GoatBot Answers 5 Questions about Retrospectives

At a recent retrospectives webinar, participants asked a ton of questions around how to remind teams and outsiders alike about the value and purpose of sprint retrospectives. My team wrote down the questions but wasn't able to capture the answers in real time.

Luckily, we have an agile AI tool called GoatBot, available to all Agile Mentors Community members. GoatBot has been trained on every book I've published, every elements of agile report entry I've created, every blog and email tip I've ever written, and every course I've ever taught. That’s a ton of content!

My team asked GoatBot your retrospective questions. We were excited by the answers and wanted to share them with you here. #NoFilter

For a limited time, GoatBot is free to the public (usage limits do apply).

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Q1. My team views the retrospective as punishment where we only look at the bad and how we can improve. How can I change their mindset?

GoatBot Answer

Changing the mindset around retrospectives from one of punishment to one of constructive improvement and team growth can be challenging but is definitely achievable. Here are a few strategies based on the context provided:

  1. Emphasize Learning and Growth: Make it clear that the purpose of the retrospective is not to assign blame but to learn and grow as a team. Highlight that every team member's experiences and insights are valuable for collective improvement.
  2. Introduce Positive Reinforcements: As mentioned in the context, introducing rewards for team achievements can significantly shift the perception of retrospectives. For example, if the team meets certain goals or improvements, celebrate these achievements with something everyone enjoys. This could be as simple as getting a box of chocolates for the team, as in the provided example, or any other form of reward that your team would appreciate.
  3. Focus on Achievable Improvements: Ensure that the improvements identified during retrospectives are achievable and within the team's control. This prevents frustration and fosters a sense of accomplishment when these improvements are implemented.
  4. Limit the Number of Improvements: Avoid overwhelming the team by trying to tackle too many improvements at once. Agree on one to three key areas to focus on for the next iteration. This makes improvements more manageable and less daunting.
  5. Regularly Hold Retrospectives: Consistency is key. Holding retrospectives regularly, as suggested at the end of each iteration or at least once a month, ensures that the team gets into the habit of reflecting on their work and looking for ways to improve in a structured and positive environment.
  6. Encourage Open Communication: Foster an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas. Make sure everyone understands that all contributions are valued and that the retrospective is a safe space for open dialogue.

By implementing these strategies, you can help shift the team's perception of retrospectives from a punitive session to a valuable opportunity for learning, growth, and positive change.

Q2. How do you run a retro when everything went perfectly during the sprint, all goals were met, and everyone worked together flawlessly and there are no improvement items to talk about?

GoatBot Answer

Even when a sprint appears to have gone perfectly, there's always room for reflection and potential improvement. It's a common misconception that retrospectives are only for addressing problems. Instead, think of them as opportunities to reinforce what went well and explore areas for subtle enhancements or innovations. Here are a few suggestions for running a retrospective when everything seems to have gone flawlessly:

  1. Celebrate Successes: Start by acknowledging and celebrating the team's achievements. This reinforces positive behavior and team cohesion.
  2. Analyze What Worked Well: Dive deeper into why things went so well. Identify specific practices, tools, or behaviors that contributed to the success. This can help ensure these practices are continued and possibly improved further.
  3. Explore Potential for Innovation: With the basics well in hand, discuss if there are any new tools, techniques, or processes the team could experiment with to push the boundaries of their performance even further.
  4. Consider External Factors: Sometimes, external factors may contribute to a sprint's success. Discuss these and consider how the team can be prepared to maintain performance if conditions change.
  5. Plan for Future Challenges: Discuss potential future challenges and how the team can prepare for them. This proactive approach can help the team stay ahead of problems.
  6. Share Learnings: If the team has discovered a particularly effective way of working, consider how this can be shared with other teams within the organization.

Remember, the goal of a retrospective is not just to fix what's broken but to continuously improve, innovate, and build on success. Even in the best of times, there's value in coming together to reflect on the journey and plan for even greater achievements ahead.

Q3. How do I get my team to participate more actively in the retrospective? My team is quiet and doesn't really talk, how can I get them to talk more in the retro?

GoatBot Answer

To encourage a quiet team to participate more actively in retrospectives, it's essential to adapt your approach to fit their personalities and comfort levels. Here are several strategies you can employ:

  1. Reassert the Value of Retrospectives: Remind the team of the importance of holding retrospectives for continuous improvement. Emphasize that this dedicated time allows for the discussion of improvements in a structured manner, which is more effective than sporadic, ad-hoc suggestions.
  2. Manage Expectations: Avoid repeatedly focusing on issues that cannot be resolved in the short term. This can lead to frustration and disengagement. Instead, aim to address achievable improvements to maintain motivation and a sense of progress.
  3. Provide Alternative Ways to Contribute: Recognize that introverts may need more time to process their thoughts. Set up an anonymous drop box (physical or virtual) where team members can submit items for discussion throughout the sprint. This method reduces the pressure of having to come up with points on the spot and encourages participation from those who prefer to communicate their ideas in writing.
  4. Liven Up the Retrospective: Introduce variety to make retrospectives more engaging. Consider inviting a Scrum Master from another team to facilitate, changing the venue, or even holding the meeting outdoors. Experimenting with different formats, such as focusing on what practices to drop rather than adopt, can also refresh the team's interest and participation.

By tailoring your approach to the team's preferences and providing multiple avenues for input, you can foster a more inclusive and productive retrospective environment.

Q4. How do I stop my managers, stakeholders, and directors from attending the retrospective?

GoatBot Answer

To address the challenge of managers, stakeholders, and directors wanting to attend your sprint retrospective, you can follow a structured approach to ensure the retrospective remains a productive and safe space for your team, Scrum Master, and product owner. Here are three steps you can take:

  1. Educate the Outsiders: The first step is to educate these individuals on why their presence is not beneficial for the retrospective. Explain that their attendance could alter the dynamics of the meeting, potentially inhibiting open and honest discussions. It's important to convey that the retrospective is a time for the team to reflect on their work processes and dynamics, and having outsiders present can change the tone and content of these discussions.
  2. Highlight the Importance of a Safe Space: Share with them that retrospectives often involve passionate discussions, disagreements, and even complaints and criticism before arriving at solutions. These are essential for the team's growth and improvement but can be stifled in the presence of authority figures.
  3. Introduce a Post-Sprint Debrief as a Last Resort: If the first two steps do not deter their participation, you can introduce a post-sprint debrief as a drastic measure. This would be a separate, private meeting for the team to have the real discussions they need, essentially serving as the actual retrospective. You can continue to hold the regular retrospectives with the outsiders, focusing on less sensitive issues and discussing how they can support the team.

Remember, this last step is quite drastic and should only be used if absolutely necessary. It's not about excluding stakeholders but ensuring the team has the space it needs to discuss and improve openly and honestly.

Q5. My manager wants to know everything we talked about in our retrospectives. What do we do?

GoatBot Answer

When your manager wants to know everything discussed in the retrospective, it's important to balance transparency with the need for a safe space where the team can speak openly. The primary purpose of a retrospective is for the team to reflect on their work process and identify ways to improve. This requires an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts without fear of repercussions.

You might consider explaining to your manager the importance of having a private space for these discussions to ensure candid and productive conversations. You could highlight that the retrospective is a key practice in agile methodologies aimed at fostering continuous improvement and team cohesion. Emphasize that the outcomes of the retrospective, such as action items or improvement plans, can be shared, rather than the detailed discussions that led to those outcomes.

If your manager insists on knowing the details, you could propose a compromise by summarizing the key themes or learnings from the retrospective without attributing specific comments to individuals. This way, you maintain some level of transparency while protecting the team's privacy.

Remember, it's crucial to maintain trust within the team. If an additional, private discussion is necessary to ensure the team can speak freely, consider scheduling a separate, shorter session for the team alone, as suggested in the context. This approach allows the team to have an open discussion while still meeting the manager's need for information, albeit in a more controlled and less detailed manner.

Follow-Up Question 5a: Please Show an Example

GoatBot Follow-Up Answer

In this scenario, let's consider a software development team working on a new feature for their product. During their sprint retrospective, several issues come to light:

  1. The team felt that the daily stand-ups were running too long, causing a delay in starting the day's work.
  2. There was a lack of clarity on some of the user stories, leading to rework and frustration among team members.
  3. The team identified that they were frequently interrupting each other during meetings, leading to inefficient communication.

The team discusses these issues openly and comes up with action items to address each concern. For the first issue, they decide to enforce a strict time limit on daily stand-ups. For the second, they agree to have a brief clarification session with the product owner before starting work on new user stories. Lastly, to improve communication, they decide to implement a talking stick rule in meetings, where only the person holding the stick can speak./p>

After the retrospective, the Scrum Master summarizes these points and the agreed-upon action items in a report. When the manager asks about the details of the retrospective, the Scrum Master shares this report, highlighting the constructive outcomes without delving into the specifics of the discussion that led to these actions. This approach keeps the manager informed of the team's plans to improve while preserving the safe space of the retrospective for open and honest discussion.

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About the Author

Mike Cohn specializes in helping companies adopt and improve their use of agile processes and techniques to build extremely high-performance teams. He is the author of User Stories Applied for Agile Software Development, Agile Estimating and Planning, and Succeeding with Agile as well as the Better User Stories video course. Mike is a founding member of the Agile Alliance and Scrum Alliance and can be reached at hello@mountaingoatsoftware.com. If you want to succeed with agile, you can also have Mike email you a short tip each week.