Retrospectives look back to impact the future.

Retrospectives look back to impact the future.

In the Daily Process Thought, August 22, 2013 we discussed list-generation retrospective techniques.  They are easy to execute and have a great track record.  However, there are other, more specialized techniques like the Timeline Retrospective, which is useful for long-running releases or in projects were a retrospective has not occurred in recent memory. These techniques deal with more complex issues than can be tackled using simple lists.  These more complex methods can also be used to spice up a more basic fare of listing techniques to keep teams involved and interested in the retrospective process.

These techniques are more complex to execute.  Let’s explore a few examples of this class of retrospective.

The Timeline Retrospective uses the following process:

Goal: The Timeline Retrospective technique develops a visual overview of the events that occurred during the period under investigation.  This technique identifies and isolates the events that impacted the team’s capacity to deliver over a set period of time. It uses distinct colors to identify events (avoid typical red – green colors as color blind participants may have difficulty).

When To Use:  The Timeline Retrospective is useful for refreshing and re-grounding the memories of team.  Other circumstances in which this may be a useful technique:

  • If there have not been any intermediate retrospectives;
  • To provide context to program-level (i.e. multiple projects) retrospectives;
  • If the team has not been working on the project over the whole life cycle, and
  • An end of project retrospective.

Set Up: Draw a timeline that represents the period since the last retrospective on a white board (or several pieces of flipchart paper).  Make sure there is room above and below the line.  Secure dry erase markers in a few colors and sticky notes in three colors.  The three sticky note colors will represent:

  • Blue represents good events;
  • Yellow represents significant events that are neither good nor bad, and
  • Red represents problem events.

Use the colors that you feel the most comfortable with and that you have in sufficient supply.

The process is as follows:

  1. Have each team member silently write down on sticky notes the major events, from their perspective, using the color code from above.
  2. Have each team member put their events on timeline chronologically, placing positive events above the timeline, neutral on or near the timeline and negative events below the timeline
  3. Throw out duplicates.
  4. Have the team select someone to walk through the final timeline.
  5. Using the dot voting technique (provide each team member with three dots) rank the event that slowed the project down the most to date.
  6. Identify tasks and actions that could be taken to solve the problems. Pick the top two or three.
  7. Have the team tell the story of the project for the next sprint or release, if they took the identified actions. This will help validate the choice of the proposed changes.

Another example of non-list retrospectives is the 6 Thinking Hats Retrospective (based on De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats).  I use this type of approach when the team has experienced significant challenges, has not established norms on how to interact or tends to be dominated by one or two personalities.  In this technique, the team uses a structured approach to discuss the period since the last retrospective.  The team “wears” one of De Bono’s “hats” at a time, which means all participants talk about a specific topic area at a time. Each hat represents a particular way of thinking.  Using the hats forces the team to have a focused discussion (this is called collective thinking in the literature). Until you are comfortable with this type of technique, use a facilitator. The facilitator should ensure that the comments are appropriate to the “hat” that is currently being worn. Here is the order of the “hats”:

  • Blue Hat (5 minutes) – focus on discussing session objectives.
  • White Hat (10 minutes) – discuss or identify FACTS or information since the last sprint (e.g. we had a hurricane during this sprint).
  • Yellow Hat (10 minutes) – talk only about the good things that happened since the last retrospective.
  • Black Hat (10 minutes) – talk only about the bad things that happened since the last retrospective.
  • Green Hat (10 minutes) – talk only about ideas to solve the identified problems or would add more significant value in the Product Owner’s perception.
  • Red Hat (5 minutes) – Have each team member come to the white board or flip chart and write two emotive statements about the project during this period. Do this fast and with very little preparation.  You want gut reactions.

As team review the emotive statements to identify clusters of comments or trends that can be combined with the issues in green group.  From the identified issues pick one or two actions that will improve the ability of the team to deliver to add to the backlog for the next sprint.

Other techniques in this class include:

Emotional Trend Line – This is many times combined with the Timeline technique. It provides an estimate of the team’s emotional state since the last retrospective.

Complexity Retrospective – Draw a complexity radar plot with at least five axes. Engage the team to determine what each axis should be labeled (e.g. data, workflow, code, business problem) and then engage the team to rate each axis.  If an axis is rated as complex ask the team to identify actions to reduce complexity.

Non-list based retrospectives are generally more complicated to apply due to the formal structure they use to guide teams toward discovery.  For example the De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats will require active facilitation (at least until everyone is comfortable with the process).  These techniques are generally used to address special or specific circumstances.  The structure of the techniques has been designed (or in some cases these techniques were adopted from other disciplines) because they help to focus the retrospective participants on a type of problem. The goal of any retrospective, list or non-list, is to help the team to discover how they can learn to be better during the next iteration.

Daily Process Thoughts:  Retrospective Theme Entries:

Retrospectives: A Basic Process Overview

Retrospectives: Retrospectives versus a Classic Post-Mortem, Mindset Differences

Retrospectives: Obstacles

Retrospectives: Listing Techniques

Retrospectives: A Social Event

Crowd sourcing is a key retrospective technique.

Crowd sourcing is a key retrospective technique.

Even though there are many different techniques for executing retrospectives, many teams find one or two techniques they like, and then they ride that horse until it collapses.  As we noted in Retrospectives: Obstacles, every Scrum Master and team should have a broad array of retrospective techniques, such as the sailboat technique, the Four L’s or the timeline.  This provides at least two benefits. First, knowing many techniques means that you can match the technique to the particular teams. For example, many techniques use physical sticky notes, which are difficult for distributed teams. So, the Scrum Master needs to know that you can substitute an on-line mind mapping tool for sticky notes.  Second, having a wide range of techniques (and using them) is a formula for beating technique fatigue and the resulting obstacle.

List generation techniques are the most popular class of retrospective techniques.  The list generation techniques are popular because they take very little set-up, are easy to explain, easy to facilitate and get results. Listing techniques build on well understood brainstorming techniques to ensure the whole team has a voice.  Before, we described how to do a retrospective using a simple listing and grouping technique, also called Affinity Diagraming.

Another technique in the listing category would be the Sailboat technique.  This method uses a nautical metaphor.  The boat moves through the water toward a goal (the team delivering functionality), the wind pushes the boat forward.  As the boat moves through the water, it encounters resistance which slows its progress. Examples of resistance might include conflicts for needed resources or conflicting organization goals.   Here is the process:

  1. Set-up: Start by drawing a picture of a sailboat in the water on your white board or flip chart. Explain to the team that some things push forward, like the wind, and some things slow your progress down, like an anchor.
  2. Idea Generation: Ask the team to identify what those items were.  List one item per sticky note, which are then placed on the boat.  As a facilitator, I will continue to tweak the seed questions I am using to keep the team thinking about the sprint from different angles.  You are done when the team is done.
  3. Insight Development: Have the team review the data and group ideas based on how they see the relationships between individual ideas. Techniques like Mute Mapping (grouping without talking) help to maximize team participation while minimizing the chance of a single person dominating.  Once THE grouping is done, I typically ask the team to name each group. This helps to cement the group’s understanding of the groupings of ideas that they have generated.
  4. Identify Improvement Objective: Select a group or specific idea to fix.  There are a number of techniques to select the improvement objective. Discussion followed by group consensus is one method (I use this when it is apparent that the group is close to consensus).  Another method is to vote using dots or post-it flags. In this method give each member a fixed number of flags and then ask them to vote (they can use all votes on one item or spread them).  The item or group with highest number of votes gets fixed first.

Examples of other listing techniques include:

The Four Ls – Use four categories: liked, learned, lacked, and longed for to generate ideas. Write these titles on four flip charts and place around the room.  Have each person silently generate ideas based on those categories.  When the team is done (i.e. everyone stops writing) have the team place their ideas (written on sticky notes) on the appropriate flip chart. Once the team has come up with their lists, identify the improvement objective, usually from the lacked or longed for category.

What Went . . . – Use four flip charts, put one of the following titles on each flip chart: what went well, what did not go well and what should we do more of and what should we do less of.  Brainstorm ideas to put on each flip chart.  Put one idea or statement on each sticky.  Depending on the group, this method can be done non-verbally (everyone puts their ideas on a set of stickies like the Four L’s) or have the team write ideas down and then shout them out (more akin to classic brainstorming). Insight development and identifying the improvement objective would follow a similar path to what was described above.

There are many other listing techniques each using a different set of seed questions (e.g. What worked well? or What would you like to do more of?) or different metaphors (e.g. sailboat, motorboats or trees). The questions or metaphors exist to help the team focus their discussion.  The metaphor or seed questions that are used need to make sense to the team’s culture, and also solicit areas that they are concerned about or can be improved. The Scrum Master or facilitator needs to use their observations about the team to select the retrospective technique that will provide the greatest benefit . I have seen teams of engineers that did not like using techniques that used metaphors (like the sailboat), while a UI team I worked with loved techniques that used metaphors. All of these techniques can work selecting which you will use is matter of team culture.

We will discuss techniques that are not list based here.

Related Entries:

Retrospectives: A Basic Process Overview

Retrospectives: Retrospectives versus a Classic Post-Mortem, Mindset Differences

Retrospectives: Obstacles

Retrospectives: Non-listing Techniques

Retrospectives: A Social Event