Importance of retrospectives

Whew, we are busy at work. The summer holidays are approaching for most and all tasks must be closed or transferred before the office will be empty. I personally have been buried in Lean consulting work, but also been gifted with tasks as facilitator of Retrospective Meetings with various teams.Why is Retrospective Meeting Important?

In a busy life, it is important to set aside time to adjust the collaboration, processes, tools, and other things that can be a hindrance in a team. To ensure that everyone has the opportunity to provide input, I recommend that teams use an external facilitator. There are many advantages in using an external facilitator:

Everyone has the opportunity to actively participate in the discussion without having “too many” hats

The discussions can easily be time boxed to ensure all relevant issues are handled

Sensitive issues are easier to deal with if a third party manages the battle

Purely theoretically, the Retrospective Meeting is part of Deming’s PDCA wheel: Plan-Do-Check-Act. The PDCA wheel is one of the foundations of both Agile and Lean. The idea is that you must continuously improve your work and focus on what creates value. At a Retrospective Meeting, it is important to confirm earlier actions (Check) progressed as agreed (Do) and if not then agree upon (Plan) what will happen in order to finish it (Act) or whether it should be dropped.

If you follow Linda Rising’s agenda for Retrospective Meetings (Checkin, Gather Data, Generate Insight, Plan and Checkout) then you are pretty sure to get “all the way around.” At least, if you do it “right”.

And what is “right”? As an external facilitator, I often like to start with a simple “team building” exercise to get on with the meeting. There are several reasons for this. The primary reason is that it is fun – both for me and for the participants. Additionally a good exercise reveals an awful lot of things about hierarchy, cooperation, mood, etc. If you know your Maslow, then you will often be able to identify the levels that will be present in the following paragraphs at the meeting.

Physical needs: Is it clear that the team is tired and exhausted after a hard period of work? Are there people who are out of balance mentally?

Security: Are there people in the team who exude an uncertainty in relation to work and morality?

Belonging: Are there any people who do not feel that they are part of the group? Laughing majority – does individuals feel left out?

Appreciation: Is there mutual respect within the team? Is there an understanding of each other’s differences?

Self-actualization: Is morale high in the team? Allows team creativity across seniority and job function? Is there acceptance / rejection of spontaneity and creativity?

It becomes evident if a team has an unstable staffing and the replaced team members are not admitted 100%, it is also clear if there is respect / fear of discussions and debates across seniority and job function, etc.

The patterns derived from Mazlow might be categorized as “facts of life” within the team, however as an external facilitator it proves valuable as ammunition in the remainder of the Retrospective Meeting in order to continuously improve and get a “high performing team”.

Most teams strive to get to a “Performing” stage as defined by Tuckman team theory. Tuckman defined four stages that all teams go through: Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing. Turmoil in the team can easily move a “Performing” team back into some of the earlier, non-optimal, stages. This is not necessarily an issues – at least if dealt with properly, e.g. at Retrospective Meetings.

During my time as a facilitator I have experienced some patterns that takes a “Performing” team back to earlier stages of Tuckman’s theory:

Releases of poor quality (blame game = bad karma and a dysfunctional team that went straight back into Storming)

Organizational changes with change in the team composition (new members not adopted properly)

Heavy work load (bad mood and lack of communication)

All events that may occur in every good team – and that cannot be controlled, but should be handled.

In addition to the above, structural, signals captured through a good team building exercise and dealt with sensibly structured agenda, it is important to detect the hidden signals present in the room aka nonverbal communication aka body language. Body language can roughly be divided into two categories:

All the body says. Here it is important to keep an eye on the gestures of the team. Keep an eye especially if people look out the window while others speak, does everyone follow the conversation and does any of the participants sit with arms crossed or open, etc.

All the mouth says. Emphasis of words can change all meaning in a sentence, and especially in languages, where irony and sarcasm are a central part of the language, a positively charged sentence can be pronounced to be perceived negatively.

If you want to know more about non-verbal communication and body language, I recommend you to google Allan Pease, who is an expert in the field.

After time “name dropping” and “theory sludge” I will also say that a great deal of empathy, humor and experience of the facilitator makes all the difference. It is important to be able to capture the hidden signals that exist in space (aka non-verbal communication).