Thursday, January 26, 2012

Adopting Retrospectives? Start by learning to learn

Retrospectives is a great practice that is widely adopted by agile teams. I've worked with a large number of teams across different organizations and one of the first lessons you learn after you coached a number of teams is that while improving team performance to deliver faster and better is important, what's even more important is the team learning to learn. Continuous improvement is a big commitment, and not easy to do especially for knowledge work. That's why I tend to take a different approach for teams new to retrospectives and instead of setting improvement as the goal for them, I focus them into learning how to discuss problems in a structured way and coming up with simple tactical fixes that can be implemented fast. 

Structured - many teams struggle to discuss problems effectively, the first goal is to find a simple framework to structure the problem discussion. A simple one I use often is setting a simple matrix on a big whiteboard, the top row I place the discussion topics, divide them with vertical lines and then divide the verticals horizontally into 4 buckets, challenges, causes ("why"), easy fix, harder fix. This is a simplified 5 whys approach to root case analysis. I then get the team to brainstorm and start mapping stickies into these buckets. This provides a simple structure to the conversation.

Simple and Fast - Once the team identifies a number of improvements or fixes they believe can improve their problems, I encourage them to start by selecting the simple ones. Within their span of control, limited analysis needed, and easy to implement. Finally, the fixes should be fast to do, 1-2 days max in effort and duration.

It's not initially important whether the fixes actually provide sustainable improvement or not. That will come with time once the team learns how to learn by tackling smaller changes often. This approach allows them to move at their own pace, is sustainable and will likely provide a positive reinforcement as they can finish what they started. Stop starting and start finishing also applies to continuous improvement.

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