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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Getting fuller participation in agile retrospectives

The retrospective is the primary mechanism by which an agile team constructively embraces failure to achieve continuous improvement.  This much more intense and frequent version of a traditional “lessons learned” session is a team’s self-critique, and it is especially prone to organizational and interpersonal issues that can stifle full participation by all team members.

Since critiques are most effective when even the most naïve perspective is represented, it is important to create an environment in retrospectives that minimizes these barriers. This is especially important with a new team, where there is little reason for individual members to have developed any confidence in the team culture, although these problems can occur in more established teams through project stress, personnel change or even simple erosion.

As the federal government's adoption of agile increases, more people who are not familiar with agile will be brought into the fold bringing their varying degrees of skepticism. Common barriers can discourage team members from active participation in retrospectives. Here are some suggestions for coping with them.

Barrier #1: Disregard for meetings

Few like attending meetings because they often stand in the way of the process of creation and are generally viewed as wastes of time and energy. The retrospective needs to be differentiated from other meetings to highlight its value even to the most jaded.

Consider using an outside facilitator.  Because a facilitator has only one job in the meeting, it is easier to focus on keeping the meeting productive and on schedule.

Use games and thought exercises. If time flies in a meeting because it holds a participants' interest, attendance and participation will go up.

Hold occasional “retrospective retrospectives.” Use these meetings to discuss what is and is not working well in your team’s retrospectives. Did you follow through on the actions suggested? If not, why not? If so, can you see the improvements that resulted?  Show the value!

Barrier #2: Shyness

In any group, there will be people who prefer to sit back and let others speak most of the time. Sometimes they are intimidated by the group setting, and so they don’t present their thoughts. Beyond working to make retrospectives as welcoming as possible for all participants, sometimes you need to take extra steps to help some members give the team the benefit of their perspective.

Consider using round-robin as a meeting organization technique. Going around the room ensures you  explicitly solicit input from everyone.

Skew the order of round-robins so the quiet members speak earlier. “Everyone already said what I had to say” may be true, or it may not. Diffuse this by having the quieter participants go first.

Barrier #3: Fear of embarrassment or retribution

In discussions about reviews, walkthroughs and retrospectives, managers almost always focus on protecting the recipient of the feedback from embarrassment or humiliation. Keep the discussions non-personal by focusing on the product, the process or behavior of the team. Direct feedback toward the objective and actionable items, even if it starts off a bit unfocused.

Less frequently discussed, however, is the topic of embarrassment by the people providing feedback. In their book “Discussing Design,” Adam Connor and Aaron Irizarry two bold statements: “Everyone is equal” and “everyone is a critic.” This philosophy embraces numerous ideas, including the temporary suspension of hierarchy and the importance of the naïve perspective.

Use a sticky-note exercise to enable anonymous feedback. This technique has a side benefit in that major themes get uncovered when several team members say the same thing, and it also allows for “out there” ideas or “naïve perspective” ideas to be included in the discussion.

Exercise caution regarding management participation. One key principle of agile is the principle of the self-organizing team. Having managers in the room during a team retrospective could short-circuit that principle unless they are a direct participants or stakeholders in the iteration, or they otherwise know how to diffuse the impact of their presence.

This is not an exhaustive list of guidelines for facilitating effective retrospectives, but we can recommend these techniques based our own positive experiences in employing them.  We encourage you to examine the body of literature on the topic and, as always, stay flexible and try new things. The adoption of an idea should not necessarily be permanent.

About the Author

Laird Williams is a Scrum Master at Macro Solutions.

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