Keeping Anchors out of Retrospectives

Let me just say this up front:

I love Sprint Retrospectives.

The Retrospective is easily my favorite event in Scrum, and it’s not even close.  It’s also the hardest one to get just exactly perfect.  I make no claim to having done this – there is always room to improve, after all – but I try very hard to get as close as I can.

There are two primary problems I have seen with keeping Retrospectives interesting:

  1. Repetition
  2. Anchoring

The “classic” Retrospective says we should put three basic questions to our Scrum Teams: – What went well? – What didn’t go so well? – What can we do better? All great questions, and we should be asking them.  Kind of.  Asking exactly those questions at the end of each iteration, however, becomes stagnant in a hurry.  When the team knows exactly what to expect in every Retrospective, it becomes easy to sort of tune out.  I will come back to this.

Going around the room/table/Skype call and asking people to answer each question in turn leads to the second problem.  The first person to chime in provides excellent feedback.  After that, it’s really easy for everyone to simply say “I agree with…”, because the first person provided an anchor.  The simplest way to avoid anchoring is to give everyone a chance to provide feedback in a pseudo-bubble.

Remind the team of the Retrospective Prime Directive and make sure everyone feels safe sharing their thoughts.

If everyone is in the same room (ideally), pass out the sticky notes and pens/markers and give team members the space to write down their thoughts before everyone puts their notes up on the wall and they can all be discussed as a team.  If the trust isn’t quite there on the team yet, have everyone write down answers and pass them to you directly, and you can transcribe everything onto new sticky notes, or write everything on the easel (or wall, or whatever workspace you are using) so everything the team sees is in your handwriting and they can’t easily identify who wrote what.  Be sure to destroy the originals (and let the team see you do so if that helps foster a sense of safety).

Sticky notes are harder to do when using Skype.  If you already know what you want to ask the team (and you should!) put those questions into a Google Form and send the link out to everyone the day before the Retrospective.  Get everyone to add their thoughts, and bring up the summary to share with everyone who is remote.  Use the collected information in exactly the same way you would use a group of sticky notes, and let the team discussion happen.

Talk about what people have written down and group items together as themes emerge.  See where the team is in agreement, and where they see matters differently.  Explore those spaces and encourage them to talk to each other and ask questions.  Guide the conversation toward coming up with goals on how to move forward without steering the actual discussion.  Ask open-ended questions and be prepared for complete silence.

Sometimes the team will arrive at a conclusion you have already drawn; more often they will surprise you with insight that you couldn’t get on your own.

Avoiding the first problem (Repetition) requires many more words!  Next post!

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