Agile Retrospectives: A Vehicle for Collaborative Continuous Improvement

In recent years, I’ve had the pleasure and opportunity to facilitate team discussions for a variety of situations:

  • Iteration/sprint reviews and retrospectives
  • Monthly or quarterly team goal setting
  • Mid and End of Project retrospectives
  • Workshops to identify bottlenecks in poor performing processes
  • After significant business events such as mergers and acquisitions
  • In the middle of a project that has gone awry

For these collaborative and insightful group conversations, I find myself following a retrospective-based format that I tailor to fit the purpose of the discussion and audience. Key parts of this retrospective format stem from the resources in the bibliography.

Check In

I include this precursor activity especially in situations where retrospectives are less frequent, more in-depth, or when facilitating a discussion with an audience I have not yet built close rapport with. This allows me to understand my audience, and more importantly, allows each member to articulate themselves. Giving someone the opportunity to speak during the Check In may allow them to be more forthcoming with offering feedback during the rest of the meeting. Given the context of the Check In, it also allows for a related follow-up during the Closing activity

Questions I find particularly useful based on the context of the discussion are:

In a word or two, how would you describe:

  • How you are feeling?
  • How the project is going?
  • How you feel about the situation we are about to discuss?
  • What you are aiming to take away from this discussion?

Discussion Format

After engaging each group member, I find it useful to utilize a white board or poster paper and markers to illustrate and draw attention to the goal and format of the discussion.

The goal may be finding a solution to a pain point in the group’s way of working, discovering the root cause of a symptomatic problem, or setting objectives for improvement.

There are many ways to elicit feedback from the group including:

  • Variations of the Start/Stop/Continue or More Of/Less Of activities
  • Outlining timelines and significant events or changes
  • Five Whys Analysis

All of the above activities can generate a wealth of feedback, especially in large groups.

One of my favorite questions is asking a variation of the following:

“What is the single biggest pain point you encounter that impedes you from getting your work done effectively?”

I find this particularly useful when identifying obstacles in a value stream, allowing members of the discussion to share challenges from their own perspective.

Eliciting Feedback

My go-to method of eliciting feedback is providing sticky notes for all members to write on. Discussion members are required to provide at least two concise feedback items, using one sticky note to describe each item of feedback.

In my experience, some people are naturally forthcoming in discussions while others may shy away from speaking. I find this method particularly useful so that all participants have an equal opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas. This format also helps mitigate the sway of discussion towards those who are naturally inclined to share more than others.

Elaborating Feedback

Once all members have had a chance to write down their feedback, each member has the opportunity to share their contribution with the group. During this time, each member is asked to summarize each item of feedback while placing it on the whiteboard. As each member shares their feedback, they are free to group it with another sticky note on the board that shares a relation or covers the same topic.

After members have shared and discussed their feedback, members are often exposed to a broader perspective and have the opportunity to resonate with another member’s contributions.

Prioritizing

At this point, it is important to thank each member for their feedback and reinforce the value of each individual’s contributions. However, just as important is the process of identifying high priority items that make the most impact on the group or have the most shared value.

I favor the two vote method as an effective way of setting priority and discovering shared value. Each member is entitled to two votes they can assign to two individual feedback items they view as high value. Alternatively, they can reinforce the value of a single item of feedback by assigning both votes to the item. Votes are usually visualized by dots, small stickers, or a member’s initials for a more personal touch.

At the end of the activity, the top priority is identified as the item with the most votes. Subsequent priority is given to the item with the next highest number of votes.

Generally, I focus the remainder of the discussion on the top one or two priority items of feedback. The remainder of the feedback can be reserved in a parking lot or backlog which can be reviewed in a future retrospective discussion if needed.

Planning for Change

Once the top priority items are identified, further discussion is warranted to determine how the group wants to instill change with the goal of improving each item. Now that everyone has had a chance to share their feedback, members may be more forthcoming in sharing ideas in a brainstorming session. Otherwise, more structured approaches like deriving SMART goals or using sticky notes with the two vote method can be used to identify how the group plans to change the current way of working.

I strongly feel there are two important aspects of this activity:

  • There is an action or change for each priority item that can be evaluated or measured in the next retrospective.
  • The ideas for change stem from within the group.

For example, in a team retrospective, members have collaboratively identified the biggest pain points in their ways of working. In turn, they have also collaboratively identified change they will move forward with to alleviate those pain points. My experience has shown me this collaboration empowers the team. Their proposed changes have more intrinsic buy-in than goals or action items set by others outside of the context of each group member’s day to day work.

There may also be the case where the high priority items are external factors outside of the group’s realm of control or influence. As a facilitator, I bring these items to the attention of the appropriate stakeholders such as management or the leads of other teams. This typically warrants a subsequent discussion or retrospective combining the current group with the team that has influence over the external factors to find a mutually better working agreement.

Commitment and Visibility

In the context of team retrospectives, I prefer to record each top priority item and corresponding planned change on large presentation/poster paper with a permanent marker. Each team member is also encouraged to initial or sign the paper to show their commitment to the changes the team has put forth. For teams with working agreements, this can be considered an amendment to the working agreement.

I find it valuable to keep this artifact in a highly visible place in the team’s workspace, preferably where the team gathers for collaboration or stand-up meetings. The team can refer to the artifact during any discussion, and the artifact serves as a passive reminder in the background of the team’s activities.

In the context of discussions where members are from different teams, the priority items and corresponding changes should be recorded in any living documentation/slide deck/meeting notes that have visibility during subsequent conversations when the members reconvene.

Closing the Discussion

When closing the discussion, I find it beneficial to go around the table and ask a question to each member that ties in with the context of the discussion or complements the question posed in the Check In activity.

Questions I commonly ask the group are:

  • How do you feel after our group discussion?
  • What changes excite you moving forward?
  • What part of our discussion did you find most valuable?
  • What you taking away from this conversation?

Once each member has had a chance to speak, the discussion is adjourned.

The Follow Up (During the Next Meeting/Retrospective)

Retrospectives facilitate a great potential for improvement. However, this potential is lost if the discussion is not revisited with a suitable cadence. It’s important to reassemble the discussion members to review the feedback from the previous meeting and evaluate the results of the changes they proposed.

For example, with a retrospective addressing pain points, perhaps changes were successful in alleviating the top priority pain points and now new challenges have emerged. Maybe the changes were unsuccessful and the team’s biggest pain point is still a burning priority. In this case, new changes need to be proposed based on the lessons learned from applying the previous changes. Or it may be the case that there was a shift in paradigm or process raising the need for an entirely new discussion.

In Summary

My approach has evolved from the references in the bibliography as well as through experiences working with my esteemed colleagues. The purpose of this article is to share concepts that helped shape my retrospective process, illustrating how retrospectives are a valuable tool towards collaborative continuous improvement. Please share your own thoughts on what has lead to successes in your own retrospectives and any challenges you have encountered and overcome.

Special thanks to my editors Jennifer Sanchez and Mitch Buyson.

Bibliography

Derby, Esther and Diana Larsen. Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great, The Pragmatic Bookshelf, 2006.

Poppendieck, Mary and Poppendieck, Tom. Implementing Lean Software Development From Concept To Cash, Addison-Wesley, 2007.

Jason is passionate about empowering and elevating teams by investing in Agile culture. He has been the catalyst for multiple organic agile transformations.