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Retrospective 3.0 at Ocado Technology

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At the Conferencia Agile Spain held in Alicante, in December 2018, Toni Tassani presented why he challenged teams at Ocado Technology to radically change how they approach retrospectives, and how it contributed to improving teams’ engagement and continuous improvement.

Some of the common pitfalls Tassani shared from his observation of teams included: stale and unproductive retrospectives using the same format every sprint, or retrospectives with unconstructive lengthy conversations leading to no clear improvement or no action at all. According to Tassani, teams feel a strong connection to the retrospective. They often feel obligated to hold it, even when they don’t have the desire or engagement to meet and retrospect:

Better a bad retrospective than no retrospective at all.

There are few root causes to the retrospective-for-retrospective phenomena. First, the importance of retrospectives is mentioned in the agile manifesto as one of the twelve principles. Then, according to the Scrum framework as prescribed, if we don’t do a ceremony, we incur the risk of not doing Scrum. Scrum without retrospective is not Scrum.

Retrospectives that are positive practices and meant to improve delivery, present unforeseen risks, among which:

  • The retrospective can become an excuse for not addressing problems real time as they are raised by team members. When brought to the retrospective, teams don’t always address these problems because they are not identified as high priority.
  • The team focuses only on team-centric problems without considering organizational impediments. Issues get partially solved without a real root cause analysis.
  • Teams follow a process à la letter and retrospectives become a Post-it theatre, where teams feel that they are doing something agile, but they aren’t improving.
  • Teams, in an effort of leveraging experiments based on scientific methods, use experiment loosely without tangible improvements.

To remediate to this situation, Tassani suggests approaching retrospectives as optional, not mandatory. Then, he suggests keeping the focus on the essence of agile retrospectives, which was always continuous improvements, and adding known and established continuous improvement activities borrowed from Kanban or creating new ones. Some of the activities he suggests leveraging are the POPCORN board and Toyota’s improvement Kata and coaching Kata. POPCORN is a Kanban board for making each impediment visible and tracking improvement. Each Kanban column or step is named Problem and observations, Options, Possible experiments, Committed, Ongoing, Review, Next. Teams are encouraged to design and collect activities and alternate these as they see fit.

Spicing up stale retrospectives is a known team challenge. Many authors in various articles proposed to vary the formats, introduce new activities or change one or more parameters, such as the duration or location of retrospectives. Tassani offers to move beyond Scrum and the Agile Manifesto principles, and beyond just spicing up the activities. He suggests questioning retrospectives for retrospectives: it’s okay to not hold a retrospective at all without feeling guilt, or it’s okay to rebrand it as team time, as an example. It’s okay to use this time to be improving and sharing knowledge in new ways, such as attending or watching a conference together.

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