The other day I facilitated a retrospective for a fellow team. My goal, as a facilitator, was basically to help them to suck as much value out of the meeting as possible.
Now, before we move on, a picture from a past. I recall a bunch of retrospectives which looked like this: a whole project team met for a longer time and everyone was asked what was good about the project and what needed improvements. Then, one of project leaders wrote it down in a document uploaded the document to a server and finally everyone could just happily forget about the whole thing.
Does it sound familiar? It probably does for many of you. Does it add any value? Um… next question, please. Isn’t it a complete waste of time? Oh well… If you don’t plan to make any use out of retro, don’t even start it.
So the question is: what makes a retrospective valuable?
The answer is actually pretty simple.
Value of retrospective can be measured in terms of changes sprung by it.
It basically means that the team decided to act, to try something new, to deal with a problem. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be an overnight success. Most likely it won’t. But at least they gave themselves a chance. They might even totally fail with the first approach, but they kept trying.
Note: when I say changes I think about things which are really changing, not about those we just say we’re going to change but don’t do so.
Anyway, another problem pops up. We want changes, but how to make them happen?
Um, that’s sort of easy. Remember about a few simple rules:
- Don’t chase too many goals. It’s usually tempting to cover each and every issue we spotted. After all we have all the enthusiasm and we want to improve. The problem is that when we commit to too many tasks we’re going to fail at many of them. Then, we’ll get discouraged that we don’t see any results of retro and our enthusiasm won’t be that enthusiastic next time. If there’s going to be the next time, that is.
- Assign people to tasks. Task with no individual attached to it isn’t really assigned. A decision that the team would do something means that, well, someone else can do it, not necessarily me, right? Tasks assigned to everyone most likely end up not being done by anyone.
- Have deadlines. Ask when you’re going to be done doing this or that. Keep your deadlines possibly short, yet definitely reasonable and achievable. Stating that something will be done in 6 months is meaningless. In 6 months I can work in the other place of the planet. A couple of weeks are a time frame we understand way better than a few months. If tasks don’t suit short time frames, chop them to smaller ones.
- Verify outcomes. When deadlines pass remember to discuss with the team what was done, what was the outcome, what else, if anything, has to be done about discussed issues. Again, I don’t assume that all the problems are solved. You may end up with a solution, which didn’t work, and will to try something different. You can also end up with solved problem but the least you should do is saying so. Starting the next retro with such a summary of outcomes from the previous one is a good practice.
- Repeat. One retro is just a quick fix. If you need sustainable change do retrospectives regularly. I don’t believe you are so perfect that one retro is enough to solve all the issues you might possibly have.
In short you want to end up with a short list of actionable work items assigned to people and then check how you’re dealing with them.
Of course sometimes it just sounds that easy. Sometimes you need to work hard to avoid blame game, get focused on specific issues, cut out longish but pointless discussions, learn to accept things you can’t change etc. Sometimes you will need to try different formats to animate communication or build basic trust between team members or change their attitude to anything positive. Sometimes it may be damn hard work to do.
But as long as you aim for the goal and your actions help in achieving it, you should do pretty well.