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Interview and Book Review : The Retrospective Handbook

Patrick Kua has recently published The Retrospective Handbook : A guide for Agile teams. In this book Pat draws upon his numerous years of  experience with retrospectives for real agile teams. The book is available at LeanPub for download in the popular e-book formats. A sample chapter from the book can also be downloaded from here.

The book offers some excellent advice on how to prepare for a retrospective. It goes into details of effective time keeping, using the right materials and arranging the space for participants to interact effectively.

The book has a chapter dedicated to distributed retrospectives which has very useful tips for teams working in an offshore/distributed mode. The book has recommendations on using video cameras at multiple locations, using multiple facilitators and various online tools to share information across locations. The book also touches upon key social challenges such as different cultural dimensions within a team and has recommendations on how to handle these effectively.

Agile teams may get bored of a repeated retrospective format. The Retrospective Handbook has tips on how to keep retrospectives fresh by asking different questions or changing the environment every time to keep the teams interested and energized.

The book is divided into 10 main chapters

  1. Retrospective Fundamentals
  2. Preparing for Retrospectives
  3. Facilitating Retrospectives
  4. First Time Facilitation Tips
  5. Distributed Retrospectives
  6. Other Flavours of Retrospectives
  7. After the Retrospective
  8. Common Retrospective Smells
  9. Keeping Retrospectives Fresh
  10. Concluding

Patrick Kua recently spoke to Anand Vishwanath from InfoQ

InfoQ. Could you briefly introduce yourself to our readers?

Pat: Sure. In my day-to-day life, I work as a Tech Lead for projects drawing upon many agile practices. I've been working in agile environments for almost a decade in many different environments with many different flavours of "agile". I have also trained and coached many teams and organisations and I'm particularly passionate about the ideas behind learning, continuous improvement and therefore, see retrospectives as a key agile practice.

InfoQ. What inspired you to write a book on retrospectives?

Pat: During my many years doing agile development and coaching/training people, I have facilitated and sat in many agile retrospectives. When I watched others facilitate these retrospectives, I saw the same patterns over and over again, some good, some bad. I also talked to many people who often said they didn't find much value from retrospectives. I would ask why and often found their ineffectiveness caused by lack of preparation, inexperienced facilitation and not knowing ways to keep them varied and insightful. Although I see these "beginner behaviours" with many of the agile practices, I am most passionate about retrospectives.

I feel retrospectives are one of the most important agile practices because it supports the principle of "adapting to change" and "uncovering better ways of working" outlined in the manifesto. I also think that, when done well, they create spaces where lasting change can start.

InfoQ. How different is this book from the other books already written on retrospectives ?

Pat: There are only two other books on retrospectives and I still recommend them to people because I think they are great introductions to the retrospective practice with lots of exercises for teams to draw on to suit their occasion.

The Retrospective Handbook focuses on helping existing teams make their retrospectives even more effective and covers topics I see many teams struggle with again and again. I really wanted to share a facilitator's experience and give insights into how other teams prepare, run and facilitate retrospectives in different manners and the small tips and tricks that make a significant different to retrospectives.

I also recognise many teams work in environments far from the co-located, small teams idealised by many agile methodologies and wanted to address the topical issues about how to adapt retrospectives to match distributed, or large group retrospectives. This question often pops up frequently on the Retrospectives mailing lists and very frequently on mailing lists internal to my own company. I hope that many teams benefit by having a single place to read all the recommendations, tips and tools to address other "flavours" of retrospectives.

InfoQ. What are some of the common challenges in facilitating retrospectives ?

Pat: There are many challenges facilitating retrospectives. One of the most common I see is where teams who cannot find an independent facilitator, leading to someone from the team facilitating the retrospectives. This potentially creates a conflict of interest since the facilitator is no longer neutral. In one sense, having someone from the team gives the facilitator an advantage because they have plenty of context for the topics that might come up and they can ask more poignant questions. On the other hand, I have seen from experience that most people cannot separate their own opinions whilst facilitating and so the conversations are normally biased.

I have also noticed that most facilitators from the team end up being someone already in an authoritative position (such as a Team Leader, Project Manager, Scrum Master, etc). Depending on that person's relationship with the team, there is often the risk that someone might not speak their full mind, or carefully avoid a topic to avoid being controversial or challenge someone in that authoritative position.

The other common challenge in facilitating retrospectives are that facilitators are often not trained in effective facilitation. Conversations may be cut short, questions left unanswered, or a drive to "decide on a action" leaves out meaningful context that might actually result in a different outcome. Fortunately facilitation skills are readily available around the world and there are many books on the topic to help people become individuals. The issue of a facilitator from the team is also easily remedied if the facilitator role rotates between different team members, but once again, it's important to ensure the facilitator is well equipped with facilitation skills.

InfoQ. What are the common smells you have observed in team retrospectives ?

Pat: The smells that I often see in team retrospectives include not enough preparation, running the same exercises again and again and not spending enough time on deep topics.

Some of the symptoms to look for with not enough preparation is when the facilitator is consuming time in the retrospective setting up the room, distributing materials such as sticky notes/pens, or simply setting up the room. I think many people don't understand retrospectives are like any other meeting, and it pays to set aside time prior to the retrospective to gather the materials you need, set up the room and basically spend the time in the retrospective focused on the conversation rather than the process. I like to set aside at least half an hour before a retrospective to prepare myself.

The problem I see with teams running the same exercises again and again is that retrospectives become a little bit boring. I find that varying the exercises a little bit, or changing the questions you ask often creates different insight because teams are looking at their context from a slightly different point of view. The other two books on retrospectives offer plenty of alternatives and many resources such as an Agile Retrospective Wiki offers many ideas.

I also find that teams often spend too little time discussing the root causes of problems before coming up with actions to do, if any. Without truly understanding the different elements, teams may end up doing something that has little effect so spend enough time on gathering facts before discussing the different impact to different groups and only come up with an appropriate action after that.

InfoQ. What is your advice for people who are new to retrospective facilitation ?

Pat: I have a whole chapter dedicated to people new to retrospective facilitation. I think there are many simple things you can do to prepare yourself. Firstly if you don't have a background in facilitation, attend some training or at least read a book on facilitation skills. Having more tools in your facilitation toolkit will help you prepare for all sorts of possible situations. I would also recommend shadowing another retrospective facilitator, carefully observing them and asking them why they do what the do. Shadowing another facilitator is akin to pair-programming and both parties often benefit from the exchange. You get to see what works and what doesn't and get some insight into how others deal with different situations. When you ask the other facilitator why they do what they do, it also helps them articulate their thinking process, something they are often not even aware of and they learn a lot from discussing it.

About the Book Author

Patrick Kua works as an active, generalising specialist for ThoughtWorks and dislikes being put into a box. Patrick is often found leading technical teams, frequently coaching people and organisations in lean and agile methods, and sometimes facilitating situations beyond adversity. Patrick is fascinated by elements of learning and continuous improvement always helping others to develop enthusiasm for these same elements.



About the Reviewer

Anand Vishwanath(@anand003 on Twitter) works as an Agile Coach , Project Manager with Thoughtworks where he started his career as a Java and .Net developer way back in 2002. Anand actively consults and executes Agile projects for clients all around the world. He also blogs about his experiences from the trenches here.



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