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Q&A on the Book Retrospectives Antipatterns

Key Takeaways

  • Preparing for an online retrospective is important. There are added logistics such as accessing documents and how to make sure people are there on time.
  • You need to hear from everybody in a retrospective; plenum discussions might make some people very quiet, so try to find other ways of sharing knowledge.
  • Bringing the manager to the retrospective depends on the team, the manager, and the things being discussed. My short answer is always not to, but there can be good reasons for bringing them.
  • Eat your own dog food and make a retrospective over your own retrospective facilitation regularly in order to continuously improve your skills.
  • Remember to ask why a team has retrospectives from time to time, so that you focus on what they gain from retrospectives instead of just having them because the process includes them.

Using the familiar "patterns" approach, the book Retrospectives Antipatterns by Aino Vonge Corry describes unfortunate situations that can sometimes happen in retrospectives. For each situation, described as an antipattern, it also provides solutions for dealing with the situation; this can be a way to solve the problem directly or avoid similar problems in future retrospectives.

Retrospectives Antipatterns introduces antipatterns related to structure, planning, people, distributed teams, and more.

InfoQ readers can download a sample chapter of Retrospectives Antipatterns.

InfoQ interviewed Aino Vonge Corry about dealing with retrospective antipatterns.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write a book about retrospectives antipatterns?

Aino Vonge Corry: It did not start out as a book. It started out as some notes in a notebook for my own sake. I had been facilitating retrospectives for a number of years and noticed that there were some unfortunate patterns in what went wrong in the retrospectives.

Since I have always been very focused on understanding the world and teaching others through patterns and antipatterns, I decided to write my experience up as antipatterns and start sharing them in presentations and when teaching workshops about facilitation. I think the first time was around 2012. The attendees expressed a wish to learn more about these retrospectives antipatterns and I decided to write a book about them, so I started that in 2013, I think (my oldest document is from the beginning of 2014).

Overall the book is about antipatterns in retrospectives and how to avoid them or get out of them if you find yourself in them. I wanted others to have less problems with facilitating retrospectives than I had. If they are able to learn from the mistakes I have made, then the world is a little better :-)

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Vonge Corry: The book is written for retrospective facilitators. There are some fact boxes in the book that you can skip if you are an experienced facilitator, but they are included in case the reader has not come across a specific concept or type of retrospective or simply has forgotten it.

That being said, several people who are not retrospective facilitators have proofread the book for me and they have pointed out that there is learning in this book for anyone who has anything to do with any kind of meeting or workshop, even if it has nothing to do with retrospectives. So in retrospect the book could have been called "How to Make Meetings That Don’t Suck" instead of "Retrospectives Antipatterns".

InfoQ: What are retrospectives antipatterns?

Vonge Corry: Retrospectives antipatterns are patterns I have seen recurring in many retrospectives, and the way I have described them in the book is in the context you would normally find them, the antipattern "solution" that is often used for various reasons, such as haste, ignorance, or fear, and the refactored solution to this antipattern.

Some of the antipatterns have a refactored solution that will get you out of the pickle right away, but for some of the others it is more a warning of things to avoid, because if you find yourself in that antipattern there is nothing better to do than to consider other options for the next retrospective.

InfoQ: Why should retrospective facilitators care about antipatterns?

Vonge Corry: Being a facilitator is not an easy role to have, and being a retrospectives facilitator is even harder because you often deal with sensitive issues together with pride and fear. There are so many things to think about when planning and facilitating a retrospective, that it is impossible not to make mistakes from time to time.

I think the antipatterns can help in three ways: firstly, in reading about my experiences and anecdotes you will see that other people (at least I) make mistakes as well and this can result in non-optimal retrospectives. I personally suffer a great deal from imposter syndrome and I like to hear that it is not only me who struggles.

Secondly, the antipatterns can create a common language for facilitators. An important part of any pattern or antipattern is its name, with which you can communicate on a higher level with other facilitators. In my book there is an illustration of an octopus with each antipattern. I added the illustrations to help the people who are more visual than verbal-minded. Also, because I really like octopuses.

Thirdly, of course, I hope you can use my advice, tips, and tricks and ways to make people talk or be quiet to improve your retrospective facilitation skills set.

InfoQ: Let's dive into some of the antipatterns described in the book. What is "prime directive ignorance," and how can facilitators deal with this antipattern?

Vonge Corry: The prime directive was written by Norm Kerth in his book "Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review" and it goes like this: "Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand."

It basically means that when we enter a retrospective we should strive to be in the mindset that allows us to think that everybody did the best they could at all times, given the circumstances. To me this mindset is one of the most important ingredients of a retrospective and the participants should be reminded about this at the beginning of every retrospective.

This prime directive has caused some commotion over the years because it is hard for people to "truly believe" that people did "the best job they could" when they know that they themselves sometimes do not do the best they can, not to mention other people and how they are slackers at times. Because of the opposition against this mindset, the facilitator sometimes chooses to ignore the prime directive (hence the name of the antipattern Prime Directive Ignorance) and just goes ahead with the retrospective with potentially grave consequences.

There is a part of human nature or perhaps cultural nurture that encourages us to find a scapegoat when things go wrong. This can result in an ugly and unfruitful discussion at the retrospective, it can also cause some people to shut up and not share important information or, for some, even make them stay away from future retrospectives.

In the refactored solution to this antipattern, the facilitator makes sure that the focus is on learning from faults in the system, and not finding someone to blame. If we can make everyone feel safe and open to learning in a retrospective, it becomes a very powerful and team building experience instead of a dreaded, scary meeting.

InfoQ: What can facilitators do if the team feels that everything is going well and there is nothing to talk about in the retrospective?

Vonge Corry: I noticed a pattern in how teams experience retrospectives from the time they are introduced to them and while they use them. At the first few retrospectives, the team members notice how much they share and learn, the experiments they decide to try out after the retrospective are important, and they all have a lot of energy to improve the way they are working together. They often come up with so many suggestions for what to try out that the facilitator has to force them to choose only 2-3 in order for them to successfully do the experiments.

Then comes a period where the team has some learning and agrees on an experiment or two to do after each retrospective, but when the facilitator follows up on the experiments at the next retrospective, they are often not done for various reasons. Sometimes they forget them, sometimes other things were of higher priority, and sometimes they did not know how to get started.

This is followed by a period of "retrospective fatigue" where the team members believe that they have become a team that cannot be improved because everything goes as well as it can. When I meet a team in that situation I remind them that the book by Diana Larsen and Esther Derby has "Making Good Teams Great" in the subtitle for this very reason. All teams, no matter how good they are, can be improved.

The antipattern "solution" is to just drop the retrospectives or at least have them less frequently, but the refactored solution is to find a way to make them effectful again.
Sometimes it helps to change things, get another facilitator, try some other types of retrospectives, or just change some of the activities. Make them think in a different way, perhaps a more ambitious way, about how they could improve. Sometimes spending more time on formulation of the experiments at the end of the retrospective enhances the likelihood that they are implemented and that they have an effect.

InfoQ: What's your take on managers joining the retrospective meeting?

Vonge Corry: My short answer is not to. If you can hire or fire the participants of a retrospective you should not be there.

But there is a long answer as well, of course, because it depends on the situation. In an ideal world, none of the team members would be the least bit afraid of the manager, there would be complete transparency about what is happening, and there would be trust between them. In this ideal world the manager could be welcomed in the retrospective when it makes sense, e.g. when some issues have come up that the team can not solve themselves, and it can make sense to have the manager be part of the discussion of what causes the issues and what can be done to remedy them.

I often see this in start-ups where the manager is closer to the team and they started out as one team together. If, on the other hand, there is not full trust and transparency, it can still be a good idea to invite the manager to one of the retrospectives. Maybe the things to discuss are outside of the circle of influence for the team members and they need the manager to make an action point or an experiment that can actually change things. In those cases, it is important to remember that this does not count as a team retrospective and this is a special case. The team might still need their team retrospective to share experiences and feelings, and to build the trust that is crucial for all the work they do together.

And consider having retrospectives for managers as well; I am sure it will be worth your while.

InfoQ: How can facilitators better prepare themselves for online retrospectives?

Vonge Corry: For an online retrospective you will need some sort of shared document to collect the data and the insights gained during the retrospective. I have used Google Drawings a lot (and here is a link to templates that you can copy and use) but there are numerous other tools out there, e.g. Miro or Mural. These three technologies offer a blank canvas that you can use, so it’s up to you to make the retrospective agenda and follow it. If you need some support in facilitating the retrospective, there are also a lot of offers out there. I have used Retrium and Funretro, and recommend both.

Whatever tool you use, it’s easy to lose many minutes at the start while people get logged in and access the tools you sent them.  I have some tips in my book about how and when to send reminders so your valuable time slot is not wasted.

One of the challenges of an online retrospective is that it is much harder to read the body language of the participants, which is normally a vital tool for the facilitator. This is made even harder if people are not on video and you only have the voice to give you any feedback on how the person is doing. If people refuse to be on video, take some time to talk with them outside the retrospective and ask them what is holding them back.

And as with any other retrospective, make sure that everyone feels as safe as possible by reminding them of the Prime Directive, making sure everyone is heard in the beginning and don’t record the retrospective. What happens at a retrospective stays at a retrospective.

InfoQ: How can facilitators deal with loudmouths; people who want to hear themselves talk? And with people who remain silent during the retrospective?

Vonge Corry: Since a retrospective is a team effort, you have to make sure to make everybody be heard to get the full picture of what happened in the period you are making the retrospective over and enable everyone to be part of making the improvement suggestions. You know already that some people are very silent and some people talk a lot. Doing something about it depends a lot on the people and the situation. One thing you can do is to solve the immediate problem, and this can be done by not having plenum discussions, but instead having discussions in small groups or even pairs if that is necessary. Another thing to do is to make some of the data gathering or cause analysis written instead of verbal. This will not solve the underlying problems that might be in the group, however it will remove the symptoms.

If some people are quiet, there can be many different reasons for that. I detail some of the common reasons in the book. To find out which one applies in the concrete situation you must set aside some time to talk with this person between retrospectives. Whatever you learn from that conversation will help you with the direction you need to take to allow them to share more in the retrospectives (and perhaps in general in the team).

If some people talk a lot, it can also be interesting to talk with them about it, just the two of you. I have often found that this person does not know that they talk a lot, and that they would like your help to be less talkative in the retrospective, perhaps by you giving them a sign. Sometimes they know that they say a lot and are already trying to solve it themselves because they know it is a problem. And sometimes they talk a lot because they think that what they have to say is very important. The answer will let you know what to do at the next retrospective; removing the symptom or helping them be aware when they talk too much.

InfoQ: What if everybody in an online retrospective remains silent? What can be done to get people to speak up?

Vonge Corry: As with many challenges in retrospectives (and other parts of life) you can choose to remove the symptoms or solve the problem.

If you are faced with silence at an online retrospective, there is no time to find out what causes it, so you have to just try and work with what you have. I often use a Round Robin activity, where everybody has to say something in turn. It seems to be more socially acceptable to use Round Robins in online meetings than in offline meetings, so I tend to do that often if people are quiet, or if there is a wide difference in how quiet everyone on the team is.

I use the activity to ask the same question to everybody; I use it to make them take turns in choosing what data point to talk about next, or to add to what has already been said in a development of an experiment. I warn them before I start the Round Robin so that they know they will be called out at some point. I would not do the first round with a difficult question. I find they sometimes need to warm up with easy tasks such as choosing a post-it note in the document, before you can expect them to answer a question they have to think about in that fashion.

If you know that the silence is due to shyness, insecurity or lack of safety, try to make it more safe for the team members by dividing them into breakout rooms. If the problem is deeper, for example there is a lack of trust or there is a history of bad experiences, you might have to deal with this outside the retrospective, by helping them rebuild their trust.

The silence may also be due to the fact that they find the retrospectives to be a waste of time and they actually program, or read news, while the retrospective takes place.  Ideally, once the facilitator has read my book, and gained more experience facilitating, the retrospectives will prove so useful that the participants forget their scepticism!

InfoQ: What have you learned from doing retrospectives for many years that you wish you would have known when you started doing them?

Vonge Corry: Work with yourself, learn from your mistakes, and get a coach yourself so that you have someone to complain to, or cry to, or get inspired by. It is unimportant how many types of retrospectives or activities you know by heart. The main issue is that you are able to listen and empathize with people, even people you would not have chosen to spend time with yourself. Have your own retrospective on your retrospective work from time to time: "What worked, what didn’t work, what made me happy/unhappy".

Be nice to yourself, because even though this is very rewarding, it is also hard and difficult work.

About the Book Author

After gaining her Ph.D. in Computer Science in 2001, Aino Vonge Corry spent the next 10 years failing to choose between being a researcher/teacher in academia, and being a teacher/facilitator in the industry. She eventually squared the circle by starting her own company, Metadeveloper, which develops developers by teaching CS, teaching how to teach CS, inviting speakers to IT conferences, and facilitating software development in various ways. She has facilitated retrospectives and other meetings for the past 15 years during which she has made all the mistakes possible in that field.

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