Using Your Retrospective to Succeed

One of the most disliked tenants of Agile is probably not the one you would expect. More often than not the most dreaded part of Agile is the Retrospective. At first blush you would think a quick weekly meeting to discuss what work had been completed, what work needs to be tackled next, and what impediments stood between the team and success would be an exercise most team members would look forward to. Unfortunately if you thought that way, much as I did, you would be wrong as I was.

When I accepted my first management position I was told my boss, the facility manager, held a meeting with the management team every morning at 8:30. In essence we held a Retrospective/Stand-up (before anyone ever used either term) and discussed the previous day’s work, upcoming tasks, and what we might need help on. I arrived early every morning to print reports, talk to my team, write down the highlights both good and bad, and prepare to discuss these bullet points in the morning meeting. What I quickly found out was I basically said the same things over and over again. My five minutes became stale, uninspiring to the team and myself, and I quickly lost the attention of the group. Most days, the most productive output of the meeting was whatever new doodle the production manager scribbled into his notepad.

After an extended time of frustration it became apparent that the meeting had lost it’s way. In order to get back on track something had to change. The meeting had to become less about reciting tired information and more about developing and driving improvement. The meeting was therefore broken down into two steps for each person, one using the information we were already gathering and the second to decide the short and long-term actions the team would take to help the team succeed. Each person’s five minutes was broken down like this:

Information Steps:

  • What work was just completed?
  • What work was about to start?
  • What encumbrances/obstacles may prevent possible success?

Action Steps:

  • The meeting would not proceed until a plan to eliminate the immediate encumbrances/obstacles was agreed upon including who was responsible for each part of the solution.
  • The encumbrances/obstacles presented by each manager was given a category description and recorded. Over time this log gave the team a clear indication of where the problems were. Long-term continuous improvement projects were developed on a routine basis based on this data.

Like most teams, my team had been stopping after the information step. Too often encumbrances/obstacles were brought up without a single solution being discussed. This often guaranteed the obstacle discussed today would still be in the way tomorrow. To help remove these obstacles the action steps were added, steps that had to be performed by the team, not just one member.

Ultimately these change turned the team around. The morning meeting was no longer just an information session. It was now a place to ask for and receive immediate help while also driving long-term improvements that ultimately guaranteed the team’s success. Teamwork began to increase, morale improved, and everyone left the morning meeting with a sense of having a place to seek help rather than having to tackle issues on their own.

Whether you work in an Agile or a Waterfall environment, use a Stand-up, a Retrospective, or a routine status meeting, using the two step improvement methodology to drive both short term and long term continuous improvement can be a very effective tool in helping your team succeed. For two years after we changed the format of the team’s Retrospective/Stand-up the team saw nothing but success and improvement in every part of our business.

About the Author:
Mark Townsend is a Senior Business Analyst with OneSpring LLC ( in Atlanta Georgia. Mark has over 15 years of experience in Process Design, Business Analysis, Product Development, and System Implementation.

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