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The Power of Anonymous Retrospectives

by Rui Miguel Ferreira on Jun 18, 2014 |

Hiren Doshi recently published a post on the Practice Agile Software Development blog to describe Anonymous Retrospectives, a technique that maximizes team feedback.

As defined in Wikipedia, a Retropective is

a meeting held by a project team at the end of a project or process (often after an iteration) to discuss what was successful about the project or time period covered by that retrospective, what could be improved, and how to incorporate the successes and improvements in future iterations or projects.

According to Doshi, despite the openness and transparency of an organization, there will be always individuals that do not feel comfortable when it comes to talk in front of other persons, colleagues or management staff.

To help bringing the real pulse of a team, he suggests the usage of the following model:

  • All team members participate.
  • The data collected should be truly anonymous, meaning making impossible the traceability to the writer.
  • Distribute post-its to each member and ask for the goods and for the areas that need improvements.
  • Ask them to fold and drop the papers into an empty container.
  • When everyone was done, mix the content and start picking each note.
  • Ask someone to help you on register information from the post-its. Read it loud, register the content and drop it in the trash.
  • Once all data points were collected, work with the team to categorize and generate information by connecting data in each category.
  • Finally, define an action plan to address each one of the categories.

Doshi concludes,

Most likely you will need multiple sessions to do this... but remember you now have some solid facts with which you can incrementally introduce improvements.This is what the power of Anonymous Retrospective is!

Esther Derby and Diana Larsen proposed in their book, Agile Retrospectives Making Good Teams Great, a model to follow in Retrospective Meetings too. That is:

  • Set the stage.
  • Gather data.
  • Generate insights.
  • Decide what to do.
  • Close the retrospective.

Inside the book, they present techniques to address each one of these steps and how to apply them in certain circumstances.
Targeting people that usually have difficult to talk in front of others, they suggest a simple challenge - just tell the person that she has to tell her name within the first five minutes of the meeting. And you may get reactions like this: "I'm surprised i talked so much".
Other technique referred in the book is to avoid some kind of questions:

OK, we're working with engineers here. They may not want to talk about their feelings. So in retrospectives, we usually don't ask people how they feel.

In the mini-book Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives - A Toolbox of Retrospective Exercises, you may also find a group of exercises to use in your meetings and according to its authors, "get the most out of retrospectives."

One of the exercises is the Constellation in which people don't have to talk. They move according to questions asked by the facilitator. Even when there are reserved or shy people in the team, the system reveals itself.

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Anonymity by David Grant

I think "Anonymous Retrospective" is a misleading title: it's only the brainstorming activity that's truly anonymous.

Facilitators need to be aware that this exercise does have a negative impact on collaboration - in open brainstorming sessions, participants can see what others are writing, which may job their own memories, leading to "deeper" contributions. Furthermore, a facilitator should work with shy team members before the next retrospective to understand why they don't feel safe contributing.

Lastly, if you're going to follow this technique, make sure you hand out that same colour pens to all participants!

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