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Retrospective Speculation

April 1st | 2010

Retrospective Speculation

I recently read a book by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen titled Agile Retrospectives. When I first started skimming through the book I was rather skeptical (an activity titled Mad, Sad, or Glad? Right…) However, when I actually sat down and read through it I realized that the authors had a lot of good information to present. They also understood the disinclination of engineers to engage in activities that seem silly.

Agile Retrospectives focuses on iteration or release retrospectives, which primarily involve the development team. As such, there are a few goals that the various steps and activities presented in the book are designed to satisfy.

  1. Collect the viewpoints of everyone on the team, not just the most vocal members.
  2. Group the collected information to see what the team as a whole thinks.
  3. Come up with clear goals to improve based on the information collected.

This deceptively simple list of tasks includes what I believe to be the most challenging element of any retrospective meeting; keeping all team members engaged. If a few vocal members dominate the discussion, there is no guarantee that their stated issues or suggestions are identical with what the rest of the team thinks. This can result in decisions based on a vocal minority, never a good thing in a team environment.

Agile Retrospectives defines five stages within the retrospective .

  1. Set the Stage
  2. Gather Data
  3. Generate Insights
  4. Decide What to Do
  5. Close the Retrospectives

Each stage has a number of possible activities listed that are intended to keep all team members engaged and balance the results from each member against the team as a whole.

Our retrospectives occur about every two weeks, and are relatively informal in format. Process hiccups or any significant roadblocks are discussed and incremental suggestions made for the next iteration. We try to keep any changes small in order to reduce the cost of adjusting processes and reduce risk.

I’m interested in hearing about how other teams handle retrospectives or project post-mortems. Have you developed your own activities? How useful do you feel the activities or retrospectives in general are? How do you keep everyone engaged?

David Cooksey is a Senior .NET Developer at Thycotic Software, an agile software services and product development company based in Washington DC. Secret Server is our flagship password management software product.

Categories: Agile
  1. April 3, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Hi David,
    I’m glad you’re finding the book useful. Esther and I both have worked with engineers for years, so we know none of us wants to waste time in meetings. To learn more about how others handle their retrospectives you could join the retrospectives yahoo group or read the blogs of http://blog.james-carr.org/ and http://www.thekua.com/atwork/2009/09/retrospecting-resources/

    Good luck with all your future retrospectives!

  2. April 5, 2010 at 1:00 pm

    I once tracked the number of times team members spoke during retrospective (list of names and I put a mark next to each name every time they said something). I did it for several meetings – it was surprising how many times certain people spoke and how little (or often never) other team members spoke.

    I never did solve how to get it balanced …

  3. April 7, 2010 at 9:53 am

    I’m a fan of retrospectives (and faciliation in general) and find the techniques and the format to be really useful. I’d encourage you to try a more formal format, I’d had very good success starting with the one outlined in the book “Art of Agile Development” (http://jamesshore.com/Agile-Book/).

    It was actually one of the highlights of my young career as a facilitator when I strongly adapted exercises to our current need the very first time (http://iljapreuss.blogspot.com/2008/03/lightweight-appreciative-retrospection.html). The next was when I totally changed the agenda mid-retrospective due to a request from the team. Felt great! 🙂

    Regarding keeping everyone engaged, there are a lot of small tricks that you can use. For example, having everyone say something in the first five minutes – even just one word during a round-robin – already does a lot. Having everyone write stuff on post-its and explain each one while hanging it on the white board is a nice technique. If the group is too big, exercises that include working in small groups works well.

    A great book on this topic is “The Faciliator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making”.

  4. April 15, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    Diana, thank you for the links. I’ve only had time to scan them briefly so far but they look good. 🙂

    Ilja, the books you mentioned sound interesting, I’ll put them on my list.

    I expect I’ll have questions for both of you in the future 😉

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