Ben Tsai

Our first retrospective

Our team ran our first retrospective yesterday. Being the first time anyone on our team has done one, and the first time I have ever facilitated one, there were certainly some parts that could be ironed out. But overall, it went very well, and we left the meeting with an objective and action item, which was the goal all along.

Format #

I structured the format of our retrospective largely after the schedule from James Shore’s book. It prescribes:

  1. Norm Kerth’s Prime Directive
  2. Brainstorming (30 minutes)
  3. Mute Mapping (10 minutes)
  4. Retrospective objective (20 minutes)

As people trickled in, I distributed 3 different colors of post-it pads. These three colors corresponded to:

I asked people to brainstorm on their own and fill out their pads and put them on the whiteboard. We spent about 5 minutes doing this and probably generated about 40 ideas.

The Prime Directive #

Before moving forward with any discussion, I read out the Prime Directive had everyone verbally agree to it. In all of the literature that I read about running retrospectives, this step came out as critically important, so it behooved me to do it. It states:

Regardless of what we discover today, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

I knew going into it that it would feel forced and cheesy, and I did get feedback afterwards from someone that they felt it was unnecessary. For our team, because of our personalities, it did feel unnecessary, which is a really good thing. All of us have a good attitude about giving and receiving criticism, and would not resort to blaming or attacking. But again, being my first time, I opted to follow the script when in doubt.

Reviewing the ideas #

Once we got through the prime directive (which in reality only took 1 minute), we reviewed the ideas that were generated. At this point, I wasn’t sure how to go over them, whether to read them all, whether to have the authors read them, etc. Eventually, I settled on reading each of them myself out loud. If there was any further clarification needed, people would speak up. At times, this led to more discussion, but I led us back getting through all of the ideas first. There would be more time for that later.

Mute mapping and voting #

After we got through all of the post-its on the board, we did an exercise together to organize them into categories. This exercise is called mute mapping, and it involves people physically grouping the cards collaboratively without speaking. After a few minutes of this, the cards were arranged into several groups. We quickly gave each of them a name and voted on which ones we wanted to work on. There were two obvious categories with lots of “Things that went poorly” and “Things that were puzzling” post-it notes: Planning and Scope.

Coming up with an objective #

The last step of this process was to brainstorm ideas on how we could improve on the two areas that we decided to focus on. Because these areas have been consistent pain points, this part proceeded pretty naturally, since most people had already been thinking about these problems and potential solutions. During the last iteration in particular, what happened was that we underestimated the effort of a task, which resulted in us delaying the release and pushing a lot of work off to a future time. We discussed how to improve this, and ultimately came away with something specific we could work on for the upcoming iteration: we will make estimates and record actuals on every issue. More than that, I think another result was simply a commitment to focus on estimating on planning.

Meta-retro #

When I first proposed running a retrospective, I was given a timebox of 30 minutes. This seemed like too little time to get through this process, especially given this was brand new, and I expressed this to my boss. That constraint was relaxed, and in the end, we were able to comfortably wrap up within an hour.

The general feedback that I got about the meeting was that it was very helpful and productive. We came up with a lot of ideas, then honed in on two categories that we wanted to focus on for this coming iteration. I’m glad that things went well, because now we have a mechanism to contiuously get feedback and improve. I’m looking forward to building on this, trying new activities, discussing more topics, improving team morale.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012