9 Common Retrospective Pitfalls

woman placing sticky notes on wall during a retrospective
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I’ve written a few heavy articles recently, so thought I’d take a step back with something a little lighter. I absolutely love retrospectives and am going to take this time to highlight some common retrospective pitfalls that I frequently see people falling into.

The 9 Retrospective Pitfalls

Lack of variety

Symptom: Poor engagement or low energy

We learn more and engage more effectively when there is variety. Our brains are wired for novelty. So instead of running the 4Ls again, try mixing it up. I have a goal to never run the same retrospective twice. There are plenty of resources available, so push yourself to innovate. Instead of it being seen as a chore, your team will start to love coming to your retrospectives.

Controlling instead of facilitating

SYMPTOM: You do most of the talking

This happens a lot and is one of the most difficult to break. It’s simply too easy for us to stand in the centre with our arms in the power position and take control. Your job as facilitator in a retrospective is not to control the audience, but to provide them with a platform for engaging with each other. You’re likely the only one stood up, so your words are going to intrinsically carry more weight. Never bring your own opinions and make sure you fade into the background when not guiding the group through the activities; they’ll get on perfectly fine without you.

No focus on outcomes

SYMPTOM: Fortnightly moaning sessions

Allowing your retrospectives to turn into sessions for complaining can ruin morale. Retrospectives are a primary method for continuous improvement so make sure that goal is made clear and is adhered to.

Your best tool for resolving this is prevention. Structure the activities to have clear outcomes instead of general conversation and you’ll see a more focused dialogue. Should this fail, then feel free to firmly step in and move the group along.

Unrecorded or incomplete actions

SYMPTOM: Action deju vu

How many times have you seen the same item crop up in a retrospective? How long does it take before someone loses their rag and disengages? This can sometimes be a symptom of having different people rotate the job but effectively boils down to a lack of focus on actions. Even if you didn’t host the previous retrospective, make sure you kick things off with a review of the previous actions. There are plenty of ways to improve this, from reminders to shielded time to better tracking. Just make sure that actions from retrospectives are treated as a true value add work. If you find yourself dropping actions because you need the time back for sprint items, maybe take a look at your commitment practices.

No data

SYMPTOM: No improvement to your key figures

No matter what your current practices, you have some data. Use it. Whether you’re tracking story points or story count, blocked days, or WIP. Whatever you’re collecting, bring it to the retrospective. This is another area I’m quite opinionated on and could write another article on using data in Agile if there’s interest. But for now, decide what’s important, track it, and then use the retrospective to identify actions that could move the needle on those figures.

Poor interactivity

SYMPTOM: Lack of engagement

Retrospectives should be bright and full of energy, not a spiral of misery where only half the team are talking. Make sure that people have plenty of opportunities to engage with the material and the group in a variety of ways. Be tactile, be sensory. Different people like to interact in different ways, so make sure that you’re covering your bases. Check out the bonus item for a word of caution on activities though.

Being an afterthought

SYMPTOM: Poor quality actions

Ever turned up to a retrospective where there’s obviously no plan? Or there’s no room booked? Or nobody has any of the materials? Retrospectives should be treated as first class citizens, you wouldn’t turn up to your board update with no preparation.

Start thinking about your retrospective at least a day or two ahead of time. Plan it out carefully and make sure you have everything you need. Your aim is to provide a platform for the team to improve themselves, but it doesn’t hurt if you manage to delight them along the way.

No flow

SYMPTOM: All of the above

This is the absolute hardest thing to master. As people evolve their retrospectives they begin to incorporate more and more complicated activities. Retrospectives become spectacles. Personally, I love this, but there’s an underlying principle that is crucial. And without paying attention to this principle, your 6 step retrospective is simply not going to give you the output you hoped for.

This key principle is flow, and you achieve it through convergent-emergent-divergent thinking. This is a concept that permeates so many of the simple, but great, theories. It’s perhaps best typified in the double diamond. We operate in this way when we go through interconnected cycles of diverse ideation followed by a process of collapsing down to a smaller number of the higher quality ideas. It’s not complicated, but I’ll save a more detailed explanation for another time.

Conclusion

So there we have it, my top 9 most common retrospective pitfalls. If you can eliminate even a couple of these from your practice, I’m positive that you’ll see a significant improvement. Let me know how it goes, and feel free to share yours.

Retrospective Resources

Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great

Gamestorming

TastyCupcakes

Retromat

closeup photography of cairn stone
Photo by Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash

Bonus Item: Facilitation for Introverts

For a full-length article on how to better accommodate introverts, and avoid more retrospective pitfalls, check out my article here.

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