Small Agency Agile: 5 Tips to Run a High-Impact Retrospective

By | April 22, 2013
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Jack SkeelsBelow is a guest post from Jack Skeels, co-founder of AgencyAgile (@agencyagile). Jack coaches clients and teams how to adopt and adapt agile into agency environments. Previously, he worked as the MD of Sapient Los Angeles, VP at BLITZ Agency, CTO of Global Gaming League, and a senior analyst for RAND. Jack did his first programming at age 13, and started his career as a systems programmer in the 1980s. He has run projects using rapid prototyping, RUP, IDEF, XP, scrum, SA/3 and agile.

Jack and his partner Greg Morrell founded AgencyAgile in 2011 with the mission to greatly improve how agencies execute work, and how agencies and clients work together. AgencyAgile offers a wide range of services for agencies including: agile transformation, agile project management, and coaching and mentoring for teams, organizations and project managers.

A retrospective is a meeting that is held at the end of a project or cycle (sprint) to gather feedback on the work, and more importantly, on the overall process.   

Generally speaking, it is one of the worst executed agile techniques in agencies, regardless of agency size. There is some irony, however, in that smaller agencies would probably benefit more from a well-run retrospective process, though they tend to use it even less, than their larger counterparts.

Smaller agencies can assimilate learnings more rapidly, adjust their processes in a more-fluid way, and reach new cultural norms much more quickly than larger agencies. And since getting everyone together is much easier in a smaller shop, it just seems surprising to us that they don’t do it more often.

Retrospectives are a continuous process improvement technique that we use as one of the three major levers to improve velocity of teams. We often include some other activities in our retrospective meetings, but the feedback gathering process, like the one we’ll describe for you here, is always at its core.

In this article, we’ll give you a basic structure for running a high-quality agency-based retrospective, including some key behavioral and process tips to help you maximize the return on the time investment.

A Simple Framework: Good, Bad, Better, Best

One of the keys to a good retrospective is providing a simple framework that aligns well with the mental model that the team has. When we start work with an agency, one of the first ones that we use is what we call “Good, Bad, Better, Best.” Here is the basic setup:

Exercise Preparation

In a room with open wall space, delineate and title four sections: Good, Bad, Better and Best. Arrange seating so that everyone has a clear view of each other and the wall. (U-shaped is best). Place post-its and pens at every seat.

Invite only team members to participate in the exercise. We suggest that you limit the number of “observers” as their comments can have a negative impact upon the quality of the retrospective. If they do attend, they must agree to be largely silent (unless spoken to) and confirm that they will conform to the privacy of the meeting (everything said stays in the room unless explicitly agreed by all).

The duration of this exercise for teams of 5-10 would be about 45 minutes. So, plan an hour, plus whatever time you need for other activities.

The Retrospective Process

Start the meeting by explaining the process that you will facilitate—i.e. that you are going to collect feedback on the most recent cycle (or project).

Staying seated, each team member should take the next 5-10 minutes to write down their observations (one per card) on how the work and process went. The topics are:

  • Good: Things that went well. Discuss ways that the team met its, or the client’s, expectations.
  • Bad: Things that did not go well. Explore ways that the team missed its, or the client’s, expectations. These are typically one-off events—mishaps that we don’t expect to repeat.
  • Better: Things that we can do better next time. These are things that did not go well, and that we expect we’ll have to figure out how to do better next time. They can include a suggestion on how to do it better.
  • Best: Things that went really, really well, such as outstanding performances and big thank you’s. Every time a “Best” is put on the wall, everyone should clap to celebrate. An especially excellent one deserves a standing ovation.

The first time that you do this process, repeat the above list, and ask to make sure everyone understands. 

Once everyone has their cards written (they can write additional ones during the session), they will take turns walking to the front of the room putting one on the wall and explaining it. This process continues until all cards are on the wall. Explain this to everyone, and then explain it again: one card per person per turn. Confirm.

Once someone is done explaining his or her card, then ask the rest of the room: “Does anyone have any comments or thoughts about that?”

This probably sounds pretty simplistic…and it is, but for a good reason. Working in agencies, the team members vary greatly in terms of their personal information processing styles. A simple process like this works well to help bridge understanding and absorption across a wide range of disciplines.

Retrospective Tips

To use this as a framework, here are some key tips for making this format create long-lasting results.

As the project manager and facilitator, do not ever editorialize, comment or summarize the content of the cards or the discussions that take place. Do not be the last person to comment on a card, any card. Sorry, but it really doesn’t matter what you, the project manager, thinks, especially if you’re doing an exercise to find out what your team thinks. Much of the power of the retrospective comes from the team members being given a voice, and giving words to their experiences and observations. Keep your voice quiet and your words to yourself. Listen and learn. This is very hard to do, but we know you can do it! 

Don’t assume that anyone actually remembers what the last cycle (or project) was like. In your role as project manager, you tend to look at the project holistically, but most other people in the project don’t. For team members, it can be hard to remember even two weeks ago, especially if it was a busy two weeks…or traumatic. When we set up the room, we will often use a small section of the wall and post some memory aids on cards. For example, list the cycle events (planning, check-in, show and tell, etc.) and the stories that were worked on (not necessarily built). At the beginning, after you have explained the process and as people are starting to write, walk them all through these cards quickly to jog their memories. Do not express an opinion about them; just recite them.

Separate discovery from discussion. The process of people putting their cards on the wall and explaining them is what we call a discovery stage. Your goal, as project manager, should be to create a “safe zone” in which people can express opinions freely. If someone wants to disagree, then mark the card for later discussion. (We usually use a colored dot or a marker to make a dot on the card). It is okay to ask questions for the purpose of understanding, but debate and discussion should be done after all of the cards are up on the wall.

Duplicates are fine, and you should still have people add their cards to the wall and explain them. Everyone gets to vote, right? Just because someone said it first, doesn’t lessen the value of a second or third person saying it. You actually want to know what things people agree deeply about, and this is a good way to visualize that. (Imagine four cards all saying: “need to review pages with UX before they go to QA” – that’s a pretty clear message, right?)  Keep the cards separate; do not overlay them or combine them. Team members can put their card near related cards if they want.

Don’t create action items or next steps. The project manager in you will want to summarize next steps, and assign action items. This is a bad move and a common mistake; mainly because you want to keep the process focused on your team. Getting and understanding feedback will yield better results and also induce deeper change. 

We can imagine that you’re thinking what many project managers ask us at this point: “But how do we ensure follow up and make sure that the changes happen?” The simple answer is that your passivity as the project manager in this process, as in most cases, will signal that the team owns these items. Lacking any sign that someone else will do it for them, the team will internalize the need and take ownership. When they start telling you what you need to do for them, then you’ll know you’ve succeeded in helping them, not just the process, become more agile.

If they don’t do this right away, guess what happens? Yes, you’ll hear the same points again in the next retrospective…and they will too. That’s what learning looks like to us humans—we do it over and over again until we learn. Remember, as an agile facilitator, your job is not to fix things, but to help them learn how to perform team-driven change on many levels. This includes not only what the work is, but how they handle the work (cycle process) and how they revise or create new processes (their change process). The retrospective is the crucible in which you’ll make this happen.