Best and worst retrospective experiences

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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ ). 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.

3 Responses

  1. Gerry Kirk says:

    Hi Doc, you might get more response if you throw up a few more examples. I know I was hoping to learn more from your experiences when I saw the link to your post on Twitter.

    @gerrykirk

  2. Doc says:

    Thanks for the prompt, Gerry. I’ve added another story. I hope this will be enough to prime the pump – later I’ll add more stories in a separate post. For now, I’d like to gather from others.

  3. Cory Foy says:

    One of the best ones was right after I started my new position. The team had just (literally two days before) come off a death march project, that had them working 14-16 hour days for 2 months. It was my second day on the job, and I pulled all of the team – Devs, Management, BAs, QA, into our large conference room. They were dealing with burnout, frustration, communication issues, unhappy people, and one or two personnel issues.

    What ensued I will happily describe as magical. We literally held an 18-month retrospective in the span of about 6 hours, addressing everything from the release, to the company being sold (they were sold right in the middle of the release cycle), to outsourcing, communication and other issues. The whole team was engaged, up and active, and on their own came up with some great solutions and goals to achieve. I had posted about it here: http://www.cornetdesign.com/2008/07/agile-retrospectives.html

    I find the single most important exercise to be one that requires everyone to say *something* – I usually use a variant of the “Check-In” pattern where I have everyone say one or two words. But having a team that even after all they had been through be willing to open up, discuss where they were, discuss where they wanted to go, and develop actionable items to get there was awesome.

    Hope that helps give a good story of how things can go right with a great team.

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