Retrospectives: Looking back to move forward

Retrospectives are a practice used by a lot of software teams – particularly popular with those using SCRUM, since the “sprint retrospective” is part of the SCRUM methodology. They are a effective and simple framework for continuous improvement (Kaizen) for any team – not just those delivering software.

How retrospectives work

The team meets to look at what they have been doing and what they can do differently going forward. Mindset is important – in order for team learning to be effective, there is no room for finger-pointing. The retrospective prime directive captures this:

“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.”

Frequency of retrospectives

Many teams organise a “lessons learnt” session after the project is done (or after a major release). This is too late! It’s too late to change anything, some events have been forgotten and energy levels are low. Retrospectives need to be scheduled at least monthly.

How retrospectives work in our coaching team?

We “eat our own dog food” so we have always had monthly retrospectives in the coaches team. For reasons that are lost in the mists of time (creating a relaxed environment maybe?) we always hold our retrospectives in a bar. The facilitator of the session is not our team leader (me) but is the same as the person who is facilitating our team kanban board (a role which rotates so that all team members get to do it sooner or later).

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As a warm up, we create a timeline of the key events which have happened since the last retrospective – handy to bring what’s been going on to the front of our minds:

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We then answer the 4 key questions – there are other possible sets of questions out there which we have experimented with (e.g. the retrospective starfish) but these four seem to work best for us:

  • What did we do well, that if we don’t discuss we might forget?
  • What did we learn?
  • What should we do differently next time?
  • What still puzzles us?

We are very low tech – we have one sheet of A3, divided into four areas, which we all write on at the same time.

 

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When we are all finished writing, we go fairly slowly through everything everybody has written and agree any actions which we transfer to our team kanban board. The whole thing normally takes us about 2 hours – we’ve tried to do it in less but it just hasn’t worked out for us.

So, lets cut to the chase. What have we got of value out this? I’d say two things. Firstly the concrete actions we take as a result of the retrospective have improved the way we work. This has been in many, many small ways. Also, by including the whole team, we have perhaps identified earlier than we otherwise things that are about to become large problems but right now are just small irritations.  Secondly, it has helped instil a mindset in which the whole team is responsible for improving the way we work and given us a sense of common ownership for our team process. It is taking us closer to that ever elusive goal: the self-managed team.

Try…

So does your team have a structure for regularly taking time together to look backwards to work out how best to go forwards? Do you like the idea of continuously improving the way the team is working but you don’t know how to approach this? Why not try running retrospectives with your team?

More about retrospectives at retrospectives.com and Seapine.

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