Retrospection on Retrospectives

05/14/2012

Chad Ingham

I’ll be up front, I’ve drunk the Agile Scrum Kool Aid.  I’m such a believer in the value of Agile that I’ve been seriously contemplating using it at home to help prioritize, plan, and achieve our individual and family goals.  But that’s a story for a future entry…

There are many reasons I find great value in the Agile Scrum process, but here I would like to share with you one of my favorites – the Retrospective.

 

What is it?

The Retrospective is a team meeting at the end of every Sprint (a Sprint being a two to four week block of time in the Agile Scrum process).  During this meeting the team both celebrates its successes together and discusses its failures and ways to improve.

 

How Does It Work?

The details will vary slightly from team to team so the following is a description of how we are running retrospectives on my team.

At the end of every Sprint, before planning for the next, we hold our Retrospective meeting.  This is so that any decisions coming out of the Retrospective can be applied towards the next Sprint.

The Retrospective is open only to the development team (quality assurance members, business analysts, and developers).  Nobody outside the development team is allowed to attend, and even management on the project is excluded.  This is the only Scrum meeting that is not open to anyone interested in attending.  The purpose is to afford the development team a time that they can be frank with each other about issues internal and external to the team.

At the start of each meeting, each member is given a pad of Post-It Notes to write down their list of successes and failures and post it on the white board anonymously.  After about ten minutes, we read aloud all the individual notes that people have posted on the board and consolidate the notes into common themes of successes and issues.

Then each member is given three votes to put on any issues they feel are the most important.  They can put all their votes on one issue if they really want to push for discussion of it.  At the end we have a list of problem areas that has been prioritized as a team.  Finally, we choose the top 2-3 issues and conceive solutions to for them.

 

What’s the Value?

1) Embracement of Change and Improvement

The essence of why I find the Retrospective so valuable is that it embraces change.  It allows the team to try new things and evolve quickly and properly.  Change does not become a glacial event with “analysis paralysis” or initiatives that “die in committee”.  Ideas become immediately actionable.  The resistance to these changes is vastly diminished because, “Hey, if it doesn’t work out, we’ll change it in a month.”

So, like in nature, the team quickly evolves to find the best “team DNA”.  In doing so the team finds itself moving to a more optimal form of communication, improved processes and tools, and a more collaborative team dynamic.

 

2) Team Involvement and Ownership

I really enjoy that everyone gets involved.  No one dominates the meeting and everyone has a voice.  The entire team owns the process – from issue identification to creating the solutions.  Ideally, management’s job becomes to facilitate the solutions the team comes up with, rather than trying to identify and solve the problems themselves.  I consider it a win-win.  The team takes their destiny into their own hands and managers are able to focus on more strategic initiatives.

 

3) Team Building

It’s great to work as a team, find out what is on each other’s minds, and come up with wins together.

 

4) Regular and Dedicated Forum

I know that the Retrospective is a guaranteed and regular time I can share my ideas and concerns with the entire team.  I don’t have to wait for one-on-ones with my manager where I may or may not feel comfortable voicing those concerns.

 

5) Action Oriented

We prioritize our most important issues as a team and tackle the top ones.  We don’t try to fix the world in one go and we spend our time on the issues that will have the most impact on the team.  Because we’re focused we have time to come up with solutions and concentrate on incorporating a small number of solutions into how we work.

 

Experience from the Trenches

Recently, we had a period of about three months (3 Sprints) where we stopped doing the Retrospectives. Our team was very “nose to the grindstone” to meet tight project deadlines and the Retrospectives were lost in the process.  We suffered from it and there was definitely some team member frustration without an outlet to express issues or a chance to improve what was perceived as not functioning well. For the past three months we’ve re-initiated the Retrospectives and we’ve seen increased communication, cohesion, and overall satisfaction.  It’s personally been a real joy to get back to working with my team to identify problems quickly, come up with solutions together, and generally build more ownership of our team and the project.

The lesson learned is that Retrospectives are a vital part of the Agile Scrum process – just as vital as Backlog Grooming, Sprint Planning, and daily Stand-Ups.  Retrospectives cannot be dropped from a Sprint without incurring negative consequences – the least of which is the missed opportunities for continual improvement and building a stronger, more efficient team.

It does take a couple hours from the “heads down” work but I would argue that those hours may be the most valuable out of the whole Sprint.  They are the time that the team invests in itself and the project.  The dividends of which are enjoyed by the team, the company, and the clients throughout the next Sprint and beyond.

 

Chad Ingham is a software engineer at XS and has been practicing Agile Scrum for roughly three years