Retrospectives: Variety is Key

I strongly recommend high variation in both format and facilitator of retrospectives.

I don’t hear this take often, and I certainly don’t see it at a lot of shops, but I think it has tremendous merit.

Let’s talk it over.

I don’t wanna be pro forma, & I know I’ve mentioned this a lot, but I gotta say it again: for me, and for some of you, geekery is a side story right now, when people are out in the streets pressing for change.

Stay safe, stay strong, stay kind, stay angry. Black lives matter.

So let me sketch, as quickly as possible, the retro-scheme I see the most of, and don’t care for. It’s got four columns. "Didn’t go well". "Went Well", "Action Items", "Kudos".

Sometimes they change the text of the columns.

One person, the same person each time, leads the meeting, by gathering stickies, virtual or otherwise, and plunking them on a board in the right column. That person typically groups the ones that seem closely related.

Now we "process" them. This involves reading them each out loud, looking around the room, sometimes identifying the author and asking them what they meant. We get a chorus of "yes" or a cluster of "no", sometimes a little discussion. Very occasionally, an active disagreement.

And that’s pretty much it. Some teams review the prior sprint’s retro, some don’t, some check in on action items, some don’t. In the end, we’re all pretty bored, and we leave the meeting in order to get back to some kind of something we value more than the retro meeting.

So, what’s wrong with this? Well. In one phrase: "the same thing that’s wrong with every boring repetitive structure intended to produce dynamic human interaction: however well-meant, structures organize creativity, they don’t incite it, and they often inhibit it.

So I propose we, 1) change the format every time. 2) change the leader every time. and 3) [bonus] change the location every time. The goal: de-center ourselves just the right amount for dynamic creative discourse about who/how we were & who/how we wish to be.

Why de-center? Why just the right amount? Why that vague who/how crap?

All, each and every one, good questions.

We want to be de-centered, ajar, off-balance, not usual, a little off, slightly unsettled, because even modest differences in my circumstances can often trigger significant differences in my viewpoint.

Anyone with even mild rhetorical chops will have noticed how valuable and even urgent finding "the right words" is when you’re in dialogue with someone else. It is often literally the difference between show-stopping conflict and uplifting collaboration.

The thing is, "the right words" isn’t a fixed point. It depends on who’s there. It depends on the triggering context. It depends on subtle cues about recent events, in or outside the team. It depends on where you’re standing.

When I am not standing in my usual place, I am not seeing what I usually see. I’m more alert, more open, and more likely to be able to formulate a different idea or a different expression than when I am in that usual place.

We want just the right amount of this. Too much de-centering, and we’re likely to be so weirded out by context that we clam up. That’s exactly as useful as repeating the same old answers to the same old questions is: not at all.

Getting just the right amount is hard. But there’s good news: my too-much and your too-much are likely to be close but different. By varying the extent of the de-centering, we get access to different voices than we’re used to.

You know that one guy? The one who’s always speaking to every question, always making noise, always (perhaps inadvertently) shutting out the others in the room? (Okay, yes, guilty.) We’ll be okay if that guy is too-muched but someone we never hear from is just-righted.

Changing the leader and changing the format are in a good range for just the right amount. There are no guarantees, and every team and every individual are different. But we’re playing the odds here, and it’s a good bet these two factors will land in someone’s just-right zone.

And what about this who/how we were and who/how we wish to be? Well, here we strike at the actual heart of the purpose of a retrospective: to help us embrace change.

Think of "better", in the sense of the imaginary person we wish we were, and in aggregate the imaginary team we wish we were. Everyone who is mentally well has "better". And it’s not a single vector of possibility, but in most of us, many many vectors.

I have dozens of these possible vectors, and most of us do. Stronger, kinder, calmer, smarter, faster, more supportive, more engaged, more valuable, more … the list goes on and on.

And that stuff, very very often, is not listed as a corporate goal, but — in fact — would mesh nicely with a great many corporate and team wishes. Hell, lots of people wish I were those things, not just me. 🙂

The purpose of the retrospective is surface those "betters", to mesh them, to support them, and to act on them. The only way to do that is to by thinking & feeling & talking about them:

who, or how, I, or we, was last week, and who, or how, I, or we, wish to be.

I can change w/o any act of will, and I can not change even with an act of will. But if I can line up a change with an act, the odds of success go up enormously. Retrospectives are one of the most straightforward ways to do that, but only when they present genuine opportunity to.

So I recommend we vary our retrospectives a lot, and often, by both format and facilitator, and even location, because the mild de-centering increases the openings for us to embrace change.

There are sites out there with hundreds of retro variants. And they’re not just labeled differently or given clever artwork. "Take stickies and write one word on them. Discuss." "Make and sort a list of the things you could do to guarantee the next sprint will fail. Discuss."

"If you could make one full sentence magically appear in your CEO’s breakfast bowl of Alpha-Bits, what would it be?"

"Which part of our process could we throw away with zero impact on our performance?"

Some of these ideas look totally whacky. Doesn’t matter. They’re still worth a try. If nothing else, they’ll give us some laughs, and laughter is pretty good medicine.

Select a facilitator by chance (with warning). Let her pick any format you haven’t done for a month. Go to it.

You’ll have great facilitators and weak ones, but believe it or not, that part of the de-centering is important to. Your best facilitator rarely speaks to the issues in the room, by design and intent. So give her a chance to be the patient instead of the doctor.

If your same-old facilitator is a little weak, rotating that job to other people will also give that person a chance to learn about different styles, and they might learn a whole lot in a hurry. It’s a rare person who can get better at facilitating without practice on both sides.

So that’s it, really. I have talked these ideas over with several experts in retrospectives, including ones we know and honor for their work in this area. None of them have overcalled me on the idea. Some of them think it’s exactly right, others like it but don’t emphasize it.

But mix it up: Vary your retrospective format and facilitator on a regular base, so we can get just the right amount of de-centering that will allow us to get at who and how we wish to be.

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