Becoming Agile: Introducing the Retrospective

There are many software companies that transition from a waterfall methodology to an agile methodology to more effectively adapt as the customer’s understanding of the requirements evolves and the scope is refined. In contrast, there are companies that move from a “do anything you like” way of organizing work to an agile way of work to gain total team involvement in moving towards a defined set of goals. No matter the end of the spectrum you are approaching agile from, invariably there is period of transition where agile practices are being ramped up and prior practices are adapted or discarded.

At the first phase of this transition, I believe there is no more important practice to adopt than the Retrospective. An Agile Retrospective is a meeting that is held at the end of some predefined period, often referred to as an iteration or sprint. The Agile Retrospective is born from the heart of the Principles behind the Agile Manifesto which state that,

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”

The retrospective is intended to facilitate continuous improvement of processes and practices of the team. Fortunately, there’s no agile practice easier to get started. While nearly all agile practices require buy-in from the top to the bottom of an organization, which is certainly preferable, the retrospective can be introduced with the buy-in of the team. The retrospective is for the team and by the team to facilitate the team’s own improvement. This implies that there should not be feedback from external sources that the team must address.

The retrospective can take many forms, but the easiest to get started with is Plus/Delta. At the core, the Plus/Delta discussion is about what went well, what could be better, and the formulation of action items in response.

Pluses (+)

  • What did we do well?

Emphasis improvements made since the last iteration. When completing a large increment of work, find creative ways to congratulate the team on a job well done. While I will not discourage giving recognition to individuals for effort going above and beyond, you will want to avoid causing anyone to feel left out or like they are not a part of the team. Avoid recognizing 4 out of 5 of the team members for example.

As the organizer of the meeting, I recommend taking notes during the iteration of times the time worked particularly well together to ensure that there are a good number of pluses.

Deltas (Δ)

  • What could we improve upon?

In the most positive way possible, address any areas where the team could us improvement. When there is agreement, a “plus one” can be added to existing items. This help to prioritize which deltas deserve action to be taken.

A Word of Caution

The retrospective is focused on improving the team as a whole. Avoid providing corrective feedback to individuals during the retrospective as this could work against the cohesiveness the team is trying to build during the meeting. Additionally, this type of feedback, as suggested in “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr, is best given as close as possible to the situation being addressed so that important context is not lost.

Action Items

  • What can we do to improve?

Action items are created in response to deltas, but occasionally may be used to further refine or encourage desirable behavior. There is only so much bandwidth for work towards improvement, so be thoughtful about which action items to take on.

To avoid having team members cite lack of follow through on action items at the next retrospective it is important to assign the action item to a member of the team who will take responsibility. It is often beneficial to track the progress of these action items the same way other work is currently being tracked in the organization to ensure the action items are not forgotten. If this is not an option for your organization, a whiteboard or Post-it® note will work just as well. At the following retrospective any action items from the prior retrospective may be listed as pluses if completed or continue to move forward as action items.

The Plus/Delta discussion is not a magic formula, and after a few meetings can seem monotonous. To prevent losing the interest of the team, I recommend checking out these additional resources that may address additional goals, such as team cohesion or improving the teams relationship, which debatably may be the most important type of improvement to address. When starting the journey towards being agile, there’s no better place to start than the retrospective.