowledging problems.
If your retro takes more than 2 to 3 hours, it will have the opposite effect, no matter how great your meeting content is. You can do a couple of things to make the most out of the 2 hours:
- Let everyone in the meeting prepare their tickets before the session begins. This way, you don't have to spend time waiting for people
- Start by reviewing the actions listed during the last retro
- Let everyone do a concise preview of their tickets
- Use a dot voting system to rank the tickets. The dots decide the order in which the tickets will be handled
- When discussing a topic, set a 5-minute timer. When the time is up, the group collectively decides if they want to spend another 5 minutes on the subject or go to the next issue. This is also an excellent time to give the more silent people a chance to speak
- Make sure actionable items are noted after every topic
Nice to know/TL;DR
The retrospective is a meeting to increase the morale and efficiency of the team and its individuals. If you have to choose, this is the meeting you should do live instead of through a video call, given the personal aspect of the meeting.
A truckload of tools and templates will help you structure your retrospective meeting and make it more engaging for your team. Another way to increase engagement is to let one of your team members facilitate the discussion. Finally, to finish the retrospective well, try to keep it within two hours not to wear out your team, as this is the opposite of what you want to achieve.