Retrospectives: Facilitating

One of the things that will contribute to the success of the retrospective is the facilitator and how they go about doing the retrospective. In an ideal world, this person should be a neutral, external person as in that case they won't have any biases. However, in reality this is very seldom the case and as a result it often lands up being someone from the team. In this post I would like to go over some of the things that you can do in order to ensure that you are able to run a practical and successful retrospective.

Scaffolding

As we briefly touched upon in the previous post, a facilitator is there to create the structure of the retrospective so that the participants can "hang" their content off of it. They need to explain the items that they will be going over and how long they should take. You may have been to a retrospective where the facilitator asks the other members what they would like to go through. This may seem like a good idea at first, but in reality it wastes time in trying to find the topics for the team to focus on.

Doing a well run retrospective isn't an easy task at it shouldn't be treated as a causal meeting with no real agenda. As the facilitator you need to be able to motivate the people and keep things fresh. In addition, the ability to clearly explain and spread the knowledge is of utmost importance. As a facilitator, you need to be "invisible" in the sense that you shouldn't take the spotlight or dominate the process but instead be there to guide the team along. Lastly, you should always maintain a sense of time and gently notify the team if they are coming up to their allotted, but whatever you do never cut the conversation short.

Feedback

If you are in the lucky situation where you have other skilled people in running retrospectives, ask them to come in and sit in on one of yours so that they can provide you some feedback. Preferably, this feedback should be given to you after the retrospective, as providing it during the process could throw you off. The same would go for team members as well.

Actions

The outcome of the retrospective should be to identify actions to take, that all the members of the group agree on that should be completed by the next retrospective. In order to make sure that everyone understands what is required of the, it is suggested that you follow the SMARTER approach. To give a quick recap, it is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time bound, Ethical/Energizing & Recorded and is a guide line to ensuring that everyone knows what a task is and what is expected of them.

Another thing that seems to crop up is that tasks are assigned to people that aren't actually present in the retrospective. For example, someone may say "The operations people need to give us access to the diagnostics logs so we can see what is going on.". However, since they aren't present in the meeting you as the facilitator you should respond by saying "They operations people aren't here, but what can we do to make it happen?". A possible action that could be created is that someone could organize a meeting with the operations people and discuss with them the problems we are facing.

Even though you may have created actions that follow the SMARTER approach, people may still forget about them during the sprint as they are caught up in their work. In order to help mitigate this, try to ensure that all the actions are assigned to someone within the team. Be careful that you don't overload particular people with too many tasks, as they wont get done. Instead, try to spread them evenly across all the participants.

Ground Rules

Whenever you run a retrospective there should always be some ground rules in place to make sure that people focus their attention on the task at hand. One basic ground rule that should always be there is that everyone be "present" in the meeting. What I mean by that is that they aren't on their phones or laptops. If they are working on something else then it not only tells the rest of the participants that it is okay to do so, but you also land up repeating things as they often aren't concentrating.

Watch Out!

Often in any meeting you have a few people that tend to dominate the conversation. The point of a retrospective is that all the participants can give their input freely as everyone has their part of the story to tell. If you see this is happening you should try invite other people into the conversation to give you their thoughts. An alternative solution would be to ask the members to think of issues in silence before presenting them to the group, which then gives everyone an opportunity to speak. If a particular person constantly keeps on dominating the conversation try take a short break or even talk to them before the meeting about it. Often, they may not even be aware of what they are doing

From a facilitators point of view, you may also fall into the trap where you control all the writing by asking the members to call out items while you write them up on a whiteboard. To be honest, this is the way I have seen most retrospectives run. Instead, you should ask for as much participation from the team as possible by getting them to jot down their own ideas. You can also increase participation by asking the participants to stick their own notes onto the whiteboard or flip chart. In this way they can also start to identify themes and you can just be there to point out any that they may have missed.

If you do have to do some writing for the participants, try to confirm with them that you have correctly interpreted what they said. In addition, write it exactly as they say and don't paraphrase as this may give them the perception that they aren't being listened to.

There are bound to be times where discussions get heated and people start throwing names around. As a facilitator, you should jump in to protect the people and prevent any of this from happening. You could ask the participants to use "I" language which focuses on their perspective. For example, instead of saying "Luke always checked in the binaries, even though they are generated on every build", you could rephrase it using "I" language as follows "I feel upset that the binaries are always been checked in on every build, even though they aren't required."

One thing to take note of is that people often make some sort of non-verbal cues. You should try to take note of these and try to look for patterns and try understand the meaning behind them. Once you understand the reasoning you can decide how to handle it.

Be Confident

If you as the facilitator act nervous, continuously cross your arms or come across as being hesitant this will create an uneasy environment were people aren't as willing to provide feedback. If you are feeling flat and drained this will translate to the team as well, so always try to be engaged and full of energy, but don't go overboard as this might cause introverted people to go into their shell even more. You need to create a sense of confidence, so keep your posture straight, don't put your hands in your pockets or lean and sit down.

Another quick tip, is to avoid scheduling retrospectives after lunch as this can cause people to feel drowsy and as such as dip in energy levels. The same goes for rooms that are too warm.

As you can see, one of the most important outcomes of a retrospective is ensuring that everyone’s point of view is heard. Try create actions that are allocated to people and always be confident and energetic while facilitating. This isn't a simple job, but when done right it can get some really great results.

Until next time...keep learning!

Mauro Da Silva

Learning everyday about software development, leadership & self improvement

South Africa