Thursday, 12 August 2010

Blitz Retrospective

Dear Junior

One of my favourite method tools is a retrospective format I call the "Blitz Retrospective". I have used it in a lot of situation where it has been impossible to do "large" retrospectives. For example, in some situations, the teams have been very "retrospective sceptic". In other, there has been a formally appointed "scrum master" who was not very open to suggestions, so suggesting changes to his retrospectives would not achieve much. In yet other, the sprints have been so long I have not had the patience to wait a few weeks. In all these situations it has been possible to suggest, and do, a "really quick retrospective".

The "Blitz Retrospective" only takes 25 minutes, and its focus is to find *some* change the team think would improve things. The format consists of three parts: the startup, collection of ideas, and vote. 


If it is the first time, the startup is spent explaining the format so everybody feels comfortable with what will happen. I clarify that the purpose is to find one single idea of improvement that we will try out next week.

A question that always come up on purpose is why we are limited to one idea, and what happens with the rest. Well, if the timespan is only a week, it would be foolish to focus on more that one thing - it would just result in none of them being changed. 

As for the rest of the ideas that come up - they will be there in the back of peoples minds and might change things implicitly - but they will not be actively in focus. If it is not the first time, I usually quickly rehearse the procedure, but I spend the time on evaluating the last retrospective's "winning idea" - more on that later.

The startup in full should not take more than five minutes. 

Collection of Ideas

Second section is the collection of ideas. To help the team members I split a whiteboard in three sections labeled "Continue/Increase", "Start/Try", and "Quit".

First section "Continue/Increase" is for things we already do and that support our work. Second section "Start/Try" is for ideas that we think we should benefit from, but we do not do it already, at least not in any significant amount. Last section "Quit" is for things team members think we do, but should stop doing as it does not serve us well, or even harm us.

Then team members are free to write down suggestions in any of these sections. Usually, I let them write on stickies, so that they can write a short statement on the sticky and explain it briefly when they post it on the board. If a short discussion emerges, then fine. However, if it seems to turn into a debate, or risk running long, I cut it short pointing to the purpose (find one idea) and the procedure (there will be a vote later). 

I also try to convince the team to keep the suggestions very concrete and limit them to thinks they directly can effect. For example, replacing the ventilation system of the building might really improve, but selecting such improvements is just asking for failure. In other retrospective formats such ideas are really valuable, but the purpose of Blitz Retrospective is basically to get acceptance for retrospectives - and then they must make a difference. We want things we actually can do, and that we can do within a week.

The collection of ideas could take ten to fifteen minutes. On occasions when time has not been an issue, I have let it run on longer - but usually most ideas are on the board after ten minutes. 

Grooming the List of Suggestions

When getting closer to the end of collection of ideas, I take a more active role, starting talking about the stickies in the "Quit" section. 

It is extremely valuable to get the "Quit" feedback, and I really encourage people to post such suggestions. However, I am a firm believer of that you should focus on "telling the good stories", because the stories you tell (and repeat) will become part of the "team lore" and shape the atmosphere of the team work. This is the basic idea behind the organisational philosophy "Appreciative Inquiry".

So, telling "bad stories" will basically make people feel bad - but not do much good in the long run. Telling "good stories" will culture a nice team atmosphere as well as enforcing the good habits.

Therefore I take on the role as the "positivist fanatic" and try to rephrase each sticky under "Quit" into "positive" ones. For example, if a quit-note says "stop coming late to meetings", I might suggest a start-note "meetings begin exactly on time - even if people are missing".

Before throwing away the "Quit" not I ask the original poster whether the new notes have captured the original purpose. Surprisingly often there is an additional aspect I had not understood. In the "begin on time" example, the poster might say: "It is not only about starting on time, it is also that every time someone arrive (late) there is a start of chit-chat and small talk that disrupts the meeting". To capture this there will be a second note start-note "keep meeting focus when people arrive mid-meeting".

I also ask if there are some suggestion that the poster think is a duplicate of some other - if so they can have it removed. Merging two similar suggestions to one of course gives them a better chance to "win".

Still when "grooming", the board is still open for new ideas, it is just for the team members to step up, post a sticky, and present the idea.

At the end of collection of ideas there often are a load of ideas and we only have a few minutes until we shall leave the room with one selected idea: time to vote.


For the voting, I simply rearrange the stickies and let each team member give three suggestions one vote each. The sticky with the most votes is the winner and is what the team should try for improvement the coming week.

As for the rest - things might improve just by having vented them, but they are not in active focus.


Next week I use the startup section for a quick evaluation. Here I want to separate two parts. 

One question is whether we did as we intended at all. Not trying isn't necessarily failure. Things change quickly from time to time and we might have had valid reasons not to do it. Even "did not have time" is a valid reason - and suggests that we should put aside time.

If the team did try the suggestion, the second question is whether it helped us or not. If it was helpful, we try keep doing it. If it was not helpful, then it is important to keep in mind that it was an experiment - and such should have positive and negative outcomes from time to time.

If the suggestion was tried and found helpful, we should find a way to formalize it. Technical stuff might go into a new check on the build server, working habits might go into the team's "Team Rules" or "Working Agreements" - whatever the name. The important part is that we do something that makes it plausible we will continue doing this good thing we have just found.

Getting Retrospectives Going, at All

I have found that running a few Blitz Retrospectives often results in an acceptance of having retrospectives at all. In combination with the not-very-scary format "ok, we can spare 25 min after Friday lunch", it is a good way to get retrospective started at all.

Of course, such a brief format misses many points - things a longer and deeper retrospective will catch. But the purpose of Blitz Retrospective is not to catch those - it is to win acceptance for having retrospectives at all an pave way for deeper retrospectives down the road.

I have found that the format works well for that purpose.


ps Ester Derby and Diana Larsen have written a great book named Agile Retrospectives that is really helpful once you have gotten past that initial resistance, have established retrospectives, and want to elaborate them, specialise them, or just improve them in general.

pps Tobias Fors has made the point (blog post in Swedish) that feeling safe and secure is fundamental to engaging in a retrospective. He suggests the fundamental rule being "Everyone did their best given the conditions", and I have seen it helpful to start each retrospective with writing some similar statement on the whiteboard.