A guide to effective retrospectives
Organising and facilitating retrospectives for realistic positive change.
The purpose of this article is to enable truly effective retrospectives by highlighting the often missed, but truly important, aspects of a successful reflective and contemplative team session.
The intention of retrospectives is to ensure continual improvement. Ongoing discussion is essential for creating an atmosphere for high performing teams in which to operate, whether that’s between team members or with issues (and successes) called out at daily standups. However there is still the need to look back and to move forward with positive change as a group.
Deciding whether to allow someone from within the team to facilitate or looking for an external facilitator will depend on the current atmosphere within the team.
In the happiest and most successful teams it is acceptable to let anyone facilitate the retrospective. With some of the best teams I’ve worked with it has been completely normal for members to volunteer, in some there has even been a rota so everyone gets a chance. Remember that if a team member is facilitating they still need to take part in the activities and input their thoughts.
These teams can also run remote retrospectives with relative ease; if there is a couple of locations it can be beneficial to have a person in each to facilitate and the activities should be exactly the same. If the whole, or most of, the team work remotely then individuals should call into video conferencing and use digital tools to track retro activities.
Quite often it is the case that the team is not in a happy or successful place and this may require an external facilitator. This can be someone from a different team or completely separate business unit that has little to no knowledge of the work the team are doing. They should however be a confident and experienced facilitator as the conversation may be difficult or unproductive.
The external facilitator should spend some time to understand the current team, whether the atmosphere is unhealthy or even toxic and whether leadership should be involved in planning. With this knowledge they can suggest the best activities and watch out for any particularly bad behaviour. Without this upfront work it can be incredibly challenging to both plan and facilitate.
In either case it is of upmost importance to ensure that the facilitator is not the manager of that team or within any hierarchical structure that team reports in to. This is not an exercise to check up on the progress of a team. The people taking part should feel comfortable to talk about all challenges the team are facing and that can often include leadership conflicts or the management of people or work.
The only people attending retros should be the core group doing the work together. This has to include all the members of that group, regardless of their level of interaction with the work in the period of time since the last retro. If they were attending daily standups they should be in the room.
Hierarchical leadership should not be present unless they are also involved in the work effort. As an example, an Engineering Lead should be involved if they were writing code, but an Engineering Manager that isn’t working with that team on a regular basis should not. Leadership should be confident that actions pertaining to them will be brought to them.
Equally important; there should be absolutely no casual observers in the room. This instantly suppresses any views and is diametrically opposed to the purpose of the retrospective. Conducting safety checks, mentioned below, may call this out but with a generally inexperienced group even this can be a false read of the room.
This is also not limited to Product Development teams. Any group of people that work closely together, including organisational leadership, could and should be conducting retros. Everyone needs to look back on how work was conducted and how they performed as a group, this isn’t limited to software development.
People more causally aligned to the core working group, such as other business units, software teams or stakeholders can also be invited to take part in retrospectives. If they have been close to the work then a retrospective that is focused on that particular working relationship can happen on an ad-hoc basis. This shouldn’t affect or replace the regular cadence of team retrospectives.
Safety and Health checks
Often missed, or misunderstood, safety and health checks are a crucial part of not only the current retrospective but the ongoing monitoring of basic team metrics. Understanding the trends of safety and team health will help leadership to pre-empt more catastrophic failure that could cause team members to leave or success to stall.
Team success can be assigned to one of four categories and the organisational leadership need to be acutely aware of where their team(s) are and what they can do to support them.
- Successful and Happy: what can we do to continue or grow this?
- Successful and Unhappy: what does the team need to improve happiness?
- Unsuccessful and Happy: what does the team need to improve success?
- Unsuccessful and Unhappy: do we need fundamental change?
These checks and the monitoring of the scores do not determine the success of the team. They merely measure happiness and individual team member safety in the moment.
Psychological safety plays an important role in workplace effectiveness. Safety in a retrospective can be understood as the current feeling of individual team members to speak openly and with no fear of future reprisal or more immediate suppression of their comments or concerns.
Conducting the safety check is simple; everyone in the room privately writes down a number from 1 to 5 (totally unsafe to totally safe) on a post-it note or using an anonymous digital retro board if the team is remote. The facilitator then collects and groups the notes per number to determine safety and announce it back to the room.
At this point if there are any of the lowest scores (1s or 2s) it is clear that some individuals do not feel safe to speak and the retrospective should be postponed. This is a crucial point for the team and the facilitator as it is often hard to call an end to a session that everyone has made the time to attend. However, there could be serious underlying issues that need to be solved and these should not be conducted in an unsafe place where only certain voices will be heard.
If this happens, then end the retrospective at this point and assign someone, usually the facilitator, to organise the next one. As the safety check is done anonymously the facilitator must make it clear to the room that the people who scored this way should speak privately to their leadership or, if the facilitator is external to team, to them directly after the retro closes.
Next and equally as important is to ascertain the health, or happiness, of the team. Team safety and health are not mutually exclusive. People may feel safe to speak openly and accept that change will happen, but that does not mean that the team is having a positive experience overall.
The health check should be conducted as the above safety check with the only difference being that low scores shouldn’t stop a retro going ahead.
The output of these exercises should be recorded and monitored over time, making sure that scores aren’t saved at an individual level. This allows the team to track progress and to understand whether changes made have been positive.
With the safety and health checks complete and with a confident and comfortable group ready to start the activities the retrospective prime directive, written by Norm Kerth, should be read out loud by a volunteer in the room:
“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.”
It is important to note that this should not be presented by anyone in a leadership position or by the facilitator. The group have to own the statement, they have to truly believe in it and that can only be done if someone in the team is comfortable saying it out loud to the group.
Ask yourself, do you truly believe in this statement? Do you trust the members of your team and believe they tried their best? If there is any question about the validity of this statement, a retrospective is not the time to raise it. This regular session is to celebrate success, be supportive of others and be a tool for positive change. It is not a place to finger point or play the blame game and if these toxic traits are being displayed consider stopping the retro.
Activities and Actions
However, a key point to make here is that not all retrospectives can be treated equally and nor should they be. For some teams it may just be a question of highlighting great things to continue, poor things to stop and new things to consider starting. For others it may be important to discuss team or strategic alignment, team building or vision and future direction.
It will be down to the leaders in the group to sense the feeling of team in the weeks prior to the retrospective and consider ongoing team safety and health trends. They should be able to either advise the external facilitator on what the team is struggling with or suggest to the group a particular activity.
When all activities, whether looking at a sailboat or wearing various types of coloured hat (go search for them!), have been completed there will undoubtedly be actions to take. Some of these will naturally fall to the leadership in the group to take forward, particularly when it comes to alignment with other teams or strategic clarity.
There will however, be a number of other actions to take that volunteers in the team should sign up for, remembering never to volunteer people not in the room on their behalf. The expectation is that these actions will be recorded, investigated and the progression discussed at the beginning of the next retro.
The team should view retrospectives as a celebration of success and a place to advance the team with a positive approach. It can often be forgotten, especially in teams that are struggling with success or happiness, but try to remember to celebrate success, if appropriate, at the end of each retrospective.
Much like the selection of activities, the leaders in the team or the facilitator will need to make a call on whether this is appropriate. It can simply be a short exercise in privately noting down thanks to others in the team for acts of support or going the extra mile to ensure the success of the team. These should be read about by the facilitator to rounds of applause.
- Appoint an internal facilitator if the team is in a good place
- Find an external facilitator if the team is struggling
- The core working group should always attend, leadership is excluded
- Always conduct safety and health checks, monitor these over time
- Someone in the team needs to read out the prime directive
- There needs to be action points and people should volunteer for them
- Where appropriate celebrate success!
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