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Improving Retrospective Effectiveness with End-of-Year and Focus Retrospectives

MMS Founder
MMS Ben Linders

Article originally posted on InfoQ. Visit InfoQ

Doing end-of-year retrospectives can help to improve the effectiveness of agile retrospectives, by focusing on the actions done and the formats used. To increase the impact of retrospectives we can alternate between “global galactic” and focus retrospectives.

Reiner Kühn spoke about agile retrospectives at Agile Testing Days 2022.

Looking at more than the single retrospective, almost all retrospective facilitators face the challenge of how to achieve sustainability of the applied measures, Kühn mentioned.

To improve the effectiveness of retrospectives, we can review the results of more than one retrospective, Kühn explained:

I love end-of-year retrospectives where we as a team look back on the retrospectives of the year.

First, we look back on the identified action points and the achieved results. Which action points resulted in positive outcomes? Which ones showed unexpected effects? Which ones were forgotten or not touched? From this view, we learn about our ability to change, to adjust to changes, and how good we are at keeping track of our selected action points.

The second view is on the retrospective formats: which ones led to which insights, which ones touched people. This helps the team to understand why it is important to change the perspective when we look at what we want to improve: our work and interactions.

We can also do end-of-year retrospectives together with other retrospective facilitators to learn from each other. Here we must respect the Las Vegas rule, Kühn said.

To increase the impact of retrospectives, Kühn suggested alternating between “global galactic” and focus retrospectives:

In a global galactic retro, all topics are welcome. In a focus retro, we work on one topic, e.g. our bad ticket quality. Focus retrospectives often require some upfront preparation, e.g. browsing through the ticket and identifying issues.

Good retrospectives have a significant impact on various aspects of our work, Kühn said. First, they are the basis for a structured continuous improvement process. Second, they give the team power and influence in changing things, and they learn to change. Third, they improve their problem-solving skills – not only for retrospective topics but also for their daily problems and conflicts.

InfoQ interviewed Reiner Kühn about improving agile retrospectives.

InfoQ: What are the biggest challenges that retrospective facilitators face?

Reiner Kühn: The challenges can be different for different facilitators.

For some, it is challenging to perform retrospectives that motivate, inspire, and are fun. If a facilitator doesn’t love doing retrospectives, the results will be mediocre.

My personal challenges, even after more than 300 retros, are time management and dealing with personalities. Time management because for me identifying effective actions is more important than being time efficient – keeping a timebox.

InfoQ: How can we recognize “bad” retrospectives?

Kühn: Bad retrospectives often only can be recognized in retrospect. During a retrospective, when conflicts or emotions come up, you might think it is a bad retrospective. But conflicts and emotions often show us that we touched something that is worth further exploration. Pain is one of the most important triggers for change.

From the participants’ perspective, bad retrospectives may be seen as a waste of time, boring, or superficial.

From a facilitator’s perspective, a bad retrospective is a skipped one. Or when the same issue comes up again and again. Or when I have the feeling that we have an elephant in the room nobody wants to see.

InfoQ: Can you give examples of retrospectives that didn’t go well?

Kühn: I can remember two situations in which I could already recognize it was going to be bad.

The first time: The one and only retrospective I forgot to prepare for. Alarmed by my calendar’s notification 15 minutes ahead. At this time, with the experience of more than 100 retrospectives, I was convinced that I could do a retrospective like a stand-up comedian. It was bad, I noticed it, and the handful of participants as well. That taught me: be respectful towards each and every single retrospective. The issues and the people deserve it.

The second time: While working in a retrospective on an issue of mobbing that arose frequently again and again, I stopped facilitating the retro. I told the team that I feel that I was not able to support them regarding this specific issue.

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