Archive for March, 2009

Best and worst retrospective experiences

Agile & Lean, Facilitation, Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 31 2009

Having been both a retrospective participant and facilitator (mostly facilitator, these days), I’ve experienced some very good and some bad retrospectives.

In some cases, the key factor was the facilitator. In others, it was the specific activities, or the way in which the participants contributed (or not).

For instance, I facilitated an Iteration retrospective once in which we did a Mad/Glad/Sad exercise, and used the results of that activity to drive having the team come up with a SMART goal. One of the problems was that I was the team’s boss, and shouldn’t have been facilitating (in retrospect 😉 ). Then there was the problem that the participants were having trouble coming down from 10,000 feet to specific, actionable goals. At the end, a number of the team members felt very frustrated, and the SMART goal they came up with was only partially embraced.

I’ve talked with other folks about what makes for good and bad retrospectives, and I suspect that we each have a set of experiences, biases, and criteria in our heads.

Another example from my own experience: I was facilitating a retrospective for a client’s team. They were having some communication challenges. In particular, their three-person development team was dominated by the tech lead, leading to some resentment and frustration by the other two developers. And then that same tech lead was overbearing and perceived as emotionally abusive by the team’s business analyst. In order to address this, I included the Circle of Questions activity in the retrospective. One of the best things that happened was that the tech lead was sitting next to one of the other developers, who was sitting next to the other developer, and the tech lead asked “How do you think our development team meetings are going?” The developer replied “Well, one of the participants tends to dominate the conversation, leading the others to feel frustrated.” Then, that developer turned to his left and asked the other developer the same question, and got pretty much the same answer. After the retrospective, the communication on the team improved significantly.

What I’d like to do is to gather up some stories and criteria from my readers.

If you would, here’s what I’d like from you:

  • A story (not too long, but enough to get the idea across) of your best or worst retrospective experience
  • What factors contributed to making it as good or bad as it was?
  • Your thoughts about what makes for a good – even exceptional – retrospective

Please – name no names, point no fingers – share the circumstances and even the details, without specifically identifying company/organization or people by name.

I know it’s a lot to ask. I think that when we’re done, we’ll have a powerful tool for teaching and learning about retrospectives.

Inside or Outside?

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 29 2009

I found Liz Strauss’s blog today, and particularly this post (there’s lots more – this is just the basics):

Two weeks ago, I wrote about finding your voice when the tribe has spoken. Losing a job is a sure a way to feel we’ve lost our tribe, but it’s not the only one. A relocation, a divorce, a huge setback of some sort, or some way of thinking can make us feel apart.

Lots of folks have lots of reason for feeling we’re on the outside.

It’s almost overwhelming. The world can seem to be one huge tribe and we can seem to be the only one who’s not a part. Of course, that’s flawed thinking. Ever met a group of people who could agree on anything huge for very long? The whole world is too big to hold a meeting about who belongs.

via How to Find Your Tribe in One Word – Liz Strauss at Successful Blog – Thinking, writing, business ideas … You’re only a stranger once..

It got me to thinking, once again, about where we live and how we relate to others.

As I’ve said before, we live in our own heads. Everything we think we know about the world around us is really inside us.

And yet, somehow, we form bonds and join tribes. Multiple tribes. For instance, I belong to the husbands tribe and the fathers tribe and the photographers tribe and the specialized tribe of fathers with multiple children. I belong to a technical professionals tribe and a facilitators tribe.

Isn’t it odd that that belongingness is really all in my head?

Admittedly, it’s reinforced by the behavior of the other members of my tribes. They treat me as a fellow tribe member. At least I interpret their behavior that way.

What happens when I no longer feel like a member of a particular tribe? What happens to me when I lose that sense of belonging?

I feel isolated, maybe lost, scared, and I wonder whether I’ll ever belong to a tribe again.

That leads me to think about how important it is for me to treat other members of my tribe.

Like an agile team is a tribe. Like my family is a tribe.

It’s that Golden Rule again.

Remembering differently…

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 29 2009

…doesn’t imply anything about right or wrong.

How many times have you gotten into the ping-pong game of “Who remembers it right?”

“I know I remember it right because…”

“But I know I remember it right because…”

Unless you have a time machine, and can go back together and record whatever event you’re talking about, it becomes a pointless discussion.

What is really important?  That is, what am I trying to prove beyond that I remember something right?

Not to forget that there’s the solitaire version of the game.  It goes like this:

“I was on my way to work on Tuesday… no, wait, it was Wednesday… no, Tuesday… maybe it was Monday…”

Why do we care? Why is it important that – in telling my story – I get the day of the week right?

Perhaps because I fear that (a) you will catch me in an incorrect statement and, therefore, (b) that will generally downgrade my credibility, and (c) I will have less value in the world.

Am I really being tested and measured and evaluated all the time?

Well, to a certain extent, yes I am.

Okay – and does it matter?

Ah! Hmm… No, I don’t think it does.

Well, sure, it matters that people I live with and work with and deal with believe that I’m an honest person.

But in most cases, these trivialities only get in the way. When I tell you my heart attack story, do you care whether I had my heart attack on a Sunday or a Monday or a Tuesday? Nope. And yet I’m likely to get caught up in getting it right, because I believe that in our culture getting it right is highly valued.

I believe that worrying about getting the minutiae right frequently gets in the way of communicating the larger, more important stuff.

Granted that if I get most of the details wrong, my listener may deprecate everything else I have to say.

So let’s get back to the original question.

I think that when you get into an argument/disagreement about who remembers what correctly, you should ask yourself “what’s really important here?”

Lightbringers and Lamplighters

Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 27 2009

Some time back, the idea came to me for a book about the spread of ideas, about reaching outside our self-imposed boundaries, and about what a journey of discovery feels like.

I started writing it, took a couple of years off, and then finished writing the first draft.

Now I’m trying to figure out what I want to do.  It needs more work, maybe a lot, maybe not.

I’ve shared it with a dozen or so people, gotten some excellent feedback, and now it’s just sitting.

So I’ve decided to publish it in a blog.  Not this blog, but another one I’ve set up for the purpose.

My plan is to publish one chapter a day until I’ve published the entire current draft. I’d love to get feedback from anyone who chooses to read it.

You can find it here:

A model for understanding retrospective impact (from Patrick Kua)

Agile & Lean, Facilitation, Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 25 2009

Steven List asks the question, Are Retrospectives an Anti-pattern? Of course, retrospectives are a topic close to my heart so I naturally wanted to share my view of them. The conversation apparently started on the Kanban Development mailing list and Steven’s post already captures some great discussion. I won’t repeat it here, but I find the dialogue echoing the same sentiments about other agile practices and whether or not they’re useful. For me, it’s too extremist and not particularly helpful. They make it sound like you need to choose from two positions: Either you run retrospectives, or you don’t.

I think the more interesting question is, “When are retrospectives most useful?” To help explain my thoughts, I’ve put together the following: A Model for understanding Retrospective Impact (click on it for a slightly bigger view).

via » A model for understanding retrospective impact.

This is very connected to my earlier post, and well worth reading and commenting on.  Patrick has done some excellent work (hence his inclusion in my blogroll) on retrospectives, team building, training, and agile methodology. Go, read his whole post, and join the discussion of his model.

I don’t like you

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 25 2009

The nature of the world, and specifically the world of work, being what it is, sometimes you have to be with someone you don’t like. Right now, I’m thinking about the challenges of working with someone you don’t like.

“Don’t like” may be as simple as mild distaste or as extreme as despising. It may manifest as a mild discomfort or as actual physical symptoms like trembling or what feels like uncontrollable anger.

So how should I go about handling that? For me, it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.

What I’m wondering is how you handle it, or suggest handling it.

Hopefully, I’ll get enough comments/responses to make this interesting, and to continue it into another post where I can summarize and think some more.

So how do you handle it?  How do you handle the circumstances where you’re part of a team, and you just don’t like/don’t like to work with one of the other members of the team?

Is it different for an agile team than it is for some other kind of team?

Do you take action? Do you take it to someone else?

Okay – that’s it – no more hints or suggestions from me.  Please share your thoughts.

Who is You?

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 24 2009

When I was in my teens, my brother David (two years older) was beginning college. He came home from school one day and said that he’d learned one lesson that he really liked: when I’m talking about myself, I should say “I” not “you”.

You know what I mean, don’t you?

Someone asks a question, and I say “Well, you know, when you do [whatever] you feel [some way] and then you [do something].” How come if I’m talking about me I keep saying “you”?

This ties back to IAAM, of course.

If I say “I”, then I’m taking ownership of the good and the bad. Whereas if I say “you” I’m sharing it with – well – everyone. And if everyone says this or does this or feels this way, then it must be okay, right?

You know – when you admit how you feel, and maybe you’re not altogether proud of feeling that way, then if you make it seem as if it’s a common way to feel then you feel better, right?

Oh, wait.  Look at what I just did.  Let’s see how it sounds if I say…

You know – when I admit how I feel, and maybe I’m not altogether proud of feeling that way, then if I make it seem as if it’s a common way to feel then I feel better, right?

Does it feel different to you, too? The first one distances the whole issue from me, and allows me to feel safer. The second one makes it very personal, and I feel vulnerable and exposed.


Have you noticed this about yourself or those around you? That when you/they are talking about yourself/themselves, you realize that you/they always say it as if it’s not really about them?

Yeah, that’s the safe way.

If it’s you, maybe you should think about taking ownership of your stuff, and saying “I” instead of “you”. Then, when you’re communicating with your team, your family, or your friends, they will be dealing with the real you, not the generalized-safe-it’s-not-just-me version of you.

And then send a nice thank you note to my brother David in Melbourne. 😉


Agile & Lean, Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 21 2009

Okay, so my last post about retrospectives brought up a lot of interesting stuff, much of it from comments. In fact, it stimulated more comments than any other post I’ve done.

I thought I’d take some time to revisit the issue of looking backward, looking around, and looking forward.

I’m not going to deal directly with retrospectives, but rather look at the question of how we go forward.

One of my favorite comments comes from Scott Bellware:

…when what we’re actually doing is “interventions” but calling them “retrospectives”, it’s time to call much more into question than retrospectives colloquially allow.

So what I interpret Scott to be saying is this: look around, and as you see something that needs addressing, address it now with all of your skills. If I wait until later, then I have done myself and my team a disservice.  If my interpretation is correct, then I agree.

Earlier, another Scott – Scott Andersen (“The Other Doc”) – said:

So, can looking back ever take you forward?

My gut says that motion backwards will always end up stalling a meeting rather than keeping the flow.

I’m not sure how he got “motion backwards” from “looking back.” What I can’t figure out is how to go forwards without at least (a) knowing where I am now and (b) how to distinguish forwards from backwards. I mean, forwards just means I’m looking towards my front – I could be going in circles, or just marching off a cliff, or effectively going backward by continuing to loop around until I get back to where I was.

Without backwards, there is no forwards.

So my premise is that I have to have consciousness of where I’ve been and where I am to know how to go forward.

Patrick Kua says it quite nicely:

I think there is still value in looking backwards. Part of implementing change requires people to see a problem that needs solving. Without looking backwards, it’s hard to understand what impact the problem has, how people view it, and often, what the root causes were.

More importantly doing this as a group is sometimes an essential part to gain a shared understanding of the problem and consequences. Without this, conversations break down into four different solutions as everyone perceives the problem differently.

The only problem I have with this is the word “problem.” Going forward (whether in a retrospective or otherwise) is not always or solely about problems. If we take “going forward” to mean “evolving, getting better, getting more efficient, or otherwise changing for what we mean by ‘the better'”, and replace Patrick’s “a problem that needs solving” with “a status quo/situation that could be better,” then I agree.

It’s Patrick’s second paragraph that makes the point for me – achieving a shared understanding, a shared pool of meaning – that is essential. And where does that shared understanding come from? Common history, which comes from either looking backward together, or from looking around together over time and having achieved a common understanding of what we see.

Any discussion of looking forward or moving forward, regardless of context, cannot be complete without distinguishing then from now from future.

Are retrospectives an antipattern?

Agile & Lean | Posted by Doc
Mar 20 2009

My friend Chris Matts stirred me up with the following:

One for you to think about for your Blog.

I consider retrospectives to be an anti-pattern. If you are learning great stuff in your retrospectives, it means that your communication is blocked. They are “batches” of “feedback”. I prefer single piece flow of “feedback”.

Last summer there was a big discussion of retrospectives on the Kanban list. I asked the question….. “Has anyone learnt anything as a result of a retrospective that at least one member of the group did not know about before?” So far, no examples.

Last year, my tech lead wanted to address an issue with one of his developers. He wanted to leave it to the retrospective.

If your team members are saying I’m sorry, I love you, Thank you in the moment rather than leaving it to the following day, then you may find that retrospectives are of little value.

My experience of retrospectives is that they are a place for developers to find their voice, and managers to ignore them. Managers like them because “The developers get it off their chest”.



Needless to say, I agree a bit, and mostly disagree.

Chris and I discussed this on the phone. First qualification from Chris: he is thinking about highly developed teams. Okay – I can see that with some highly developed teams, they may indeed learn to express themselves well on an ongoing basis. Of course, based on the folks I know – even the most highly developed – there are some things that are hard to deal with directly, one-on-one, or in an unstructured group environment like a team room.

Then there’s the idea of retrospectives being an antipattern. I just disagree. I suppose it could be, when used as a crutch or when turned into routine. If a team does something they call retrospectives, but every time they throw up two pieces of flipchart paper and do smiley/frowney or smiley/double-smiley or any other activity/technique every time, then I’d say they are not really using retrospectives to improve their process and team functioning. Is that an antipattern? Or a smell?

Chris and I tentatively agreed that it’s a smell.

Needless to say, I’m all for effective communication on a daily basis, and on not harboring negative feelings any longer than necessary. At the same time, I believe strongly that there’s a place for structured and facilitated activity, no matter how highly developed the team and individuals, to allow for the team to deal with those things that just don’t come out.

Finally, if done well/properly, retrospectives help a team be more effective, which means delivering better software on time and under budget. What manager wouldn’t be happy with that?

Are you a sponge?

Coping and Communicating, Musings | Posted by Doc
Mar 19 2009

I’m one of those odd folks who finds chores like washing dishes and ironing pleasant. I find them pleasant because they require no real thought, allowing me to enter somewhat of a meditative state while doing them.

I was just washing some dishes (yes, I like to clean up after myself when I’m done eating), and holding the sponge, and the analogy hit me.

My wife and I have kept a sponge in the sink for years. And for years, after a while of using the sponge and leaving it lying there wet (maybe 1 – 3 months), the sponge would start to smell a bit. So we’d throw the sponge away and replace it with a new one.

While I was working in Calgary last year, I opened a new sponge and actually read the package. It said “squeeze out all the water when done using.” So I did. And I found that two things happened: the sponge dried out between uses, and it didn’t start to smell.

I came home at one point, and said to my wife “we should squeeze out the sponge when we’re done, and maybe it won’t smell so soon.” That was around September or October of last year, and we’re still using the same sponge, and it doesn’t smell.

Why do you care?

What occurred to me just now is that we – we human beings – are like the sponge. If we absorb stuff and don’t get rid of it, we start to turn bad. If we hang onto the anger, hurt, frustration, distrust, disappointment, and other bad feelings – the soapy, dirty water – then after a while those things affect us so that we have a bad “smell.”

Certainly, I’ve found that the sooner I squeeze out the water – get rid of the bad feelings, let them go – the sooner I feel comfortable with myself and my situation. This applies, as most things do, both to my professional world and my personal world.

Just squeeze it out, and let yourself dry out between uses.

Yeah – dry out.

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