Agile retrospectives from setting the stage to the soup: a chat with Neal Taylor

Written by Rina Nir

Agile retrospectives have become an integral ceremony for Agile teams.
Author

Rina Nir

Date

May 20, 2024

Category

For Project & Product Managers

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Agile retrospectives have become an integral ceremony for Agile teams. The aim is that we carve time to come together, retrospect on our previous iteration and learn together as a group. In real life, we find that too often retrospectives are falling short of delivering on that promise. I met with Neal Taylor, to get some retro wisdom, and am sharing the key takeaways here.

Neal Taylor’s mission is to help teams and organizations focus on value, stay creative and keep learning. He currently works as an Agile consultant in the UK and Germany, primarily with tech companies. Thank you Neal for sharing your knowledge and for co-authoring this article.

Neal found out that once Agile retrospectives become part of our routine, we often are ‘going through the motions’ of doing a retro. We’ll turn up to a retrospective, blather about the few things that went well, and then lament about all the things that could be better. For the hundredth time. Such retrospectives are worse than a waste of time. They have a negative impact because they foster complacency and disempowerment.

So, with that in mind, it’s worth going back to the original structure of retrospectives. Diana Larsen and Esther Derby outlined this structure in their influential book, ‘Agile retrospectives’.

A full retrospective requires five stages:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Gather data
  3. Generate insights
  4. Decide what to do
  5. Closure

One of the common mistakes, when teams go through the motion of retrospectives, is to skip stage 1 and 5. No setting the stage and no closure. In some extreme cases teams are generating off the cuff insights and nothing more.

Experience shows that all five stages are required to achieve the Agile retrospective goals.

Set the stage for an Agile retrospective

Stage one is fundamental because we need to be in the right mindset to learn. If we’re not in the mindset of learning, what’s the point of retrospecting?

Good teachers often help students at the beginning of a session by sparking their curiosity somehow. Whether it’s a mysterious problem that deserves figuring out, an interesting fact, or by showing something curious and novel. This is often referred to as the ‘National Geographic effect’. This is when students have improved their learning simply by reading the National Geographic before the session because they became curious. The best teachers also link that curiosity with the problem we’re trying to solve. ‘How is it relevant for today’ and answering that crucial question of: ‘what’s the point’.

For example, a facilitator expects that issues around prioritizing customer needs may come up in the retrospective. They can start the meeting with this icebreaker question: ‘Have you ever called customer service to complain? What happened?’. By evoking customer service experience with a non-threatening question, the facilitator brings everyone to the retrospective in a relaxed and playful manner. Footnote: Thanks to Atlassians’ Team Playbook for this example. It’s a great resource for any retrospective facilitator.
Once we’re in that mindset we’re much more likely to have the curiosity to dig deeper and understand a problem.
And a problem understood is half-solved.

Gather data

Gathering the data can also be a tricky one but for different reasons. In many cases people will use data from issue tracking tools, like Jira. In some cases, this data will be hand cranked and lacking accuracy. We can miss some important events or trends.

Valuable data for an Agile retrospective should be:

  • Correct
  • Concise & focused: let’s not drown ourselves in data. What are the questions we want to answer? Let’s get the data that helps us answer them. For example: if we are interested in solving our blockers, let’s get the data around what stories were blocked and why.
  • Easy to generate: Agile retrospective is something we do every two weeks. We need the preparation to be streamlined and quick.

In the Atlassian universe, a common way for data gathering is to get a Jira macro on a Confluence page and show all stories from the sprint. The problem is that the team is already gearing up for the next sprint and Jira data is ever changing. Within a day or two the page may be out of date. Moreover, we often want to look back at our data in a few weeks (for example- at the next retrospective). When using Jira macro, the data on the page has moved on and is no longer what we had in front of us during the retrospective.

Jira Snapshots solves these issues. It allows teams to take a snapshot of our Jira data at a specific moment. This ensures that the data forever reflects the retrospective. We’ll always have the context of the decisions they made. See more about this in my Article in the Atlassian community and in this video

Generate insights during an Agile retrospective

When it comes to generating insights, there is no shortage of support and tools. Miro boards, Retromats, or Confluence templates are all popular choices. Yet, there are still many ‘antipatterns’ that can develop over time. A common one is not making enough time to explore the data, but rather jumping to conclusions. We need to kindle the curiosity that we sparked in stage one. Give it time to turn into a lively brainstorming session. New ideas will arise, and a deeper understanding of what holds us back will emerge.

We picked that notion of Retrospective ‘anti-pattern’ from another great book, “Retrospectives Antipatterns” by Aino Vonge Corry, taps into her experience of facilitating retrospectives. It collates the antipatterns that can naturally emerge. Like the one where some people never speak while other people always give their opinion. Along with helping us identify that we have an antipattern situation, the book gives some great solutions.

Neal was lucky enough to attend a few retrospectives that were facilitated by Aino Vonge Corry herself. He learned from her some important tricks, like the Soup retrospective. Watch this quick video to see Neal, in his own words, telling us about the Soup.

Conclusion

I learned from Neal about how much skill and thoughtfulness goes into doing Agile retrospectives the right way. Making good teams great is not a trivial endeavor but the potential rewards are significant. The story about the Soup retrospective (video link) shows how a single meeting can change the destiny of a team. It empowered them to progress on fronts that were unimaginable to them before.

Watch this space for more conversations with retrospective leaders and shakers. And hopefully we’ll also cover the last two stages of a retrospective: Decisions and Closure.

Until then, I recommend to check out these two books:

  1. Agile retrospectives, The 2nd edition (2024) was recently released, so highly recommend you get the most up to date information there. Authored by: Esther Derby, Diana Larsen, and David Horowitz
  2. Retrospectives Antipatterns, by Aino Vonge Corry.

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