#4 – The “Active” Retrospective a key to building high performing teams!


One of the top ten characteristics of a high performing team is “A team that evaluates its own effectiveness”.  A key Agile (Scrum) event that a team can use for this is the Sprint Retrospective.  And while this is typically an Agile ceremony for software development teams, ANY team can use this tool for continuous improvement.





So, if it’s such a great event, why do Agile teams let the Sprint Retrospective slide or they hold off on having it until the end of the project?    Some of the top reasons why this event gets put off… are listed below:

1) the retrospective is not effective,

2) it becomes a blame-storming activity,

3) there are no action items assigned that get traction after the meeting,

4) not everyone attends,

5) when folks attend, they are apathetic about engaging

…the list goes on and on.

I coach all teams to conduct the Sprint Retrospective at regular intervals along the way towards their product release and to conduct them in a way that engages all members of the team!

The concept I teach is called “The Active Retrospective” and if focuses on being prepared, setting an appropriate tone to start, evaluating functions, evaluating work for a specific timebox (Sprint, Release, etc..) and getting the whole team involved in evaluating its own effectiveness.

So how do we do this?  Let’s take a look at each one of the reasons listed above and explore ways to adjust.

1) The Sprint Retrospective is not effective: This could mean a number of things.  First, find out what’s not working.  It could mean anything from it’s not facilitated to its too long or too short.  Without any feedback you won’t know where to start.  If a team is having the Retrospective at the end of a release, I coach the Scrum Master or Agile PM to book this a few days after the release date to give the team a bit of time to decompress after the release and prepare to give feedback.

2) The Retrospective becomes a “blame-storming” activity:  This can happen when there is a lack of structure, a need for a facilitator and no focus on functions.   The structure starts with setting the event up on everyone’s calendar with a note in it about the time window they will be focusing on as well as a list of functions they will be evaluating (Dev, Test, QA, Marketing/Product Management/Product Owner, Admin/PM, etc…).  Structure continues with opening up the event by taking a “Fist of Five”, Reading the “Prime Directive” and establishing “Ground Rules” to set the tone. Setting the tone is about creating a safe space for people to explore the functions without feeling attacked.   The facilitator is normally the Scrum Master or Agile PM but if not, have one assigned. And finally, the focus on functions (not individuals) is the key!

3) There are no action items assigned that get traction after the meeting or no action items at all:  This will kill a Retrospective very quickly. People don’t want to sit around talking about issues that have come up to impede their success just to hear themselves speak!  In “The Active Retrospective”, each function is evaluated for what is working, and what’s not working and when we look at the latter, the team decides what needs to be fixed, who owns it and when it will get done.   Some issues will be within the Team’s control to fix and others will need to be escalated. Either way, there is an owner and  a ‘due date’.

4) Not everyone attends:  This and the next one, apathy, can go hand in hand. Once you solve the issues associated with 1-3 above, and you still an absenteeism problem, you may need to check for indicators outside of the event itself.  Is the timing off, are people triple booked, is there a department wide meeting, etc… check for other possible conflicts or concerns.

5) When folks attend, they are apathetic about engaging:  A lot of what is addressed in bullet #2  and #3 above can cause apathy in this event.  When you address those items, you’re well on your way to having a positive and successful event!

Tools used for “The Active Retrospective”

    1. A printed copy of the prime directive, fist of five and ground rules
    2. 3×3 sticky notes in 2 colors
    3. Black medium tip markers
    4. Booked and reserved conference room (one where the team can create a safe space to discuss issues and enough room around the table so each team member can get up to the chart pad sheets that are stuck on the wall to place their feedback on the chart pad paper)
    5. 22×28 chart pad paper with each function listed at the top  (Dev, Test, QA, Marketing/Product Management/Product Owner, Admin/PM, etc…) and lined along one side of your conference room

Operational Value: 

    1. Focus on continuous improvement
    2. Feedback from this event drives team and organizational improvements
    3. Team Empowerment
    4. Increases team bench strength
    5. Develops team maturity & emotional intelligence around giving and receiving feedback

The business values of this event is priceless! And while, “What Happens in the Retrospective, stays in the Retrospective” in terms of creating a safe space for people to talk, the actions and next steps can come out of the Retrospective to take your team to the next level.  Don’t omit it from the line up!

Alicia is an Agile Coach and has worked with teams for the past 9 years in Scrum and XP practices. She has a Master’s in Organizational Leadership with an emphasis in Strategic Management.  She holds a PMP and is certified in the Agile Community as a CSM, CSPO, CSP and is ICAgile Certified as a Professional in Agile Coach. She has led 3 “X” to Agile Implementations at noted local companies in San Diego.  She is also adjunct faculty at UCSD Extension teaching Agile Power Practices which is a 9 week deep dive on all things Agile.

Alicia will be speaking on and demonstrating this approach at the PMI California Inland Empire Chapter Dinner Meeting this month on August 25th.  Contact:  info@pmicie.org for more information.

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