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Q&A on the Book Improving Agile Retrospectives

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Key Takeaways


  1. Great activities to set the stage are the Weather Report, ESVP, and to appreciate what other team members did for you in the past iteration.
  2. Some of the most important skills of a retrospective facilitator are listening, goal orientation and to help the team to take a decision.
  3. Metaphors in retrospectives allow teams to put some distance between itself and the events that occurred, to loosen up the atmosphere and make it easier to discuss awkward subjects.
  4. The best way to improve distributed retrospectives is to use an online whiteboard like you would use a real whiteboard or flipchart. Make sure all attendees have access to a laptop.
  5. You can use the different phases of a retrospectives to support change initiatives, e.g. by using the Setting the Stage phase to define a clear vision or mission statement.

The book Improving Agile Retrospectives by Marc Löffler provides practices and approaches for doing agile retrospectives that support continuous improvement. According to Löffler, agile retrospectives are workshops which need to be prepared and facilitated well in order to be beneficial to teams.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of improving agile retrospectives.

InfoQ interviewed Löffler about exercises for checking-in or setting the stage in retrospectives, skills for retrospective facilitators, the advantages of using metaphors in retrospectives, how we can better do distributed retrospectives, and how to use retrospectives to support change in organizations.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Marc Löffler: Honestly, I was bored at my latest employer (before I got self-employed) and was searching for a topic to write about ;) Agile Retrospectives have always been my hobbyhorse, and it's already ten years since the excellent book by Diana Larsen and Esther Derby was published. I thought it was about time to write an update with the latest techniques. I’m often asked in my trainings if I had to pick one agile practice, what would it be. For me, the answer to this question is quite apparent: agile retrospectives. You can use them in any context, even if you don’t use any other technique, yet. Additionally, there are still too many bad retrospectives out there. I hope, that my book will help to improve them so that they are fun and useful again.

InfoQ: For whom is the book intended?

Löffler: The book is intended for everybody who wants to use agile retrospectives in their teams, companies or even in a private setting. It is for starters as well as experienced retrospective facilitators. If you are working as a Scrum Master or Agile Coach, you definitely want to read this book ;)

InfoQ: What's the purpose of a check-in exercise in a retrospective?

Löffler: The purpose of a check-in exercise is two-fold. First of all, you need to create a safe space for the participants. Without a safe space, there is the risk that people stay on the surface and won’t talk about the “real” problems, which needs to be addressed. This leads to inefficient retrospectives that won’t have any effects in the long term. Secondly, it’s important to get everybody on board and help them to focus on the retrospective.

InfoQ: What exercises do you recommend for setting the stage?

Löffler: There are plenty of options. If you don’t have a team charter yet, I recommend creating one right away. It is essential that the teams agree on some rules, e.g., regarding communication. It will also help to onboard new team members.

If you happen to have a team charta, I’m a big fan of the following exercises:

  • Weather report
  • ESVP (Explorer, Shopper, Vacationer, Prisoner)
  • Thank you: This is something you can use at the beginning or end of a retrospective. Everybody in the room walks up to somebody else, and says thanks you for something he or she did in the last weeks. I love to see all of these smiles at the end of this activity :)

InfoQ: What skills should retrospective facilitators have?

Löffler: For me a great retrospective facilitator has the following skills:

  • Is a good listener
  • Has a feel for when a discussion is still goal-oriented or when it should be interrupted
  • Makes sure that everyone has an opportunity to speak
  • Makes sure that all opinions on a topic are heard
  • Helps to make decisions
  • Is well prepared (room, activities, material)
  • Is confident, flexible, respectful, and authentic
  • Creates an atmosphere in which everyone feels safe
  • Tackles conflict constructively
  • Has a sense of humor
  • Keeps the energy level up during the retrospective
  • Asks the right questions
  • Visualizes the input of the retrospective’s participants
  • Stays neutral, but can also question the team’s assumptions

As you can see, it’s a long list, and I know very few facilitators who meet all the criteria. Some of the criteria, like a sense of humor, are hard to learn. Some people simply have a natural talent for these things. But even talented facilitators must practice. Like most things in life, most of the skills on the preceding list can be learned over time.

InfoQ: How can they develop such skills?

Löffler: The answer to how to become a good facilitator is quite simple: practice, practice, practice. No one is born a master. Some facilitators do make it look like the easiest thing in the world, but in reality, it requires a great deal of background knowledge and heaps of experience. If you want to become a good facilitator, you must know where your strengths and weaknesses lie and continually work to improve. Of course, the best way to improve is by leading as many retrospectives as possible. Alongside this experience, you can further your development by taking courses and reading books on facilitation. Everything you learn can be deployed in the next retrospective and refined. Thus, little by little, you can improve your skills in this very enjoyable area.

One book I’d like to recommend is “Facilitator’s Guide To Participatory Decision-Making” by Sam Kaner.

InfoQ: What are the advantages of using metaphors in retrospectives?

Löffler: Using metaphors in retrospectives allows the team to put some distance between itself and the events that actually occurred. In my experience, team members find it significantly easier to discuss awkward subjects when they can use a metaphor to do so. Using metaphors from the theme loosens up the atmosphere of a retrospective and can even be a lot of fun. For example, talking about “dirty tackles” and “dives” in a football retrospective is much easier than it might otherwise be to bring up and discuss the events they represent in everyday office language. Additionally, you can use metaphors to invent your own activities to freshen up your retrospectives.

InfoQ: How can we better do distributed retrospectives?

Löffler: Don’t do them at all. Honestly, distributed teams are really a bad idea. Nothing beats a co-located team. But if you have to cope with such a situation, there are a few things you can do to make them a better experience:

  1. Get a Co-Facilitator: If it’s next to impossible for two or more groups from different places to come together, find a co-facilitator at each location. This doesn’t necessarily need to be an experienced facilitator but should be someone who knows the running order and will prepare the room appropriately.
  2. Laptops: Ensure that each participant has access to a laptop. This is the only way that you can all work together on a virtual board. The best practice is to have two people sit together per laptop.
  3. Online Board: Because not everybody can work together on a whiteboard, flipchart, or other wall space, you need to use a virtual board. You should appropriately prepare the online board, by showing the agenda, for example. You use an online board in the same way that you would use a real board or a flipchart. Whichever tool you choose, make sure you try it out first. Only when you know your tool well can you use it effectively in a retrospective.
  4. Added Preparation Time: I can tell you from experience that preparing for a distributed retrospective takes significantly more time than preparing for a normal one. So, make sure you have enough time planned out.

InfoQ: How can we use retrospectives to support change in organizations?

Löffler: In my view, the following points are indispensable if you want to make sure that a change process will be a success:

  • A clear mission/vision that describes the goal of the change process.
  • A shared understanding of the organization’s current condition. Only if I know where I’m standing now, can I usefully define the next step.
  • A broad understanding of change processes in general. How do you implement changes while ensuring that the organization’s new condition is stable?
  • An iterative process that helps to implement the change step by step.
  • Regular reflection that enables you to steer the process effectively and to adapt it when necessary.

The last two steps are exactly where we can use agile retrospectives. You can even use retrospectives to set-up the whole change process:

  1. Set the stage: Work with the participants on a clear mission or vision statement of the change initiative.
  2. Gather Data: Gather all important information about the current state of your organisation, so that you know what needs to be changed.
  3. Generate Insights: Further analyse the current situation and possible root causes.
  4. Next Experiments: Define the first experiments you’d like to try out in your organisation to move the change forward.
  5. Closing: Wrap-up the whole workshop.

This would be the agenda of the kick-off of the change initiative. Now you can use the retrospective every four weeks to steer the whole change process.

About the Book Author

Marc Loeffler is a keynote speaker, author, and agile coach. His passion is to help teams implement agile frameworks and to transform our world of work. Loeffler is the author of “Improving Agile Retrospectives” published in the Mike Cohn series by Addison-Wesley Professional.

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