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Retrospectives – Back to Basics

Retrospective

For a new Scrum Master, the mechanics of getting started with retrospectives are deceptively easy. Somebody tells them to write three columns on the whiteboard (What Went Well, What Did Not, Ideas) and to facilitate the discussion. The Scrum Master makes sure that management is not invited to the meeting. He/she Identifies the team members who are not participating and try to get them talking. Simple. The retrospective becomes a blend of problems mixed with solutions and “action items” for the next sprint. If the team is lucky, it identifies the most valuable areas for improvement. Unfortunately for many teams, they go through the motions but do not get to the heart of their biggest problems/opportunities. It becomes a stale ritual and the team plateaus.

Surprisingly, many Scrum Masters fall short on the basics of how to conduct a retrospective. They think that all it takes is writing the three columns on the board. Properly done, it actually starts as soon as sprint planning is done.

In their book “Agile Retrospectives – Making Good Teams Great”, Esther Derby and Diana Larsen suggest the following structure for a retrospective:

  1. Set the stage – get the team in the right mindset for a retrospective
  2. Gather data – identify the key things that happened during the sprint
  3. Generate insights – about those things and why they happened
  4. Decide what to do – new practices to improve
  5. Close the retrospective – take a minute to step back and reflect on the sprint, the team’s accomplishments, and the retrospective itself

Lots of different techniques exist for each of the stages of a retrospective. The art is in the Scrum Master recognizing which one fits the team at that particular moment in time.

To set the stage for the retrospective, the Scrum Master may remind the team that the retrospective is a safe environment. They could also do a check in where they go around the room and ask each person “How are you doing today?” to engage the team. Another technique is to ask people “if the team were a car, what kind/make/model of car were we in this sprint?” and record each person’s answer on the board. This can provide an interesting reference point to revisit if someone says the team was a Pinto but during the remainder of the retrospective does not point out any problems that occurred during the sprint.

In gathering data about the sprint, the Scrum Master and team consider:

  • The sprint goal
  • The sprint backlog and the results (done, not finished, etc) for each story.
  • Impediments or challenges that occurred during the sprint. Laying them out on a calendar can help illustrate how they affected the sprint and generate conversation for how to handle them in the future (the Scrum Master may get in the habit of noting these as they happen).
  • Is the team going through a storming phase? Asking team members to track how they were feeling about the sprint during specific stages of the sprint can help surface opportunities for working agreements, practices the team should adopt, etc.
  • After trying to remember what happened over the last week or two (they know better than to do three or four week-long sprints) the team and Scrum Master may start to note some events as they happen to make data gathering easier in the retrospective.

To generate insights, the team can approach the discussion a number of different ways:

  • Was every story closed? If not, what state was each one in at the end of the sprint? Ask why. Then ask why again.
  • Did the team stretch yet still meet the sprint goal? Reflecting on what the team did well could reinforce those practices and also set the stage for a discussion about how to take it to the next level.
  • Is there a lot of discussion about whether the team should adopt certain practices? The insights could be focused on things the team to start doing, stop doing, and continue doing.

Teams are usually pretty good at coming up with ideas for how to do things differently. Trying to do all of them at once or forgetting about them in the throes of the next sprint are common pitfalls.  A good Scrum Master will gather these ideas as the team identifies them during the retrospective. A great Scrum Master will sense when the team has not really gotten to the heart of an issue or opportunity and prod them to drill down to the heart of the matter.

Once the team has identified ideas or new practices to try in the next sprint, posting them near the Scrum board is an easy way to quickly remind the team about them when the team is gathered around the board during the daily standup. The remaining ideas go into the Insight Backlog. This backlog can be evaluated along with new ideas that come out of each retrospective to decide which ones to try next.

Some formats for gathering data and generating insights include:

  • (Old reliable) What Went Well, What Did Not, Improvements. Team members write ideas on sticky notes and put them in the respective columns. Dot voting for which ideas to adopt.
  • Reviewing results for each story, conducting 5 whys for each one.
  • Start Doing, Stop Doing, More Of. Again, sticky notes placed by team members can help with participation.
  • Sailboat. What things are the wind in the team’s sails, propelling it? What are the anchors that are slowing it down? Another variation is Motorboat, where the team identifies the anchors that are slowing down the boat (team) and they can even place them a different ‘depths’ to indicate their severity.

Reflections

  • There are many ways to conduct a retrospective. The Scrum Master’s job is to find the right way to help the team improve at that particular moment in time.
  • Overcomplicating the format of the retrospective can get in the way of improvement.
  • Letting the format of the retrospective get stale can result in team members who have shut down from boredom before they even enter the room.
  • The Product Owner should be there. They are a member of the team after all.
  • In closing the retrospective, take time for Appreciations. Good people aren’t just working for a paycheck.

Product Ownership – How Can I Best Serve the Team Today?

POServeTeam

As a Product Owner, I start each day by asking myself, “How can I best serve the team today?” The PO and Scrum Master’s roles as servant leaders is not news. The challenge for the PO is translating this mindset into actions. It is all about mastering the cadence of product ownership.

Assuming that a backlog is in place and the team is working on the user stories, the Product Owner’s typical activities are something like:

  1. Attend daily standups. Every day.
  2. Help the Scrum Master resolve certain blocking issues for the current sprint.
  3. Meet with team members to answer questions about stories in the current sprint.
  4. Prepare for the next backlog grooming meeting. Revisit backlog prioritization, identify which stories will be groomed, add Acceptance Tests/Criteria or other information to the stories.  Consult with end users or business stakeholders where appropriate.
  5. Facilitate backlog grooming meetings with the team.
  6. Receive demos of or perform testing for stories as they are completed as part of the sprint. This is typically part of the team’s Definition of Done.
  7. Meet with clients/stakeholders/users to discuss and define future product plans.
  8. Participate in the team retrospective.
  9. Facilitate the sprint demo.
  10. Prepare for the next sprint planning meeting by revisiting backlog priorities and assessing progress against the Release Plan.
  11. Attend sprint planning.

This is a long list of responsibilities. Note the choice of words. They are not just tasks or meetings – they are key responsibilities that must be fulfilled in order for the team to function properly.

Organizational skills are key here.  As a product owner, I use a couple of different things to manage the volume and complexity of this role:

  1. A calendar for scheduling meetings and recurring events. Of course this includes daily meetings, weekly backlog grooming meetings and other ceremonies. I also schedule time to sit down by myself to prep for the next grooming meeting or to prep for the next sprint planning meeting. In doing so I am much more likely to actually do these rather than to forget about them or push them aside when a lot of other things pop up.
  2. A personal Kanban board (I use Trello) to keep up with requests that are made of me.  This could include questions from stakeholders/users/clients, information requests from developers, research items, or any other tasks that I need to take care of. I find that a Kanban board helps with prioritization. It also helps with tracking items that are in progress, such as when I need to request information from users to make a priority or feature decision for the developers. Some of these activities cannot be done in one setting so tracking them on the Kanban board helps prevent them from falling through the cracks. Limiting personal work in progress can help avoid task saturation and the mistakes that ensue.

Reflections

  • The Product Owner must understand and develop a cadence for fulfilling their responsibilities. Operating in a haphazard manner hurts them and the team.
  • Managing personal work in progress helps reduce mistakes and the number of things that fall through the cracks.
  • No personal organization system is perfect, so I also make it very clear to the Scrum Master and the team to call me out whenever I have fallen short on fulfilling my responsibilities. I am there to serve them, after all.

The ScrumMaster as Servant Leader

eadership in a modern organization is a paradox whereby leaders provide a vision of what the organization should strive to achieve but then serve those in the organization in order to realize that vision.  This is embodied in the management philosophy of servant leadership.

As defined by the Alliance for Servant Leadership, the principles of servant leadership are:

  • Transformation as a vehicle for personal and institutional growth.
  • Personal growth and its importance to the individual and the institution.
  • Enabling environments that encourage individuals to share ideas and express opinions.
  • Service as a fundamental reason that people want to lead.
  • Trusting relationships based on mutual respect, trust, civility, acceptance, and reciprocity.
  • Creating commitment rather than imposing controls in order to accomplish valued missions.
  • Community building where individuals work effective together, as teams.
  • Nurturing the spirit as a way to provide joy and fulfillment in meaningful work.

These principles fit squarely with an agile organization’s values of teamwork, collaboration, trust, continuous improvement, extraordinary service, and empowerment.

Exceptional leaders are confident enough to and capable of following a servant leader approach; those who are less skilled are autocratic. A Scrum Master can practice servant leadership by:

  • Seldom, if ever, telling anyone on the team what to do. Becoming a Scrum Master involves learning the various mechanisms and ceremonies associated with Scrum.  The most profound aspect of leading a Scrum team, however, is not in learning a methodology. Rather it is about asking very deep, probing questions and helping the team find its way to a solution rather than giving them the solution.  The benefits and impact of this are significant both in terms of the outcomes but also in the satisfaction and commitment that this builds in team members. It is one thing to say that team members are empowered; it is quite another to actually empower them.
  • Not assigning tasks to team members. For an organization transitioning to agile, other authority figures may misinterpret this as a lack of leadership by the Scrum Master.  If those authority figures attempt to direct the team, the Scrum Master should educate them regarding what it means for a team to be self-organizing.
  • Reminding the team about the product vision and sprint goals. Note that it is also key for the Product Owner for articulate product vision throughout an effort.
  • Removing roadblocks that stand in the team’s way.
  • One of the characteristics of an effective Scrum team is that most of its members have a general enough skill set to perform a variety of tasks and do whatever it takes to “move the ball down the field” as a unit. This requires that people who used to be very focused and very good at a specific type of work or technology develop and grow a broader skill set.  A manager serves their team by helping to steer them towards personal growth opportunities.  He/she enables this personal growth by encouraging team members to seek training for new skills and to take on assignments that are outside of their comfort zone.

Got an Impediment? Great!

StopPart of a ScrumMaster’s job is to remove any impediments that are preventing the team from making progress towards the sprint goal. Often, the biggest challenge is not removing the impediment – it is actually getting people to identify the impediment in the first place.
 
Perception

Sometimes it’s a matter of perception.  Some people are reluctant to raise “blocking issues” because they are afraid that it is an indictment of the people that may be causing the issue.  Solution: call them “Impediments.”  Sometimes a simple euphemism changes the perception.

Visibility

Often someone on the team knows about an impediment and mentions it to their team mates and/or brings it up during daily Scrum but it gets lost in the shuffle. Maintaining a highly visible impediments list on a board in the team’s work area servers a dual purpose:

  1. Helps to keep the focus on removing known impediments
  2. Indirectly discourages individuals from becoming impediments

Encouragement

A typical management response to impediments is concern and root causes analysis (“How could this possibly happen? We need to make sure this never happens again!”). The Scrum Master’s response when a team member raises an impediment should be to say, “Great!  Thanks for sharing.  Now that we all know about it, we can address it.” A team that is comfortable discussing impediments is far ahead of one whose first instinct is to sweep them under the rug or to switch into CYA mode and run for cover.

Reflections:

  • Build a team culture that views impediments as a natural part of any challenging project.
  • Ensure that impediments are visible to everyone.
  • The retrospective is a great place to discuss impediments and how to avoid them in the future.