Agile; Retrospective

How to Hold a Retrospective (and Why Cherry Picking Doesn’t Work)

I often see extraordinary frameworks fail because teams are cherry picking which elements to implement. They want to keep the “doing” elements of the system, and love the rewards and benefits, but they don’t want to implement the “thinking” parts of the system, and dislike challenges or negative feedback.

Unfortunately, an incompletely implemented framework such as Agile, leads to declining results, less transparency, and eroding trust in a team. And the blame is assigned to Agile, rather than how it was implemented, or the lack of thinking during the implementation. One of the most common #agilefails is the refusal to hold retrospectives.

Anytime a team tells me that they don’t need to do retrospectives, alarm bells start ringing in my head. See, it isn’t only about process improvement, WHAT we do, and HOW we do it, it is also about WHO we are, and HOW we work together as a team.

Frequently, over the course of their time together, people within teams and organisations develop bad habits or unhappy experiences. Without any kind of self-reflection, their behaviours escalate unchecked, and because it happens over a period of time they don’t notice (remember the boiled frog?) It is only when they reflect (with the added benefit of an external facilitator) they realise they are being horrible to each other. In the light of the findings of the Banking Royal Commission so far, this can happen easily and have devastating consequences; behaviour that would be considered completely unacceptable elsewhere has become normalised.

Let me know if any of these sound familiar;

“We don’t need to do retrospectives because everyone already knows what is happening”

“We don’t need to do retrospectives because we are already a high performing team”

“We don’t have time to do retrospectives – we have too much work to do”

Deep down the team know things aren’t happening like they should be, but reflection requires them to admit it to themselves and others, and it also means that they have to do something about it. While all this is happening unconsciously, inevitably it leads them to the conclusion that it is best to give the retrospective a miss and get on with the “doing”.

In my experience, the main reason for this outcome is that the team have held retrospectives, but they have been ineffective of facilitated poorly. This has led to frustration, and the above conclusion that “we don’t need to do retrospectives…”

Here are my top tips for facilitating a successful & productive retrospective;

Set the Scene and Purpose

A great retrospective starts with framing. Many people are moving from one task or meeting to another and require time to ‘context switch’.

It is respectful & productive to allow time at the beginning of the retrospective to provide the framework for your meeting.

  • Remind the team of the purpose of the retrospective. Don’t be lazy and just start writing on post-its! Take a moment to get clear on the intention of the session and ensure everyone is mentally and emotionally present as well as physically in the room.
  • Ensure everyone is clear on the time frame. This ensures people do not bring up issues from the Mesolithic period (or even last year) that are harder to action. It’s about the immediate time period.
  • Clarify the types of topics for discussion. Remind everyone that a retrospective is a reflection on not only what we have done but how we have worked together.

Allow Time and Space

Typically, a team will include a combination of people who filter information internally, and those who filter externally. That is, some people will ideate quickly (and loudly!), and others prefer to reflect quietly. A lot of valuable insights are lost when retrospectives are driven at the pace of the fastest & loudest thinkers, leaving no airtime for the internal filters to contribute.

  • Ensure everyone is given time and space. Facilitating quiet time for the team to write on post-its rather than discuss. This allows for internal and external filters to be engaged. It’s harder to forget something you have written down in the noise of a discussion, but virtually impossible to hold a thought in your head when a multitude of other items are being discussed.
  • One topic per post-it. One! For the love of all that is good in the world, just one! Discussion flows smoother, not because each topic is clearly defined (although it is), but because the team member has had to think through and articulate their feedback.
  • Only focus on one area at a time. A clearly defined topic means team members can focus separately on: what has worked, what hasn’t worked, and then the possible improvement actions.

Celebrate Wins

Make sure you celebrate; Met a deadline? High fives! Maybe even bring cupcakes or comment with a smile emoji! Celebrating sends a powerful message to your brain that doing that thing means happy feels. It means you’re more likely to do it again.

When the retrospective becomes a grind, a metaphorical sweat room of problems, is it any wonder that the team don’t want to do them?

Group and Prioritise

  • Group contributions into themes. Ensure contributions are grouped into themes, then the team votes on the most important themes.

This has two great benefits: Firstly you are addressing the underlying issue not solving individual ‘problems’. It also means people feel safe to contribute knowing they will not be picked on individually but rather contribute to an overall theme.

  • Vote on the top priorities. Ask the team to vote on the most important themes. What are the themes that, if we focused on them exclusively, could deliver the most value in the next time period? When an Agile team works successfully, they are in a continual cycle of improvement. They know that each time they come together in a retrospective they are prioritising only this iteration, instead of trying to fix all of the problems, all of the time.
  • Reality check themes. When prioritising themes, ensure you are focusing on the areas you can control. It is the actions the team agree to take to overcome issues that will define the success of the next time period! If the team choose to focus on themes over which they have no influence, then they are being set up for failure.

Commit to Action

Make the actions visible and hold each other to account. Commit to 5 actions as a maximum, then celebrate when they’re done!

If you are still not sure how to hold a great retrospective, then I’d love to brainstorm with you! Head over the The Agile Project Manager on Facebook and join the conversation.




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About Emma Sharrock

Emma is the author of The Agile Project Manager: Thrive in Change with Agile. An experienced change leader, Emma is passionate about working with people to facilitate successful change. Emma utilises Agile techniques, coupled with the Agile mindset to coach leaders and teams to achieve their business goals.