Zen in the Art of Retrospectives
Natxo T. | Sep 16, 2019

What makes your retrospectives successful?

At letgo, we follow agile principles and use Scrum in most of our tech teams. Retrospectives are some of the most important meetings we have, because they really go hand-in-hand with our always evolving, always improving culture. Not only tech teams (the ones using Scrum) hold retrospectives, but also teams in other areas of the company, too.

Let’s start from the beginning. What is a retrospective, or retro?

“(…) a retrospective is a meeting held by a project team at the end of a project or process (often after an iteration) to discuss what was successful about the project or time period covered by that retrospective, what could be improved, and how to incorporate the successes and improvements in future iterations or projects. Retrospective can be done in many different ways.(…)”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retrospective#Software_development

This is what Wikipedia says about retros in software development, and everybody trusts Wikipedia — but while we hold sprint retros and we’re very keen on reviewing and improving our development process, we do not limit ourselves to sprint retros.

 

Types of retros

We hold different types of retros for different situations, with the main difference being their focus:

  • Sprint retros: The traditional Scrum meeting where we review the sprint and the team process, and where we try to improve what can be improved, detect what went wrong, and determine what we should foster or keep doing.
  • Team retros: Not all the work we do is inside a sprint, and if we only improved our sprint work, our improvements would be incomplete. New processes, new interactions, communication, and many other subjects deserve to be treated and improved.
  • Futurespectives: Looking back and seeing what can be improved is always nice, but sometimes it’s better to add a bit more vision and to project what we want to work on and how.
  • Team health checks: From time to time, it’s also good to hold some specific retros to check our status and team health, keep everything on track, and avoid surprises (among many other benefits).

 

Tips for retros

Here are some tips that we try to keep in mind when preparing a retro:

Keep in mind the Prime Directive for retros

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

— Norm Kerth Prime Directive for retrospectives

This is very important, and we try to adhere to it as much as possible. It works very well for focusing on finding the solution to problems, and not placing blame.

Be prepared to invest some time

Let’s be honest — having good retros takes time. It’s very difficult to prepare a good retro in 5 minutes, and we would never be able to speak in depth about important matters if the team didn’t allocate enough time for it.

There are very few things worse than ending a retro thinking that we did not have enough time for speaking about important matters. Avoid this by telling the team to prepare before the retrospective and to think about what they would like to talk about, and by giving them space to speak up when the time comes.

Also, there will be some tasks after the retro meeting is finished, so as you’ll see in the next point, we also plan to invest time afterward.

There will be homework

 

Not this type of homework though..

 

When we finish a retro, there are always additional tasks that someone needs to take on. It’s super helpful for these tasks to have a clear owner who is responsible for them. It does not necessarily mean that this person will complete them alone, but it does mean that they will follow up on them. We focus our homework on the most important and impactful topics that were discussed in the retro. It doesn’t pay off much to focus on tasks that are less important or will have too small of an impact.
These follow-up tasks are the ones that really give a retro meaning, because they will be the continuous improvement actions that make us, the team, the process, and the company better. They require some work, but don’t worry — some of them can be fun work!

Here are a couple of examples from some of our retros:

  • Find a proper token for the daily standup order and note who has the voice
  • Choose the place for our next team lunch

Expect the unexpected

Retrospectives are basically an opportunity for people to communicate freely, and when we are open and able to speak about anything, sometimes the outcomes are unpredictable. There are going to be situations were you will need to adapt according to the conversation, because if something important arises, why not change your plans to accommodate it?

There may be some initial resistance to speak openly about certain matters, but encouraging the team to address the elephant in the room can ultimately result in good things.

Creating a safe environment

 

You need to be as safe as this!

 

In a retro, people are going to share their thoughts, ideas, and fears. For them to be able to do so, we really need to create an open, welcoming environment were they know they can share their thoughts freely without worrying about repercussions outside of the retro.
When we don’t create a safe and positive environment, people may not feel open to sharing. We’ve found that it works very well to warm up with some energizer games before the retro begins!

Scrum Master is part of the retro?

Obviously Scrum Masters are a valuable part of the team, too. So, do we keep them outside of the retro as facilitators, or do we include them?
The important thing is that someone facilitates the retro, but from time to time, the Scrum Master should also join so that their voice is heard, as well. (We’re people too, you know…)

You can’t talk about problems you don’t know you have

When trying to create a retro, we tend to dream of creating THE RETROSPECTIVE: the mother of all retros, and the one that will fix all the problems of the team, the company, and the world.

Ehm…okay.

Take into account that you can’t talk about problems you don’t yet know you have, or fix everything all at once. Keeping this in mind helps you focus on what’s important and keep your retros under control.

Expect subjectivity

A bunch of people gather around a table, talking about something that may or may not be clear, and they’re mentally and emotionally invested in the conversation. A lot of what you hear will be subjective, and you can expect plenty of moments were it will be good for your team to have some objective data to refer to. Being data driven rules!

These are just some tips to keep in mind before your next retro that we’ve found work well for us. Keep an eye out for more tips on retrospectives! ;)