The Anatomy of a Release Retrospective

Retrospective Bridge

As Scrum practitioners, we are used to short and sharp retrospectives at the end of each Sprint. Sprint retrospectives, taking 1-2 hours, can yield valuable results, enabling the Scrum team to improve its process. Typically these retrospectives yield lots of ideas, which are then prioritised and only the top 2-3 are actually actioned.

I If we only hold short retrospectives, we may be missing out on discovering further ways to optimise our  work. A longer retrospective, at the end of a release or other milestone,  enables problems and solutions to be explored in more detail.

I was asked to facilitate a 2-day retrospective for a client who had started to use Scrum some 5 months beforehand. They had just released the first major version of their product since the introduction of Scrum and wished to bring all 6 Scrum teams together for a retrospective.

Grabbing my well-worn copy of Esther Derby’s and Diana Larsen’s “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great”, I started to plan the retrospective. For this longer-than-normal retrospective, I also found Norman Kerth’s “Project Retrospectives” helpful when selecting the activities and for general advice. I also had the opportunity to discuss the retrospective with the renowned agile coach, Rachel Davies whilst I was planning it – thanks Rachel for your support and advice.

I decided to structure the retrospective using Esther and Diana’s 5-phase model, using the following techniques:

  • Set the stage
    • Prime directive
    • Art gallery
  • Gather data
    • Timeline
    • Seismograph
  • Generate insights
    • Clustering
    • Dot voting
  • Decide what to do
    • Open space
    • SMART actions
  • Close
    • Give appreciation/ball of wool

The retrospective was further structured in terms of past (first day) and future (second day). I drew my interpretation of Rachel’s retrospective bridge (from Rachel’s book “Agile Coaching”) to help the teams to understand this relationship.

Day 1 – Past

During the first day, we focussed on identifying the events and experiences from the past several months of work on the project (around 5 months for this retrospective).

Phase – Set the stage

Technique – Prime Directive

I started by welcoming the participants and read the retrospective prime directive to them:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

I asked them to try to apply the folllowing rules:

  1. To try to not interrupt others
  2. To try to accept the opinions of others without judgement
  3. To talk from one’s own perspective, and not to talk for others
  4. To avoid jokes at the expense of others

I then explained the overall agenda (today past, tomorrow future), the 5 phase model and the activities that I had chosen for the 5 phases. I asked the participants to organize themselves into teams and gave them two choices: affinity teams based on their speciality (e.g. testers, managers, product owners, developers etc.), or Scrum teams. They chose to organize on the basis of affinity.

Technique – Art Gallery

For an opening activity, I chose Art Gallery:

The teams were given a single sheet of flip-paper and pens (a selection of colours). They were asked to draw a picture that represents “how was it to work on the project during this release”. Each team should produce a single picture, but without talking to oneanother.  Forbidding the use of verbal communication, forces the participants into a more right-brain cognitive style which can produce a picture that comes from intuition rather than rational thinking. In can be helpful in unlocking the creative potential of some.

The teams were given 30 minutes for this activity. At the end of the drawing phase, each team was given another 5 minutes to discuss the result and find a title for it. Finally, each team had 5 minutes to present their picture to all of the participants and the pictures were taped to the wall to form the “art gallery”.

Phase – Gather Data

Technique – Timeline

I choose “timeline” as the main techinique for gathering data about the release. This was prepared by covering a wall in white paper roll. A timescale was marked on the paper by dividing it horizontally into month segments. I created a horizontal stripe over the entire length of the timeline by drawing two horizonal lines in the bottom half of the timeline – for later use a seismograph indication of how people were feeling during the release.

I asked the teams to use yellow post-its to record events and other facts relating to the release. They were given 10 minutes for this and were asked to stick their post-its to the timeline, at a point which represents the time at which the event took place. After inviting the teams to visit the timeline and read what others had recorded, I invited them to use green post-its to record things that had worked well during the release – again they were asked to complete this in 10 minutes and stick the results to the timeline.

The teams were then asked to record:

  • Things that had not worked well / problems, using red post-its.
  • Things that puzzle them / potentially interesting themes where they desire more information, using blue post-its.

10 minutes was allowed for each phase and after completing their post-its, the participants were asked to stick their results to the timeline.

Technique – Seismograph

At the top left of the blank strip, I drew a happy face. At the bottom left I drew a sad face. I then asked each participant to draw a line which represented their satisfaction with the project at each point during the release, using the events on the timeline as a reminder.

Phase – Generate Insights

Technique – Clustering

With the help of the participants, and an agile coach, we clustered the post-its around common themes and named them. Each cluster contained typically a mixture of green, red and blue post-its, reflecting the different opinions of the participants. We clustered the hundreds of post-it around 9 named clusters.

Technique – Dot voting

I gave each participant 3 sticky dots and asked them to assign their “votes” to the clusters according to the importance of the cluster to them.

At the end of day 1 we had 9 clusters, prioritised by dot voting. These were taken forward to the “future” part of the retrospective, where the participants would decide how to optimise their teamwork.

Day 2 – Future

Phase – Decide what to do

Techniques – Open Space, SMART actions

Open space technology was used to discuss the themes (by now represented by clusters) discovered during day 1 and generate plans for addressing the issues.

First I explained the idea of open space and described the principles and rules. The participants built a market place of sessions (based on the clusters discovered during the previous day). I asked session leaders to make sure that the results were documented on flip-charts and asked the groups to try to create SMART actions as a result from each session (Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely).

At the end of each of the morning and afternoon sessions, the participants presented the results to all of the other participants.

Phase – Close

Technique – Give appreciation

We closed the retrospective by forming a large circle. Holding the free end of a giant ball of wool in one hand, a starting person thanked another person and threw the ball of wool to that person. This was repeated until everyone had had received at least one appreciation. We then lay the resulting spider’s-web of wool on the floor and noted how strongly the teams were networked.


1 comment

  1. Someone asked me for a german translation of the prime directive. Here it is:

    “Egal was wir heute herausfinden, wir wissen und glauben ernsthaft, dass jeder sein bestes gegeben hat entsprechend seines Wissens, seiner Fähigkeiten, der zur Verfügung stehenden Mittel, und der aktuellen Situation”

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