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September 06, 2013

How To Lead An Effective Retrospective

4 mins read

We all know the importance of retrospectives to the Agile and Scrum process. The retrospective allows the team to identify and reflect on problems, and create effective solutions to address those problems.

Sounds like a great concept, right? Of course. Is it easier said than done? Absolutely.

We hear questions all the time about leading successful retrospectives throughout our work in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, DC. They range from first-timers who are not sure how to get started, to teams that have been doing Scrum for so long that their retrospectives seem to be getting stale. And more often than not, we hear from teams who have had a difficult sprint – and are dreading the thought of the next retrospective.

Never fear – there are solutions at hand. In this post we will outline three common Scrum team scenarios and how employing the appropriate retrospective technique can produce favorable outcomes.

Example 1: Your First Retrospective

Your team’s first retrospective can be overwhelming, so it is important to keep focused on accomplishments. Instead of concentrating on the enormity ahead, or trying to fix all the problems at once, the ScrumMaster should ask each team member to pick one item they would like to improve upon. A typical technique for the first retrospective may include identifying common themes (challenges, achievements).

One example is a silent writing exercise. In this technique team members put one idea on its own piece of paper, then post it to a wall. The ScrumMaster then facilitates dot-voting to identify top issues from the paper groupings.  This method identifies top issues while giving everyone in the room a chance to be heard in a collaborative environment – and it’s very helpful for engaging introverts who may not want to speak up until they are comfortable. It also allows the team to get on the same page (literally). Once the team identifies an issue to discuss (a challenge, for example) they can work together to figure out a solution.

Example 2: Bad Sprint + Low Morale / Angry Team = Challenging Retrospective

Once in a while you are going to have a bad sprint. It happens.

Maybe the team committed to doing too much, maybe not enough was accomplished or maybe your demo went horribly wrong. Whatever the cause, teams in these situations are often frustrated and start to blame each other. This can lead to a tense and angry tone during retrospectives, damaging team morale and inhibiting productivity.

In this scenario a ScrumMaster needs to empower the team and diffuse tension quickly, while ensuring an effective retrospective to improve the team’s performance. In this scenario, the team is mentally in a difficult place and we want to avoid reflecting on negativity. The ScrumMaster can approach team members before the retrospectives and ask the team members to consider if in the next sprint, the team were to complete all of their product backlog items and the sprint goes really well, what the team will have to do in order to make this happen. Have the team members think about this before the retrospectives and bring those ideas into the retrospective. This communication ahead of time helps the team arrive to their retrospective in a more productive state of mind. This is instructive to shape the current retrospective and identify what the team can do in the sprint ahead.

Example 3: Established Teams, Boring Retrospectives

Some Scrum teams have been together for a long time and have their processes down to a science. While high-performing teams is the goal of Agile, it is just as important to keep these teams involved in engaging, value-driven retrospectives. Sometimes high-performing teams can become over-confident and start to disengage from retrospectives, especially if the retrospectives have become static or repetitive.

At this point, it’s time to shake things up. A helpful retrospective technique in these circumstances would be to explore how the work can provide even more business value. The ScrumMaster could guide discussion to start exploring the next step after current capabilities. Team members should start to think about going from just being a quality implementer for the project to being a business value generator for the organization.

Holding open brainstorming sessions is a great way to shift the retrospective focus from the performance of the team, to the benefit that the team can provide to the organization. ScrumMasters can challenge their team to think beyond their specific project and begin to identify new problems and develop new solutions.

What retrospective techniques have you used that you find beneficial? Please share them below!

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