No more happy-clappy Retrospectives
I want to dispel a myth that seems to be be gaining consensus amongst agile practitioners.
You need to “spice” up your retrospectives and make them fun.
Every time I’ve learned something new I’ve gone through a difficult situation to gain the insights. I got out of my comfort zone? To grow we must go past our fears and get to the edge of what we know and can do. This onion picture is one common way to visualise this.
Teams need to do the same; get out of their collective comfort zone in order to progress towards higher levels of performance.
I remember a project from a year or so ago; I was brought in to coach a dysfunctional agile team that was underperforming. They had been working together for 2 years and were at the point where management was considering dismissal for 2–3 of the more “difficult” team members.
I was asked to help manage them out of the team; I said to my sponsor
Just give me two sprints; then I’ll report back. If there’s no change in performance then we can proceed with your plan to dismiss.
She agreed I began my coaching work.
In the first four weeks I did four retrospectives. I remember on my third day with the team; I’d spent two days mediating between the waring factions within the team and had had enough.
I told the team we were cancelling stand-up and having an impromptu retrospective. I sat everyone in a circle and proceeded to share what I had experienced in my first three days with the team. I openly spoke of the conflict, gossiping and complaining.
The team were shocked, embarrassed and a little ashamed at me talking out loud and discussing things like feelings, emotions and behaviour. Everyone was out of their comfort zone; but what I did was put everyone on notice that we will be openly discussing such things from here onward. This retrospective was hard work, difficult for me and more so for the team. It was a new practice for them where the coach brought values, feelings and beliefs into the conversation.
And here is where I come to my point for this article. Retrospectives should feel like work; it is a time for deep behavioural change with commensurate effort, discomfort and introspection by the team. A retro should not be a superficial examination of process that skirts around the elephant in the room (team behaviour). Fun, superficial retros that do not address individual and team dysfunctional behaviour are a waste of time.
The team I mentioned had been doing retrospectives for three years and had not had one conversation about people taking individual responsibility for their behaviour. Here’s a picture that explains why; you’ve seen it before I’m sure
What I call “happy-clappy” retros are a curse in agile coaching and are more about entertaining the team then helping them learn. I’m using strong language because I’m so passionate about learning; scrum masters and coaches are well intended when they come up with creative ways to run retros, but often they miss the point and don’t surface deep team dysfunctions.
Back to my story; what happened to the team members on the brink of being dismissed? Well I implemented my “three points of data” coaching approach. Before I form an opinion on a matter I gather three points of data to triangulate on the “truth”.
Here is what I did:
Data point #1: I ran four team retros in the first four weeks to inform everyone that we will be talking about our problems openly. I also interviewed management to get their perspective.
Data point #2: I interviewed each sub-group of people within the team by role type. Tester, BA or devs. I wanted them to share their experience from their sub-tribe perspective and talk about the challenges their role faced.
Data point #3: individual interviews to gain a first-person perspective from each team member whilst delivering one-on-one coaching.
Ok, what was the result; probably best illustrated with these word clouds I collected at two retros; the first one was at the start of my work…
And here is one from a few sprints later…
Of course we’re not supposed to use velocity as a management tool, but the team lifted their velocity by 36% (without pressure or coercion from management). This was achieved not by being creative with the retrospective but utilising this time to do deep work to change attitude, behaviour and social norms within the team.
I need to say though that having fun and doing deep change work are NOT mutually exclusive things. I’m all for having fun, celebrating success and lightening the mood after a sprint of hard work; the challenge agile coaches face though is to bring change to a team. So let’s not loose sight of that outcome as we coach and facilitate our teams towards higher levels of performance. To do this, teams and coaches need to get out of their comfort zones and do the work required.
So if you feel you need to spice up a retro, i recommend going deep instead of entertaining the team. Or if you’re really talented do both together but never miss the opportunity a retro provides to enable higher team performance.
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