Facing challenges is an inevitable part of life, but how we deal with them can make a big difference. When problems show up, it’s important to focus on the things that unite us—it’s better to have a common enemy than fight internally. Experience in complex software development has taught me that it’s crucial to stop, think and act at regular intervals.
The feedback loop is the concept on which the agile mindset is built. Instead of having a project that is one year long, we divide the project into smaller mini-projects of two to four weeks. As the saying goes: There is only one way to eat an elephant–one bite at a time.
To inspect and adapt quickly, I recommend a time frame of just two weeks. During these two-week sprints, the team must work hard to achieve the goal. At the end of each two-week period, the team meets to inspect progress and creates a plan for improvements during the next sprint.
The purpose of the retrospective is to:
- Inspect how the last sprint went with regards to people, relationships, process and tools.
- Identify and order the major items that went well and potential improvements.
- Create a plan for implementing improvements to the way the team performs its work.
(Source: Scrum Guide).
These retrospectives can be general or they can be focused on one issue that occurred during a sprint. Sometimes a retrospective is about de-escalating or resolving conflict and tension. If the sprint didn’t go as planned, the facilitator needs to be cautious about how they run the retrospective. They need to keep in mind how they say certain things, because team members might already have low spirits coming into the meeting.
I stay away from using harsh judgments, blaming specific members or showing my frustration. The goal is to create positive energy for the retrospective. Facilitators should motivate the team to have fun while they participate in the retrospective. I like to have high energy, be positive and try to get the others on the same boat.
As a scrum master myself, I was shocked to find out that only 81% of scrum masters hold retrospective meetings. The retrospective is an essential part of any given sprint and provides valuable information on how to improve.
Before the retrospective meeting, I think about the format and tools. If you work in a distributed team, like me, a digital whiteboard is recommended. Using the digital whiteboard, we can have a retrospective no matter where we are in the world.
Here is my process for a zombie retrospective meeting. It’s divided into three steps: check-in, input and output.
Step 1: The Check-In (15 Minutes)
The check-in stage is kind of an ice-breaker. It should be fast, like the starter before the main dish—which in this case would be the deeper and more constructive discussion. Check-ins are treated as an exercise at the beginning of the retrospective to gather information on the just-completed sprint. One nice starter for more in-depth discussion is the happiness index: a quick way to check-in with the team and to see how everybody experienced the last sprint.
I ask the question: “On a scale of 1 to 5, specify how happy are you with the last sprint? No.5 is super-happy, and 1 is totally unhappy. Put the sticky note with one keyword next to the number on the whiteboard.”
The Scale Is:
5 = Super-happy! Don’t want to change anything!
4 = Pretty happy, but there are some things that need to be fixed.
3 = I can live with this, but there are many things that need to be fixed.
2 = Not feeling so good about this right now.
1 = Totally unhappy, I want out.
I give the team three minutes to five minutes to gather the input, then we discuss the issues. It’s a perfect moment to turn the problem into opportunity. You can use solution-focused questions, such as:
- What needs to be done to raise your happiness index?”
- Let’s imagine we have an ideal world, what would it look like?
- How would you like to have it?
The team members identified that they are moderately happy because they spend a huge amount of time preparing for the release. The work is boring and repetitive. I then turn the problem upside down and ask how we would like to have it. The team then starts with something they want.
Goal: As a team we want to have automatic regression tests, so that we can have faster releases and use our time for value-added work.
Next, we define action items that will help us achieve the goal—we plan to invest time and implement the automated tests. The product owner will be responsible for managing the product backlog in a way that we would achieve the goal within six months.
The scrum master needs to keep in mind which team members are more open to sharing their opinion and those who are more reserved. Shy employees may have lots of great input, but if they don’t feel comfortable sharing it, they will simply sit back and listen. It’s up to the scrum master to understand the team well and know which team members may need an extra push to be more vocal, to collect the input from the colleagues that are more reserved. The first step is to create an inclusive workplace with a team culture of trust, openness and transparency. You want to reach a point where everyone feels like they’re really a part of the team, and know how their efforts contribute to the team’s success. It’s important to remember the importance of tone of voice and body language and the positive influence this can generate.
Step 2: Team Input (45 Minutes)
There are plenty of techniques to collect input from the team during the retrospective. When I prepare the whiteboard for a retrospective, I look into the different techniques and choose the one that I believe is most fitting for the current context. When we face prevalent problems and challenges, I particularly like the zombie retrospective.
With this poster, I explain the following to the team: When a virus turns the human race into bloodthirsty mutants, we need to save ourselves from the zombie attack. We need to think clearly, so our discussion would be split into three groups.
- The zombies in the illustration represent the problems that we have.
- The blocked chair represents the actions we can take to stop the problems affecting us.
- The last place is our hiding place. The TNT explosives, gun and hand grenade represent the team strengths.
Once the team has finished contributing their input, we then go through every idea on a case-by-case basis and discuss it. This stage should take a maximum of 45 minutes.
Following discussion, we then move on to the final stage of the retrospective. This step takes all the input and turns them into concrete, measurable goals with action items, responsible people and clear timelines.
Step 3: Team Output (15 Minutes)
The output stage outlines the goals the team would like to achieve the actions they will take, who will do it and when. The tasks are handed out to the team, and the scrum master needs to delegate people to specific areas with deadlines to ensure that things get done. Otherwise, everyone will agree that something needs to be done, but nothing will be changed.
I use the following format to achieve this:
- Goal: The end result the team wants to achieve.
- Actions: The action points that need to be done to achieve the goal.
- Who: The owner of the goal.
- When: The specific date.
Goal: As a developer team member, I want to gather analytics on how the mobile app is used so that it can focus on things that matter.
Action point: Deciding what information to gather and who will do it.
Who: Anna is the owner of this topic.
When: In the next sprint.
The retrospective at the end of a sprint should never be left out. It allows for the continuous improvement of people, relationships, process and tools. It makes the team great.
Optional Step: Inspect and Adapt the Retrospective in the Plus/Delta Format (10 Minutes)
From time to time, it is a good idea to evaluate the retrospective meeting. The goal is to be able to learn from the current retrospective to do it better next time. For this, I recommend using a quick, simple technique such as Plus/Delta to make improvements.
In this final step, the team identifies the strengths of the retrospective and what changes can be made for the next one. I ask the team to use the sticky notes to share their thoughts.
Plus: What can the team change or add to bring more value to the retrospective? How we can repeat it?
Delta: Is there anything that we should change in terms of how we run the retrospective as a team?[Place for sticky notes][Place for sticky notes]
The answers to these questions can give scrum masters valuable feedback on how to bring the team together, solve problems more efficiently and make the best use of the time spent in the retrospective. Up until this point, team members have only been discussing the previous sprint, so giving them some time to reflect on the meeting itself sometimes helps them unwind.
More Ideas to Spice Up Your Next Retrospective
The retrospective meeting is a great opportunity to inspect and adapt. If, like me, you would like to run it every two weeks, you will have about 26 of these meetings in a year. The zombie retrospective is great, but you should avoid using the same approach every time. Get as creative as you like—there are many variations and possibilities worth exploring.
For check-in, I also like to utilize pain scales, a common communication tool used in a variety of medical contexts and settings. Trust me, it also works perfectly in business. Try the LEGO pain assessment tool as a starter.
For the input stage you could use:
Remember: Having fun is exactly what gets team members more interested!