How About a Retrospective… On Our Retrospectives?

Are our retrospectives valuable? Are our teams improving? These are two questions that come to mind when I think about comments or articles I’ve seen about resistance to retrospectives or the time spent in them. I think we can learn a lot by conducting a retrospective… on our retrospectives. Through such a retrospective we seek learning by exploring the following questions:

What is your history of retrospectives?

For this review to be effective, we need to remind ourselves of the retrospectives we held over time, and what the outcomes were. This can be done by laying out the retrospective details on a Timeline [Derby/Larsen “Activity: Timeline”]. Useful details can include:

  1. What kind of retrospective did we do? (Something to remind us of the core activities of the retrospective: e.g. “5 whys”)
  2. What were the key themes of this retrospective? (Were there any central issues that took up the most discussion space? What were they?)
  3. What were our retrospective outcomes? (What did we decide to do? This is the most essential element to consider.)
  4. What other context might be relevant? (In laying out a timeline of retrospectives, it may be useful to look for other events that affected the project, e.g. team changes, releases, major project changes. If team engagement is suspected as part of the challenge, it may also be useful to prompt for “how engaged was the team?”, “how engaging was this retrospective?”, or to use Color Code Dots or Mad Sad Glad to reveal team mood.)

How effective were your improvements?

Here, we look at the specific retrospective outcomes (what we decided to do) and the results we obtained. Use the timeline to record team responses to the following questions:

  1. Did we do this? (We made a decision to do a certain action – did we follow through? How thoroughly e.g. 0-5? If it was a new practice, are we still doing it?)
  2. How valuable did this turn out to be? (What was the impact of this improvement? If the improvement action included a “how would we know” measurement, use that, otherwise solicit team opinions on a scale of 0-5.)
  3. Why? / Why Not? (A brief “why?” or “5 whys” on the reasons an improvement action was valuable, not so valuable, or not followed through on – this starts to reveal underlying patterns. If an improvement item was an experiment – “will this help us?” – then the answer can be a simple “experiment succeeded – not valuable”.)

How much are we getting at what matters most?

With the perspective of multiple sprints, the team may be able to see whether the retrospective outcomes are getting at core issues or just dancing around the edges of things. Ask the team to respond to the following questions:

  1. How much are we improving over time? (Rate on a scale of 0-5 how much you think the team and product are improving
  2. How much are we getting at what is most important? (Rate on a scale of 0-5 whether you think the improvement actions the team has chosen over time are those that will have the highest impact vs dancing around the edges.)
  3. What would you rather see us work on instead? (Write down the top items each team member thinks would be more valuable to long-term improvement, if any.)
  4. If these items are more valuable, why are we not working on them? (A brief “why?” or “5 whys”. Depending on the team’s history, one possible outcome to be prepared for is that only one or two team members see this action as valuable and therefore it does not get prioritized by the team. This can be a useful trigger for exploring and exposing underlying beliefs and assumptions as to why/why not. There may also be an opportunity to explore whether there’s an experiment that could be taken on to demonstrate or refute the value.)

What patterns or themes emerge?

With all this data in front of us, the team should be able to see whether there are any commonalities across valuable and not-so-valuable retrospectives and improvement actions. 

What patterns or themes do you see? Are there common underlying causes for things that worked well or things that did not work so well?

From this point, the remainder of the retrospective is your favorite activities for getting to “what might we do” / “what will we do”, with a goal of unleashing the power of retrospectives to build long-term improvement. 

Originally published September 17th, 2017 on the Innovative Software Engineering blog. Republished with permission.