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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Retrospectives for Everyone

Q&A on the Book Retrospectives for Everyone


Key Takeaways

  • Retrospectives are for everyone, irrespective of your field of expertise, the industry you belong to, or the position you are currently in. 
  • Visual thinking frameworks/metaphors can be universally understood and applied everywhere by teams or by individuals. 
  • Leverage real-life experiences by integrating them into day-to-day reflections to manifest the natural power that humans possess, along with a new perspective for looking at personal or professional experiences.
  • Cultivate safe, open and meaningful spaces for personal and individual well-being that encourage one to stretch beyond their existing capabilities, actions, and imagination. 
  • Design your own custom framework for dealing with specific situations and effectively engage the brain to better navigate through the complexities in these uncertain times.

The book Retrospectives for Everyone by Madhavi Ledalla explains how metaphors can be used to foster reflection and result in actions in agile retrospectives. The book provides examples of metaphors that can for instance be used to nurture teamwork, manage change, focus on objectives, and personal reflection, and also provides recommendations for facilitating retrospectives beyond a single team. The book also describes how multiple metaphors can be used in a given situation, and provides a canvas that can be used to create new frameworks.

InfoQ interviewed Madhavi Ledalla about the purpose of the agile retrospective framework, the essence of effective retrospectives, using metaphors in retrospectives, doing retrospectives for improving product leadership, focusing on reaching goals, discovering and solving impediments, innovation, going from good to great, how retrospectives can help when the pressure gets high, and retrospectives in distributed settings.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Madhavi Ledalla: My journey with retrospectives and Agile started in 2008. I started exploring the world of metaphors and was keen on finding new metaphors to facilitate retrospectives.  I felt these meetings were very vital to evoke conversations needed for teams and individuals to hone their own leadership capabilities and create better ways of working. I worked on creating reflections that were engaging, and on creating an environment where teams felt safe to open up and mirror their current state by coming out of their self-limiting beliefs, and finding ways of resolving whatever they are dealing with. 

During this process, I started using real-life experiences and personal anecdotes that I felt could be related to the situations teams go through. Initially, I was very hesitant to share these ideas with the community. However, after giving it a lot of thought, I somehow got the courage to publish my first blog on Scrum Alliance. The feedback I got from readers was very encouraging, and that was the moment I decided that I wanted to continue sharing my experiences with the larger community, not only through blogs, but also by speaking at conferences. The input I got from everyone kept me motivated to keep trying new things and to share them as I do. 

Neuroscience tells us that our brain loves metaphors, and I was able to notice a clear impact on teams’ engagement levels when I used metaphors.  While working with these metaphors, I realized that these ideas could be leveraged by any team or individual. Hence, I decided that I wanted to share the little knowledge I had accumulated with everyone, and that was the moment I decided to start journaling all of them in a book.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Ledalla: This book is intended for everyone who wishes to inspect and adapt.  The techniques mentioned can be used for personal reflection and by diverse teams as well. The book covers a broad spectrum of frameworks that include getting better equipped to deal with changes, personal journey reflection, fostering team collaboration, reflecting on the state of mind, etc.  Most importantly, all of these methods can be used by anyone, and are not restricted to just IT alone. Anyone from HR, Sales, Marketing, or the Finance division can leverage these methods, and they can also be used by any age group, ie kids as well as professionals. Thus, I would say this book is universally applicable to everyone and anyone. 

InfoQ: What purpose do agile retrospective frameworks serve?

Ledalla: The new Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck talks about the concept of a growth mindset, which is a vital aspect for teams and individuals to inculcate the habit of experimentation and learning from experiments. However, often teams/individuals think in their own black boxes that they draw for themselves, and find it hard to think beyond and get into an experimental mode. The frameworks cited in the book serve as a visual thinking container for individuals and teams to relate to their context, and see the situation through a different lens. Basically, these metaphors may help in breaking routine thinking capabilities, and lead people to think outside of their normal thinking and visualization zones. Thus, they may help people to view a situation from a new perspective that they haven’t thought about before, which can reveal some very insightful information that they could not even have envisioned in a routine format. The motive behind these frameworks is to help unlock team or individual capabilities and create space for the emergence of creative solutions that are transformational and sustainable. Nothing would make me more happy than to see how things unfold for my readers once they get their hands on a copy and are able to get to this state using these metaphors. 

InfoQ: What's the essence of effective retrospectives?

Ledalla: I would say an effective retrospective should lead the individual or team to have a clear state of mind where they can visualize the context of the discussion, have the ability to present enough data trends for reflection, have clarity on the expected outcome and commitment to hold themselves accountable for whatever is decided during the retrospective. Also, measuring the outcome to gauge how far the work has progressed towards the decisions made during the retrospectives is critical.

In coaching conversations, it is believed that everyone is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. Being aware of how you’ve been doing and what you’re doing in any situation is vital for reflection. I feel an effective retrospective can create a wholesome state of mind where you believe that you are in full control of the situation and have the power to create your day everyday and create an impact.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt; our brain undergoes a lot of physiological changes during interactions with the environment, and this ongoing process helps us learn and adapt to different situations. When we learn something new, we create new connections between our neurons and rewire our brain to adapt to new circumstances. This happens on a daily basis, but it’s also something that we can encourage and stimulate. I would say an effective retrospective can help invoke such discussions and enhance the “thinking” competency.

Also, anyone with a growth mindset constantly strives to get better, continuously learns from their experiments, and can sustain failures and learnings. This resonates with what neuroplasticity describes, and I believe an effective retrospective can create a platform for such impactful and enriching experiences.

InfoQ: How can we use metaphors in retrospectives? What benefits do they bring?

Ledalla: Metaphors are analogies that describe any situation; they have been proven to be instrumental in creating an impact and long-lasting memories. Analogies are based on stories, and thus you will see me narrate small experiences in the form of stories from my personal encounters in this book. Metaphors offer unique ways of communicating ideas quickly and effectively. The crux lies in selecting an appropriate metaphor that resonates with your audience. Metaphors aid in invoking the creative side of the brain that is stimulated by pictures and other visual illustrations. 

Metaphorical thinking is a powerful tool that aids in visualizing complex situations to understand them better. Hence, we see a lot of them being used in all fields that include social media campaigns. Metaphors can also come very handy during facilitating conversations; it helps lead to more insights and encourages "outside the box" thinking, thus leading to creative problem solving. Metaphorical thinking and metaphors help us to learn from connections through stories and situations that make sense to us. Thus, facilitating discussions using metaphors serves as an excellent communication tool.

During my professional and personal encounters, I can relate my experiences to a few real-time scenarios that I saw around me. So I took these experiences to the teams using metaphors. I realized that I could make use of these real-world instances for mirroring personal and team level reflections. This is when I tried using metaphors like Kite Flying, Mangal Yaan, and Mountain Climbing as frameworks for collaboration, and saw a positive transformation in the interactions. These examples helped create a sandbox where teams were organically able to relate to the situations. They aided in generating a great impact on the brain thinking capabilities, and helped bring about insightful outcomes. 

The benefits I see in using these metaphors are that they foster lateral thinking, help represent our thought process better, and lead to greater engagement. A discussion using metaphors is like storytelling, and we all know that storytelling has the greatest impact; proof of this is in how we still remember our childhood stories, but not the lessons we learned during exams.

InfoQ: How can we apply gamification in retrospectives?

Ledalla: Games are liked by all age groups. Who does not want to engage in games and have fun? I have used gaming concepts like “snakes and ladders” and “basket ball” in my retrospectives and have found that the concepts worked really well. Using gaming elements in your retrospectives brings a completely different dimension of thinking— and makes the process fun. Applying basic concepts of gamification in retrospectives does two things: it makes the process more fun and exciting, and brings out ideas that would not have been thought of in conventional approaches. It adds a flavor of togetherness and team spirit to the entire exercise. It teaches us to fail fast fail often and also enables us to ace our game. 

InfoQ: While retrospectives are often seen as a mechanism to inspect how things are going and adapt the way of working, they can also be used to improve specific areas. Can you provide an example of how we can use retrospectives to improve on product leadership?

Ledalla: Yes, Product leadership is one of the key focus areas that everyone needs to hone in the industry.  I would say that product leaders have to find more opportunities to inspect and adapt so that they make sure that the product reaches the intended outcomes and delivers value. Also, one of the major concerns I hear is that often teams fail to inculcate the product thinking mindset. Everyone on the ground needs to start thinking like a Product Owner to be able to sustain and create a great product experience. There are a few metaphors that I have shared that could be instrumental in triggering conversations around the product thinking mindset.  For example, “Garden your thoughts” helps in identifying the initial teething issues that crop up and finding ways to eradicate them so that they do not disrupt the product in the long run. My favorite one is  “Magic Lamp”, this metaphor can be used to come up with the stakeholder wish list for the product. “Nurture the plant” can help throw light on the implications of ignoring the customer’s needs. “Product Eel” can help to come up with ideas that create an exceptional experience in the marketplace beating all the competition. There is a lot more that you can discover in the book.

Also, a few of these thinking metaphors can be leveraged during discussions using  Lean canvas, Business model canvas, and Product Vision board where discussions around the unique selling point of the product happen. In addition, the metaphors presented in the book can be used in any sprint ceremonies based on suitability and are not just restricted to retrospectives. 

InfoQ: How can teams use retrospectives to focus on reaching their goals?

Ledalla: We all know that setting goals and working to achieve them gets challenging if we are not focused. There are many situations where we set up goals for ourselves, but pay little or no attention to the follow-ups required in the execution. Retrospectives can be used to discuss and debate around these as well. For example, we could discuss around bottlenecks that are coming in the way of reaching the final goal, talk about the blockers and enablers that are helping us work towards our goal, share the risks that we may encounter in this path, work around the changes that hinder and help,  and how we take a balanced approach to work on the goals. Refer to the frameworks mentioned in the book that include - The bottleneck, Climbing a mountain,  Bow and arrow, Perfect day.  

InfoQ: How can retrospectives help us to continuously improve on discovering and solving impediments?

Ledalla: Improvement never stops, there is no end! And given the kind of changes we are going through, continuous reflection has to become the new normal to deal with the disruption. For example, in the current scenario, I am sure all of us are continuously finding better ways to deal with the Covid pandemic based on everyday’s situation and discoveries. I think having the right data and trends is vital for continuous reflection. For example, the government is gathering data around the stats and reflecting every day on the suitable measures to reduce the impact of this pandemic. The frameworks in the “Continuous reflection” section help us reflect at frequent intervals backed up by some good data and trends. The data you wish to gather depends on the industry and the nature of your work.  

InfoQ: What kinds of metaphors can we use to foster innovation?

Ledalla: Innovation is the key and one needs to cultivate this mindset. Be open to learn and  deal with changing needs as they arise. Visual metaphors can be used to spark the innovation capabilities as well. For example,  I use “setting the bird free from the cage” to discuss the current constraints the team has to explore the unlimited opportunities in front of them which is similar to a bird not being able to explore its world due to it being confined to the cage. Another example I take is how kids use pencil sharpenings to make beautiful artwork, what could you as a team think of doing things differently from the existing resources? Talk about some specific examples like comparing how undone commitments impact the project. You can compare it to how the size of a balloon increases when you keep blowing more and more air in it and finally it could burst.I also take examples of ordering the cake metaphor from my book to help teams think of innovative ways to eliminate unwanted work. 

InfoQ: What if teams believe that there is nothing to retrospect, as everything is moving smoothly? How can they go from good to great?

Ledalla: This is a common symptom.  It is normal to feel that I have done enough, let me be content with what I am. But, we know that all of us can achieve much more if we are able to invoke that passion and motivation and tap into the hidden zeal to stand out. We often hear teams saying that they have achieved good results and they have nothing to retrospect, nothing to improve. 

I use the metaphor “The Best you” in such cases. Taking this metaphor I challenge the team or people that you are doing well, but how can you become a great individual/ team. What would it take to be called a great team in the whole universe where people can talk about you and you emerge as a role model person or team. Urge them to think about what they are doing great now? What does it take for them to reach the next level? The journey never ends and it is a continuous exploration of skills and ambitions, and each milestone gives a lot of knowledge, visibility and self-awareness and inputs to the next milestone to work on. 

Also I feel encouraging the teams to use any of the metaphors from the book based on what is relevant can always help. For example, I can use “team journey” to help them reflect on how to emerge as a great team though they have been doing very well so far. 

InfoQ: How can retrospectives help when pressure gets high and stress starts taking its toll?

Ledalla: Retrospectives can also be used to gauge a few intangible attributes of a team or individual to sense what kind of emotional distress they are going through, in order to enable more sound, long-term solutions. You might want to read the pulse of your team to understand their feelings and emotional well-being. You may want to understand why people are worried or stressed out, what is confusing them or what is going on in their mind that is causing an emotionally disturbed state.  Peek into the self-content part by getting insights into factors such as happiness, motivation and excitement levels to work on a team or any personal aspiration. I use the metaphor of “pulse check” to look into these traits which are related to a team or individual’s mindfulness. 

This inner health of a person resonates with the concept from the Inner and Outer game of Tennis described by Dr. Timothy Gallwey. Gallwey talks about two games: the “inner and the outer” game that outplay the way we perform and carry ourselves. The inner game focuses more on the inner consciousness and self-awareness, while the outer game talks about knowledge, experience, technical, managerial and leadership competencies. The inner game drives our thinking and response capabilities in different situations. So, if we don’t play the inner game well, we may not be able to perform our best in the outer game. Hence, I believe the inner game is vital to play well in order to allow one to be self-aware and self-talk better towards the desired outcome. Retrospecting on the inner-self can help here.

InfoQ: Any suggestion on how one can carry forward this legacy of using metaphors, apart from the ones mentioned in the book? 

Ledalla: Here are some suggestions:

  1. Observe the different situations teams/individuals are going through
  2. Understand the patterns and events happening with them to gauge the situation
  3. Identify what is it that you would like individuals or teams to discuss or reflect upon
  4. Look for metaphors that can be connected to the situation, and select the one that resonates with your audience
  5. Check if any of the frameworks (metaphors) from the book can be used to connect your audience to their situation
  6. Customize the frameworks as you see the need, or create new ones
  7. The “Retrospective Framework” template in the chapter “Embrace the Real World” may help in creating your custom frameworks
  8. The above steps apply to self-reflecting on your own life situations as well

InfoQ: What's your advice for doing retrospectives in distributed settings?

Ledalla: Doing retrospectives in distributed setup used to be a bit trivial due to dysfunctions of distance. In the new normal we will witness teams and individuals master this art.  The metaphors described in the book can be facilitated through virtual collaboration tools like Jam boards, Miro, Mural and Innovation Games. 

The only suggestion I have is to use good collaboration avenues for distributed retrospectives with an extra focus on facilitating during the distributed setup. Facilitation plays a very important role, especially in remote environments. Creating a working agreement on how people would like to communicate can also help. More details can be found in the “Distributed Retrospectives” chapter of the book.

About the Book Author

Madhavi Ledalla is an Agile coach based out of Hyderabad, India. Ledalla is a proponent of visualization and a firm believer of the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words”. This led her to research, create and experiment with collaboration frameworks, an artful coaching method of creating lightweight structures for engaging teams and individuals to help them explore and discover their universe. She is a speaker, reviewer, and an organizer in regional and global Agile conferences. 

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