How to improve your Retrospectives

How to improve your Retrospectives

At September’s Atlassian Summit, Adaptavist’s CTO, Dan Hardiker, took to the stage to deliver a lightning talk on retrospectives. Billed as a ‘Retrospective on Retrospectives’ is looked at what they are, how can they help your teams and why they’re valuable. Here’s Dan’s guide on how to improve your Retrospectives.

What is a Retrospective?

Retrospectives are a chance to take a step back and reflect on what you’ve been doing. However, they’re also a barometer for the health of your team in terms of communication, transparency, efficiency and reactiveness. The purpose is to foster a desire for improvement and a culture of introspection while increasing empowerment and reducing frustration.

Who are they for?

Retrospectives are not just for Scrum/Agile teams. Indeed, they can apply to any team that has a degree of autonomy or control over their own processes. They can work equally as well in business teams as well as tech teams.

How often and how long?

Dan says: “I often get asked, ‘How often should I be running a retrospective?’ and the answer is ‘it depends’. That’s a horrible answer but it does really depend. What really matters is that you do them and defend them.”

Are there any rules?

One rule Dan abides by is from ‘The Prime Directive’ from Norm Kerth (Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review). Essentially, the key is not to find fault and to try to detach personalities from the process.

“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.”

What scope should a retrospective have?

The Retrospective isn’t a place for dwelling on what you can’t change or improve. Instead, focus on the ways your team and your output can get better: code/features, the process and any external factors (such as support, infrastructure, tools or management) which may have affected performance.

Always look to emphasise positive change. Don’t ask “what sucked?” or “who screwed up?” Instead, ask what went well, what was useful, what could we do better?

Bad Retrospectives

Three ways retrospectives can be executed poorly:

  1. Dominating personalities. Avoid senior people driving the conversation and watch out for experience being used as privilege.
  2. Dismissing opinions. Instead, assume every suggestion is valid and be wary of bias. Dan suggests that if you find a perspective frustrating or confusing, try arguing for it for 10 seconds to help broaden your perspective.
  3. Exclusive formats. Support different ways of communicating such as email or by proxy to take into account your team’s individual strengths.

Retrospectives can be quickly undermined if they are rushed, underestimated or neglected. Dan warns against thinking “we’re too busy” or having few people participating.

How to improve your Retrospectives

Retrospectives can be improved by:

  • Empowering others – as a leader you must “make yourself redundant, you’re there to support and grow your team.”
  • Diversity – mix up roles, encourage differing levels of thought and experience.
  • Embracing failure – consider the impact of failure, but understand that if something always works you could risk stalling and falling into habit: “Good enough becomes the enemy of change.”
  • Hold retrospective on retrospectives – leave a short amount of time at the end of each retrospective to discuss the retrospective itself, could you do something differently?

To watch the full video, go here.