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Using Retrospectives for Agile Adoption

by Ben Linders on Feb 14, 2013 |

Retrospectives can help organizations who are adopting agile to become more flexible and durable, and increase their effectiveness, according to Mark Balbes on North America Business Review. In the article continuous improvement and the agile retrospective, he describes how his teams use retrospectives as a sustainable and adaptable solution for agile adoption. The article includes several experience stories of retrospectives, and examples that show how to implement continuous improvement with them.

Mark explains that, after organizations have used agile initially as a set of prescriptive practices for development and management activities, they may want to adopt agile to their specific needs:

At some point they notice that the unique requirements of their culture, business domain or a particular project aren’t adequately addressed by the boilerplate versions of these practices. At that point, if they stick to their guns and continue to go “by the book,” they miss out on an important opportunity to improve their team, their processes, and their product.

He proposes to start doing retrospectives; a solution that helps teams to improve how they do their work:

A retrospective is an all-hands team meeting that happens on a regular basis, preferably weekly, where the team comes together to ask the question “How are we doing?” or in some cases “What the heck is going wrong?”

In an experience story, Mark describes how retrospectives have helped them to find the sources of problem that they had with a large code base, by discussing that they got control of their problems. He then makes clear what he thinks is important in doing retrospectives:

Retrospectives are nothing new. Companies have been doing them or something similar for decades. For retrospectives to be helpful, they have to be effective. Without a focus, they can easily turn into non-productive gripe sessions. An outside facilitator provides that focus; someone who is not a member of the team but is there to elicit discussion.

Games and exercises are an important part of a retrospective. (…) A good game or exercise will draw out people's opinions and unspoken issues by either creating a safer environment for them to speak publicly or by providing anonymity.

After giving several examples on how to implement retrospectives in enterprises, he concludes his article by showing how they have learned how to do incremental and continuous process improvement:

My team has come a long way in four years. It has been a slow, steady process that we will never finish. Our early improvements were pretty basic, focusing on doing better with our software development disciplines like pairing and test-driven development. (…) Our last process change was as recent as two months ago and it was a big one. We reworked our entire Kanban process to focus on minimal marketable features (MMF) rather than individual stories.

In the blog post inspect and adapt: isn’t it the key?, agile consulting coach Jayaprakash Puttaswamy explains why retrospectives are important in agile adoption:

When it comes to the Agile way of working (using any of the Agile practices like Scrum, XP, etc.), the team's ability to inspect and adapt has a major impact on a project’s success or failure. In fact, some surveys show that ineffective use of retrospective is the number one reason Agile adoptions fail.

(…) having constant “inspect and adapt” sessions with my teams was the driving force that kept us going.

He gives examples of different ways that you can do retrospectives, and concludes his blog post by recapping the need to do retrospectives:

Irrespective of the nature or duration of a project, constant introspection about goals, priorities, and execution strategies is crucial for risk mitigation and dealing with changes using the Agile approach. In fact, “inspect and adapt” is the key practice out of all the Agile practices from a sustenance point of view.

Diana Larsen, one of the authors of the book agile retrospectives: making good teams great describes in her blog post acting on actions how “smells” can be used to check if retrospectives are effective:  

Every time I ask about team’s challenges with retrospectives, a recurring theme comes up: Acting on Actions. I hear, “Our team doesn’t follow through on our plans for action.” Or I hear, “Our team never identifies improvement actions.” Both are retrospective “smells.”

After describing the smells, and explaining what you can do to solve the underlying problems, she states that retrospectives should be helping organizations in adopting agile:  

If your team’s retrospectives don’t result in continuously improving your process, practices, teamwork, or methods, it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

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