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Iteration Retrospective: 10 tips to run meeting effectively

Iteration retrospective meeting is probably the most important event for the Agile team as it is the driving force for continuous improvement. It happens regularly, every iteration. It is timeboxed to a maximum of one hour and its purpose is to reflect on past iteration. During the event team discusses the results, reviews their practices and identifies ways to improve, in order to make small, continuous improvement steps.

The retrospective is a private event for the team and should be limited to Agile team members only. It is facilitated by Scrum Master, and he should invest a lot of effort into preparing it, since it makes a basis for improvement. From the facilitating perspective – how to run retrospective meeting as successfully as possible.

1. Keep meeting on track

The basis for the meeting should be an agenda. All items on the agenda need to be timeboxed and the agenda – to which the team needs to agree – posted on the wall. Agenda can also be used as a gentle reminder to refocus the group if the discussion gets off the track and Scrum Master should also introduce a timer to keep track of time.

2. Deal with problematic people

Every team member is different and different personalities need different approach from a Scrum Master. A naysayer complains about everything, begins every sentence with ‘Yes, but …’ and is focused on negative instead on good and positive. Solution? Ask them for proposal. If there’s a topic changer in your group, ask the group if they think the topic is relevant and agree on timeout signal. If there’s a silent one in the group, give him some positive encouragement to talk. And of course, there’s usually also the rock star, who has answer to everything. In order to keep him under control, try to discourage him by stepping behind him and avoiding eye contact and at the same time redirecting attention to others, asking them for opinion.

3. Minimize distractions

Step one to minimize distractions, is to set the ground rules. Cellphones should be silenced, laptops closed, titles left at the door and the person who speaks (one at a time) should be respected. These rules need to be established at the beginning of the meeting and shouldn’t be forced. Scrum Master should ask the team for suggestions and let them agree on the rules.

4. Prepare the meeting room properly

Keeping eye contact during such meetings is very important. That is why row of seats and speakers podiums should be avoided. Instead, arrange tables in ‘U’ shape. In case there is only one table, people should be place around it, for large groups a set of round tables could be a perfect solution. To release the tension and make setting as informal as possible, use refreshments (water, snacks, coffee). Remember also, to prepare all the tools, such as the whiteboard, pens, eraser, post-it notes, pens, markers, paper and flip charts, and don’t forget to test the equipment before the beginning of the meeting.

5. Master your facilitation skills

A facilitator is someone, who helps and enables the meeting to run smoothly and effectively, and whose goal is to support others to achieve exceptional performance. When facilitating the Retrospective meeting, Scrum Master’s role as a facilitator is to encourage others to talk and participate and to focus on how people participate in process of learning. He is a discussion leader, he keeps the meeting timeboxed, tracks the ideas, writes them down, speeds up the meeting or stops it when members need a break. He also needs to intervene if someone gets cut off while talking. A great tool that helps the conversation run smoothly, is the ‘talk token’. It helps eliminate the interruptions, as only the person holding the token is allowed to speak.

6. Agree on how to make decisions

One of the most effective decision making processes, that gets the team committed to the decision, is the consensus method. Its purpose is to get the acceptable solution – not necessarily the best, but the one majority agrees on and supports. The thumb up/down/aside voting method is usually the most simple and efficient to use – the consensus is reached, if there is no thumb down shown.

7. Handle off-topic discussions

It is not rare for an irrelevant debate to develop when discussing important matters. To avoid getting off topic and getting involved into long irrelevant discussions, introduce the parking lot. Draw a square, for example on the whiteboard, with letter ‘P’ in it. When you feel the discussion went off track, ask the team for consensus and put the subject into the parking lot. At the end of the meeting discuss items in the parking lot, wether they are important or not.

8. Identify Team level

For a Scrum Master it is crucial to determine its team level, to properly adjust facilitation techniques and activities. According to the team performance model (Tuckman’s Curve) developed by Bruce Wayne Tuckman, every team goes through the five different stages of team development. These stages are inevitable for a group to grow to the point where they are functioning effectively together and delivering high quality results. The stages are:

  • Forming: Team starts working together and heavily relies on Scrum Master and his facilitation abilities. Team needs a lot of brainstorming, silent activities, and a facilitator, who can help them to get to know each other and find ways to work together.
  • Storming: Members struggle for power and control. Scrum Master’s focus should be on managing conflicts.
  • Norming: Members start to trust each other, and Scrum Master has less influence. His role is to ensure that the team members are working collaboratively and may begin to function as a coach to the members of the team.
  • Performing: Team is functioning on a very high level, can fix their own problems, is efficient and self-organizing. Scrum Master’s role is to take care they don’t slip back.
  • Adjourning: Project is coming to an end and members are starting to move into different directions. Scrum Master needs to ensure success gets celebrated and capture best practices for future use.

9. Ask great questions that lead to great answers

Instead of asking open ended questions, Scrum Master should ask open ended ones. This will help him dig deeper into subject and gather more insights to help the team. Some examples of the questions:
– What are we assuming here?
– What do we need to get started?
– Who have we not been talking to, but we should?
– What are our options?
– What have we tried before that helped/didn’t help?

10. Always control yourself

Every facilitator should be able to control himself – his feelings and body language. He should have a positive attitude, smile, his arms shouldn’t be crossed and he should never look down. He needs to stay grounded and keep in mind that he is not responsible for how the team acts. Scrum Master shouldn’t take part in the meeting – he is the facilitator after all. What he should be doing, is influencing team members, encouraging them  to talk and engage in activities – especially the quiet participants, and speak clearly and slow enough for everyone to understand him.