Tips To Run ‘Big’ Retrospectives

For any team that uses scrum framework, a retrospective is a mandatory event that takes place at the end of each sprint.  It is an opportunity for a team to reflect on their most recent learning, while it is still fresh in everyone’s mind.  There are many tips, techniques and tools for running a retrospective.  They start with very basic guidelines of the Scrum Guide and expand into experiences and experiments of many teams and practitioners.
There are also recommendations on how to run a retrospective in more complex/scaled organizational settings, with multiple teams sprinting together (e.g. Overall Retrospective in Large Scale Scrum), as they work on the same product or service and support the same Product Owner and/or customer journey.
Depending on team(s) maturity, a retrospective could be run with or without assistance of an experienced facilitator (Scrum Master, coach) that possesses guide-level expertise in Scrum.
[Notably, a retrospective format is not unique to Scrum.  For example, Kanban teams can also retrospect, on-demand, whenever they feel there is a need.]

What about other organizational settings, outside of team dynamics? What about situations, when multiple individuals, from different organizational areas need to come together and retro-actively inspect (a.k.a. retrospect) on their work within and across various organizational areas, or across multiple organizations (e.g. internal departments, between partners-companies, vendors), involving communication, collaboration, reporting, managing each other’s expectations? 

Below, are some practical tips on how to organize and run a ‘big retrospective’ (e.g. after multiple sprints and/or completing key deliverable, with people that are not members of development teams).

  1. Most importantly, try having all required parties in the same physical location.  For people that are at remote locations, use video conference rooms, and to the extent possible, cluster people together. For example, if a group is distributed between location A and location B, and there is no way to bring everyone together at either location, don’t settle for letting ‘everyone joining from their desks’, via video phones.  At least, maximize clustering of individuals, at each respective location, by using conference rooms.
  2. For large groups (more than 20 people), try identifying individuals-delegates that represent views and opinions of others.  This is done to reduce noise (too many communication nodes and channels) from people involved in discussions.  Identifying delegates will also help with the first guideline above: collocating fewer people in the same place is more cost-effective.  Be careful, when selecting delegates:line managers, engagement managers, leads etc. – are not the best delegates.  Ideally, delegates should be on-par with people they represent.
  3. Consider bringing an external facilitator – someone who does not represent views or interests of any specific group of people or department.  A facilitator must be neutral and unbiased – a completely impartial person.  If a facilitator understands internal organizational dynamics – this is great but not mandatory.  An experienced facilitator will be able to adjust on-the-fly and leverage to his/her advantage, domain knowledge and subject matter expertise of other participants that are involved in a retrospective. Sometimes, one of the organizational units involved in a retrospective may have their own experienced facilitator available.  Falsely, such person could be perceived by other retrospective participants as someone who is subjective or biased.  Such preconceived notion may create a problem and must be addressed from start.
  4. With many people involved and/or joining from remote locations, consider doing some preparatory work that will help running a face-to-face retrospective more efficiently.  This could be effectively done by a facilitator, by collecting ahead of time, from all future retrospective participants, their preliminary feedback: wishes, concerns, recommendations.  All collected information can be then reviewed and analyzed, to make it more presentable and actionable at a retrospective: duplicates – removed, relevant items – grouped together.
  5. During a retrospective, a facilitator can present all participants with collected and refined information (4 above), in the form of index-cards and leverage one of facilitation techniques (e.g. dot-voting or priority vs. impact plotting) to decide on the order of items to be discussed. Additional, blank index cards should be available on-hand, in case there are last-moment ideas that emerge in a room.
  6. Each discussion point should be time-boxed.  However, since not all discussion points are of equal priority and complexity, time required to spend on each may not be the same.  It is also important to keep a discussion focused/tailored and not let it digress to tangentially relevant (or completely irrelevant) topic.  It is a good practice to spend some extra time at the beginning of a retrospective to not only prioritize discussion points but also estimate, roughly, how much time is each discussion point may take.  This approach of balancing discussion items’ priority vs. complexity, essentially, is identical to what a team does to backlog items during a product backlog refinement session.
  7. Retrospectives that involve people that don’t work on the same team, let alone, individuals from different organizational structures and of different levels of seniority may create a lot of additional tension in a room.  The latter, especially, may force more junior people become very reserved and un-confident in stating their opinions, in front of more senior colleagues (some of whom may also be their line managers).  Allowing privates speak before generals (a.k.a. “military democracy”)” could be one of the ways to ensure that junior people are not anchored to views of more senior people and feel comfortable and safe to speak out openly.
  8. Similar to a single team retrospective, a big retrospective, should culminate on a positive note (friendly, mutually supportive vibe) with at least, a handful of most critical items, becoming immediate actionable.  Since topics that are bought up at big retrospectives are usually more systemic/organizational in nature (as opposed to tactical, team-level), each actionable should be preferably owned by a more senior person.

 

 

 

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