The Path to Agility Part 9: Our Retro

In my last post I rambled on about how important retrospectives are. This blog is meant to be a real story of our adoption of agile, so this time I want to write about one of our actual retrospectives - and what I learned from it.

Setting the stage

I opened the retrospective with a summary of the stories we got done, and those we didn’t. The main aim was to help refresh everyone’s memory about what they’ve worked on, although so far I’m not sure this little opening has quite achieved the right result - in the future I might stick with something more brief to avoid spending the time unproductively.

Next, I gave everyone one minute to come up with one word to describe their sprint. This forces everyone to think back over what happened in the sprint and reduce their overall impression to a single word. Going round the room and getting everyone to read out their word encourages the whole team to participate in the retrospective. To save time I could have done this activity without the one minute thinking time, but my worry with that is that instead of listening, everyone who hadn’t spoken would instead be thinking of their word.


I’m pretty happy with how this turned out, and I was pleased only one person used “frustrating”. Even though the activity got a few funny looks when I described it, everyone managed to contribute. Having collected these answers I didn’t do anything with them, instead my hope was that the team would carry forward their thoughts to the gathering data phase.

Incidentally, our team structure lends itself to my participating in the retrospectives. While this goes very much against my role as a facilitator it’s also difficult to convince the team to take part in these weird activities if I don’t do so myself. My word was “opaque”, because I felt I wasn’t sufficiently engaged with the sprint to know what was going on throughout it.

Gather data

We didn’t have any particular focus this retrospective, so “gathering data” is a pretty important phase - it’s where we’ll figure out what areas need addressing. To do this I used an activity called “three wishes”, I gave everyone 5 minutes to come up with (and write down, on individual cards), three wishes:

  • one for themselves,
  • one for the team, and,
  • one for the company.

Wishing for more wishes is cheating (these are engineers, and working around limitations is basically in the job description so you’ve gotta watch them!)

By-and-large this worked ok, I got the obvious questions about wishing for faster cars and bigger houses - but for the most part we managed to keep the wishes “on topic” as it were. In hindsight, this is where failing to set a focus for the retrospective caused problems. Without the focus, it is difficult to limit the responses in activities like this to ones that are immediately useful.

After the time was up everyone read out their wishes, which in turn gave us a whole load of useful data on what was frustrating the team. Having got that data we needed to focus it down to a more manageable size - so we used dot voting to figure out which “wishes” were most widely appreciated. To dot vote you basically give every participant a fixed number of dots (I used three), and ask them to place them wherever they wish.

Generate insights

To generate insights I split the team up into groups of three, I asked each group to pick three highly voted cards and discuss why they think it came up and what they think we can do about it. I deliberately tried to create groups of people who don’t normally work together to allow ideas to spread to the whole team and build relationships. I gave everyone 15 minutes for this.

I don’t know what the name is for this activity, but it was probably my favourite. There was a lot of productive discussion between the various team members, and it was really nice to see even the quieter and newer team members participating. Having seen this I’m a lot more likely to pick activities that break up the team a little and help to avoid the one-speaking-eight-listening (if you’re lucky…) mode that feels like it could be more productive (let’s face it, anyone who’s done a computer science degree is familiar with how merge-sort is a better algorithm than bubble sort!)

Decide what to do

The tricky part with my insights activity was turning the productive discussion into real actions. For this I asked each group to come up with an action for each of their cards; I gave them 10 minutes.

I then got the groups to read out their actions, and we dot voted on the ones we were going to take. I took the top three actions, and asked for an ambassador who would try to ensure that we followed through on it. Our actions were:

  • Replace one of our ageing servers (or rather, come up with a specification for the replacement so that we could get one purchased).
  • Document a particularly tricky part of our system architecture.
  • Write more (or make it easier to) end-to-end tests.

Looking back I can see problems with these actions, firstly we didn’t allocate time for them in the next sprint - this made them difficult to follow through on. Secondly, we didn’t find a way to measure the effectiveness or set any limits on the activities to help the ambassadors focus the effort. At the time it felt like the group was starting to get tired and the quality of discussion was starting to dip - which is something I will have to look out for and address in the future.

Close the retrospective

I closed the retrospective with a simple activity - I asked everyone for

  • One thing that pleased or surprised them this retrospective
  • One person they would like to acknowledge for something they did this iteration.

A lot of the team struggled to name something that pleased or surprised them, but one memorable comment was that someone was “surprised that they enjoyed a retrospective”. That’s a really nice comment to hear, and a strong indication that changing our retrospective format was long overdue.

I really enjoyed the round of thanks, most people could name someone who had done something they appreciated this sprint - and I think creating opportunities for this kind of praise is really good for overall morale.

As much as I liked this activity, it’s not great at delivering useful feedback on the retrospective itself. I’d use it again, but at some point will need to change it to make sure our retrospectives are also continuously improving.

This retrospective was basically extracted from, but before you go there, hit random, and run your retrospective ten minutes later I suggest making sure the activities gel. In this retrospective I tried quite hard to make sure each activity acted as an input to the next. It was by no means perfect, but each activity needs to build on the previous one otherwise you’re basically just messing around for no reason. Productive retrospectives need to be tightly focussed on delivering value (actually, this is true of any kind of meeting - something more people would do well to remember) so every activity needs to contribute something. Please also learn from my mistakes, set a focus to keep people on task, find ways to measure the outcomes of your actions and make sure to allocate time for them!

Posted on April 25, 2017
Want to see the edit history? Check the source on Github.

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