Looking back – upside down

January 8, 2014

I love retrospectives and I love experimenting with different formats for my retrospectives. Today I tried a couple of new things that worked quite well so I thought I’d share this format with anyone interested.

The background is that I’ve just started coaching a somewhat new team that’s been going through a lot of changes lately. They had no history of doing retrospectives together so we had to start from scratch.

I almost always base my retrospectives on the setup described by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen in their excellent book:

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

Normally I add the step “Follow up the last retrospective” between steps 1 and 2 as well but this time there was no retrospective to follow up on so I skipped that one. Instead I added another item; “Set a challenge”. I’ll get back to that though.

Set the stage

I explained why we do retrospectives and went through the agenda. Then we took a look at Norm Kerth’s Retrospective Prime Directive and I made sure that everyone was committed to follow it. Finally we did a check in. Today’s check in was to answer the question: “If I was a weather, what weather would I be right now?”

  • “I’m sunny.”
  • “I’m sunny with some wind, because I’ve had some trouble with my computer today.”
  • “I’m a big dark cloud.”
  • etc

Since we had one big dark cloud in the group, I asked everyone who had something on their mind that bothered them to write this down on a piece of paper and put it away in a pocket until after the retro. This is a symbolic action but it often helps people to mentally put their problems away for a while.

Set a challenge

I had never tried this before but as a way of focusing the retrospective I wanted to try and turn it inside-out or upside-down and start with what we wanted to achieve. I asked the participants to work in groups of two and come up with a challenge for the team in three different dimensions:

  • Well-being of the team members
  • Productivity
  • Quality

The reason for having these three dimensions was to find a balance between things that could possibly be compromised if only one or two of the dimensions were considered. I asked them for small and concrete challenges that could be tried within one month. No high goals that the team would have to live by for their rest of their lives, just simple, measurable challenges to experiment with.

The groups came up with a lot of great suggestions in all three dimensions. Several groups had come up with duplicates but I thought all ideas were really good. Now we needed to narrow the field and select just one challenge in each dimension.

The vote

I’ve been using dot voting a lot in the past but for a while now I’ve had a nagging feeling that it doesn’t produce great outcomes. Small issues that are only important to a minority can easily be selected before more important issues that would benefit a larger group depending on people’s tactics. I decided to try a (for me at least) new way of voting that I came up with. I based the idea on the concept “fist of five” and decided to call it commitment voting. I asked everyone to put a vote on all alternatives. They should give each alternative a vote between 1 and 3.

1 was a disqualifier or veto. “I’m actively taking a stand against this.” If anyone put a 1 on an alternative it would mean that the group wasn’t committed to that alternative and it was taken off the board. (This is probably a sign that we need to talk more about this as well.)

2 would mean, “I’m standing behind this.”

3 would mean, “I’m highly committed to this. I could take lead on making sure it happens.”

A couple of the alternatives got 1’s but most of them were 2’s and 3’s. The positive thing about getting some 1’s was that people felt it was ok to say ‘No’. To me, this was a healthy sign. After counting the 2’s and 3’s in the rest of the alternatives, we were left with one winner in each category.

  1. Well-being: “Getting more constructive feedback.”
  2. Productivity: “Discussing requirements and design before implementation.”
  3. Quality: “Getting more stable test-environments.”

Gather data

I then asked the participants to pair up again, but in new constellations. After telling them about Jerry Weinberg’s Rule of Three and the Iroquois Rule of Six, I asked them to come up with six plausible explanations to why we hadn’t already solved the three challenges historically. I asked for six reasons because:

“for each apparent phenomenon, devise at least six plausible explanations, every one of which can indeed explain the phenomenon. There are probably 60, but if you devise six, this will sensitize you to the vast array of potential options and prevent you from locking in on the first thing that sounds “right” as The Truth. This attitude supports the mind in discovering new ways of perceiving, keeping our perceptual biases in check while allowing them their say.”

After a while someone said: “We’re on par with the old dude now but we’re still getting our asses kicked by the Indians.”

Since we were running out of time I let them get away with the reasons they had managed to come up with by then. It varied between the challenges and the groups but all of them had come up with several good explanations for each challenge.

Generate insights

After getting all possible explanations to why we hadn’t already solved the challenges in the past, up on the wall, the participants did an affinity mapping. They got a handful of different groups under each challenge; “Lack of knowledge”, “Lack of time”, “Lack of common process”, “Lack of communication” etc.

Decide what to do

Based on the challenges and the insights on what had been stopping the team in the past, we had a discussion on what we could do to meet our challenges in the near future. We agreed on two actions before we ran out of time:

  1. A weekly feedback forum at Friday coffee.
  2. Regular pre-planning meetings with representatives from all disciplines.

Closing the retrospective

I finished off by thanking everyone for their active participation and asking them for some thoughts on the retrospective and the format. The feedback was very positive and they felt that this was something that they should have done all along.

My learnings

As always, time is almost never enough. Guiding people through a process like this while at the same time giving some space for discussions takes longer time than expected.

Setting a challenge at the beginning of the retrospective and then looking back to see why we haven’t met it before worked very well. The one problem I could see with this was that we only focused on problems when looking back. I’d like to also look at strengths and positives. I might compensate this by doing an Appreciative Inquiry retrospective the next time.

My commitment voting-scheme worked better than I had expected. I’ll definitely try this more in the future instead of dot voting.


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