How to coordinate effective retrospectives in scrum-based continuous learning

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By now, if you’re exploring Agile project management designs then Scrum is likely already on your radar. An Agile method originally created to help software development teams create more sustainable products, the process has evolved to fit any number of project-driven uses.

For the unacquainted, Scrum is a bit of an empirically-oriented framework designed to complete complex projects in an adaptive method, all while delivering products of the highest possible value. It is lightweight; Scrum teams rid themselves of waste by planning work in short bursts, often just two weeks out. The system values commitment, focus, and most of all, a willingness to be adaptive based on observations throughout.

In order to meet and adapt to Scrum challenges head-on, the team must make use of retrospectives. This key instrument triggers actions and is the perfect launching point to change behavior. A Scrum team would be wise to place great consideration in how to conduct powerful retrospectives, as they’ll change the face of the product and the process in the most dynamic and fluid way.

What exactly is a retrospective?

In a Scrum team, a retrospective is initiated at the conclusion of an iteration. Iterations are usually short, typically ranging between one and four weeks in length, with two weeks being ideal. Keeping iterations short is key to Scrum’s success; it’s all about avoiding dragging out sub-optimal performance over weeks on end.

At the end of these iteration cycles, teams are tasked with reflecting on observations during this time period. Specifically, teams are asked to consider how well everyone worked together and what problems influence their overall and individual performance.

How do you conduct an Agile retrospective?

The retrospective needs to be a safe, open discussion forum; it won’t work if team members feel there’s risk in speaking their mind or are unable to deliver criticism in a constructive manner. When looking to introduce the retrospective into your Agile/Scrum team, consider the five step method for conducting a retrospective:

  1. Priming Your Audience
  2. Obtain Team Data
  3. Create Powerful Insights
  4. Develop Workable Strategies
  5. The Closer

Let’s look at more detail into each of these retrospective steps.

Priming Your Audience

The retrospective meeting doesn’t need to start by going 0 to 120 MPH right into a deep dive of the numbers. Let your team warm up first with an exercise before delving into what’s been going right or wrong.

Pose a question to the team and ask for a think/pair/share scheme; it’s a class discussion tactic used by teachers in secondary settings. Let members come up with their own answer to the question, which might be something like, “What’s one moment from this past iteration that sticks out as representing high efficiency?”

They’ll then share with a partner, discuss and bring to the bigger group. It’s a great way to check the pulse of the room, gather additional intel and curate the direction of the retrospective.

Obtain Team Data

Alright, now it’s time to dig into the good stuff. This is what you got your team together for: the numbers. Obtaining the data involves talking about the details and problems that the team has been struggling with over the course of the iteration.

There are tons of different ways to structure a retrospective on data and produce quality results, and there really isn’t a one size fits all approach. With that said, let’s think about some general ways that can serve as launch points for gathering data.

One popular method to consider is the sailboat method. Think of it like this: the wind that pushes the boat ahead represents items in the data that help the team perform successfully. Anchors are dragging the team down, keeping them from forging onward. Organizing data into these columns will help the team visualize what metrics can be pinpointed as an absolute success and what needs improvement.

Retrospectives also don’t have to be rigorous in terms of the data points, or even talking about what went wrong. Consider a method called “Success Criteria”. This method centers around clearing up what the intentions are as a unit and targeting outcomes and results for success.

You plan for the success of a goal, but you also try to prepare by thinking about what failure could look like. You list out your intentions and what the target is for a project, then you list ways to measure that it was a success and ways it could wind up a failure. Use as precise terms as possible, even when dealing with something more human.

Create Powerful Insights

After you’ve put all your data together, it’s time for the discussion. Get ready to bundle up problems, ideas and opportunities in a way where actionable measures can be taken.

An Affinity Map is a popular Scrum retrospective technique here. Take one post-it with an idea and put it in a group; pick up a second and decide if it belongs in the same group or not. Once the groups are formed, attach names to the groups and decide which are most important in each, take note of how big the clusters are and note the themes and understandings of the biggest issues facing your team.

Develop Workable Strategies

In this last major step, you’ll think about what actions need to be taken. Use the method of “Start, Stop and Continue” originally brought forward by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen in their book “Agile Retrospectives”.

Draw three sections with headers from the title of the method, and place clusters from the Affinity Map in these headers. Give each person a dot to vote on items most important to them, and pick the ones with the most votes to make an actionable decision on. Reflect on feasibility and think about the short and long-term before coming to a decision.

The Closer

Welcome to the end of the line! Closings can be underestimated and skipped over, but don’t fall for that. There are a ton of ways to close the meeting out that look forward and reflect on the retrospective, from asking to note one reflection to be read out loud to a closing question to end on.

Use the closer as an opportunity to garner feedback as well; be self-reflective about the retrospectives as well. It’s a bit metaphysical in that sense, but that’s the power of Agile and Scrum. It transcends software development to serve as a focal point through which we can address all matters of progress within a project-based, forward-thinking environment.

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Jon Terry
As chief evangelist for Lean-Agile strategy at Planview, and former co-founder of LeanKit, Jon helps enterprises discover how to increase effectiveness, optimize processes, and deliver value faster with Lean-Agile principles. Jon seeks to raise awareness of the benefits of Kanban and visual project management. He has been a leader in Agile transformation for some of the largest organizations in North America, including hospital-giant HCA Healthcare and its subsidiary, HealthTrust Purchasing Group. Jon earned his Global Executive MBA from Georgetown University and ESADE Business School in Barcelona, Spain.