A Retro on Retros

It seems clear to me that a lot of us out there don’t like retrospectives.  Ok… maybe you are an Agilist and you actually love them (me too)… but I feel pretty safe in saying that this feeling is not shared by all the members of your team.

I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately and it seems to me that this “not liking” aspect can be broken down into two categories.

Retrospectives make me uncomfortable.  Examples of this would include: “I have trouble speaking up in a group setting.”; “I  have difficulty seeing different points of view especially when they are at odds with my own.”; “I don’t want to create conflict or hurt someone’s feelings.”

Retrospectives are unproductive.  Examples of this would include: “I prefer to focus on my core work than retrospect. That’s where I feel most productive.”; “What we talk about at the retro is less important than what I’m working on right now.”; “We talk and talk, but we don’t actually do anything.”

I would say that most participants in a retrospective will identify to some degree with the “uncomfortable” and / or “unproductive” views of a retrospective.  Rather than viewing this as a problem to solve, I would suggest that these “dislikes” are an opportunity for the team to explore with curiosity.  So consider…

Making retrospectives comfortable. Consider on a personal and team level: “What needs to happen so that everyone can engage with the activity?  What are different ways that we can share ideas, sample different points of view, and be at ease with different attitudes on the team?”

Making retrospectives productive. Consider on a personal and team level: “What needs to happen to make these gatherings productive? Are we talking about the most important problem impacting the team’s ability to deliver value?  If not, then what will it take for us to do that? How do we hold ourselves accountable to our decisions and actions coming out of the retrospective?”

If the retrospective is generating some dislike on your team, then perhaps the time has come to have a Retro on Retros?

Problem Constellation

Anyone who has tried to facilitate meaningful team discussion around a problem will know that it’s not easy. A common “team discussion problem” is to have one or two well intentioned individuals monopolize the conversation… leaving you to wonder, what are the others thinking? What are we not hearing or not talking about that we should? I’d like to suggest a quick and effective technique to help align the team when it seems like the discussion might be in trouble.

It’s a hack of the “Constellation” exercise… but it is focused on understanding problems, so let’s call it “Problem Constellation”.

Facilitator stands at one end of the room. Line up the team at the other end of the room facing the facilitator.

Facilitator will make statements one at a time and, for each statement, participants must take a step forward if they agree with the statement. If they cannot agree with a statement, they should not step forward. If at any point a participant cannot agree, he must stay put for the remainder of the activity (even if he agrees with subsequent statements).

During this exercise, no one should speak but the facilitator. The intention is to stop group discussion and take a moment for everyone to reconcile and become aware of his own state of mind on the problem. The facilitator then makes sure that everyone is clear on the instructions before starting with the first statement for consideration.

Here sample statements (order is important)…
1. I know that ____ is a problem.
2. I believe there is value in solving this problem.
3. I believe that ____ is the root cause of the problem.
4. I believe that ____ is the most effective solution for this problem.

At this point, it’s a good idea for everyone to take note where they are and where the rest of team is positioned. The participants closest to the facilitator are those who are in agreement with the potential solution to the problem. Those furthest away from the facilitator are the people who need to speak. Then the facilitator walks to the back of the room and begins reading the statements again, only this time, the team will hear from the people furthest away from the perceived solution.

I have found this activity to be very effective at surfacing assumptions and validating our understanding of a problem as a team. It has “quieted” the “solution influencers” for a moment and allowed relevant information to come forward. It has also “quieted” unqualified participants in the discussion… that is to say, if someone cannot attest to “knowing that there is a problem”, then their role might be to support, observe and understand rather than “drive or influence a solution”. Bringing this awareness is something that the facilitator can help to do.

I have used this technique for controversial problems as well as for teams with more introverted participants and found it to be very effective at gaining a collective understanding. The best part of it all is that the whole activity takes only a few minutes to setup and run.

Simplicity

I recently re-read Kent Beck’s book “Extreme Programming Explained”.  If you haven’t read Beck’s book, it’s possible that you are missing out on many of the key values and principles that help guide Agile teams through rough times.  It’s one of those books that “reads you” every time you read it… so if you haven’t read it in a while, I highly recommend the experience.

On this read through, the value of “Simplicity” really resonated with me in many ways.

This value is expressed most obviously with the work that I do as a developer on a day to day basis.  It speaks to the careful and mindful use of my craft.  No technology for the sake of technology or design for the sake of design. In everything that I do, I try to ask myself… do I really need it?

Simplicity also expresses itself in more subtle ways than craft. I try to apply the value of simplicity everyday by consciously taking the “path of least resistance” when it comes to asking questions or sharing information on my team. That is to say, I try to communicate in a way that offers the least possibility for miscommunication.

Lastly, the value of simplicity helps guide me when the endless “to-do list” either at work or at home threatens to overwhelm me.  In which case, I ask myself… what’s the most important thing for me to do right now?  I then subordinate everything else to that for a while. Warning: this can (and probably should) lead to dirty dishes sitting in the sink while you pick up your toddler to go to the park.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always able to skillfully apply the value of simplicity to my work and life. But that’s one more thing that I learned by re-reading Beck’s book…. simple doesn’t mean easy.