Retro Format

Your Retrospective Format Doesn't Matter

Retrospectives are an incredible opportunity for our teams to learn, connect and grow. They don’t stop being productive because they get boring, they stop being productive because they lack actionable data.

Colleen Johnson

April 13, 2019

As scrum masters, agile coaches and facilitators we spend a lot of time and energy to come up with new and ever-changing retrospective formats. Our goals are noble- we want to get people engaged, build trust within the team, change the perspective, reframe the conversation, and keep everyone coming back for more. We look to first to our format tailoring our activities to set the stage for a conversation that will gather data, generate insights and give us action items to improve upon. Unfortunately this is where we stop. Armed with games, cards, markers and stickies we charge into a lego filled room and let the team air their grievances for the next hour.

What we are really trying to achieve in varied retrospective formats isn’t more data, its better data. After hosting countless retrospectives both in person and online, I started paying more attention to what types of things people were posting. While we work so hard to avoid placing blame on any of our peers, we inadvertently dilute our feedback into to vague, one-sided comments that are subjective and lack the concreteness needed to create actionable improvements. Regardless of the retrospectives format we use we still walk out of the room with a pile of stickies that are intrinsic and abstract.

I’m not advocating that we stop changing the formats of our retrospectives. I AM advocating that we encourage teams to find a balance in the types of data they gather in a every retrospective. I’m proposing these five categories: stats, past, observations, kudos and events (AND for your short-term memory’s convince these make the acronym SPOKE).

STATS: Many agile coaches and facilitators start retrospectives with fact & stats to recap the teams iteration (and sometimes to compare it to the last). While its beyond valuable to review metrics, this tends to be more of a presentation to the team. Saying negative things can be difficult and focusing on the facts removes bias and emotion while also giving us something measurable to improve upon. Quantitative feedback in retrospectives may be based in metrics but could also be simple changes to the wording of an observation, for example:

“I feel like our delivery is slowing down.”
could be
“We got seven fewer story points done than last sprint and 13 fewer than the sprint before that."

PAST: We tend to open our retrospectives with a quick review of any improvement stores or action items from last retro. How often do we look farther back than that? There’s immense value and growth opportunity in looking beyond our last retrospective. Teams should also consider if there's been an open action item for the last six weeks, or if you’ve had three improvement stories all related to your deployment pipeline. Go beyond the simple action item follow ups to create connections to patterns, for example:

“We had an action item to make sure our daily stand up stays under 15 minutes.”
could be
“We’ve discussed our stand ups going over for the last three sprints, what can we change to stay to 15 minutes?”

OBSERVATIONS: I’ve gone back over a ton of past retros looking at trends, identifying patterns and creating categories. What I found was that almost everything we tend to post in a retrospective falls into this bucket. It IS important for everyone to have a chance to share their opinions and be heard. The challenge here is to find a balance between these subjective notes and the other categories mentioned. Use observations to share feelings, emotions or thoughts that cannot be rooted in fact or events.

“We have unrealistic delivery dates.”
could be
“Tension feels high between the team due to the stress of hitting our dates.”

KUDOS: Including praise in your retrospective sets a positive tone that can actually open up more conversation. Putting this into practice can take some concentrated effort but I’ve found that teams start to work their appreciations into any retrospective format once they get accustomed to giving them. Don’t limit yourself to people in the room or on your team either! I’ve had fun creating an ‘Appreciation Wall’ where you can share kudos that span the company.

“We were down one on-call person with the flu this week.”
could be
“Huge thanks to Jennifer who covered on-call when Jake was sick.”

EVENTS: One of my favorite formats for a longer running PI or project level retrospective is to start with a time line. I once did a retro where we started our timeline with all of the babies that had been born during the duration of the project (although I hope I never have to do that again)! The key about reviewing events is that it creates a shared understanding of what happened. Recalling these events also sets the context for facts and observations, potentially triggering things you may have forgotten.

“Production went down.”
could be
“We had a production outage for over two hours on Tuesday.”

Let me close this with an action item for all of us: encourage your team to collect all five types of retrospective data.

Use different color stickies in any format you choose. Add the S.P.O.K.E. letter to each sticky note and ask everyone to post at least one letter. Or as a coach, collect your stickies after your retro and look to see what balance your team is trending toward so you can ask the questions (or change the format!!!) to get each type of data that you need to truly improve.

The type of retrospective data you gather is what matters most.

Retrospectives are an incredible opportunity for our teams to learn, connect and grow. They don’t stop being productive because they get boring, they stop being productive because they lack actionable data. Don’t stop changing your retrospective formats or reaching into your facilitation toolbox to engage your teams. Show your team the value of varied retrospective data so they have the tools they need to improve beyond the last two weeks.

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