Upgrade Your Scrum Retrospectives

Written by Jeff Meyer
on June 11, 2015

How do you get a team full of developers, who are generally comprised of introverts, to respond to a session where the key underlining topic is discussing their feelings? That, to me, has always been the ultimate challenge of the Scrum retro.

Developers, by nature, are fairly critical. So talking about things that didn’t work and need improvement can often be easier topics. Talking about things that went well, or, heaven forbid, complimenting other folks on things they have done does not come naturally.

When I have talked to experienced Scrum folks about retrospectives, the responses always started with, “Have you read Esther Derby’s ‘Agile Retrospectives’?” Well, at the time, I had not, so I dove in. I personally found the book to be more project “lessons learned” focused than Scrum retrospective focused, and given the volume of suggestions for doing retrospectives, it can be a long read.

I can read about an activity, but the proof has always been in the pudding for me… I need to do the activity to see what works, both for my style as a ScrumMaster and for the makeup of the teams that I work with.

I have settled in on using a 4 quadrant system that is adapted with only minor changes from Derby’s “Learning Matrix” activity. I create quadrants to try to get folks to list items that fall into 4 categories: (1) things that made you “happy”, (2) things that made you “sad”, (3) “ideas”, and (4) “flowers” (or recognition of others). Here’s how it’s done:

1. Create a 4 quadrant diagram on a whiteboard.

2. Allow the team to throw out items to be placed in any of the 4 quadrants, and generally the brainstorm should last for 5-10 minutes to fill up the board.  (The only quadrant of particular note is the “flowers” section, since it follows a specific format for me.  Who is recognizing whom and why?) Note: either have folks walk up to the board and write things themselves or field comments and write them up.

3. After the board is filled out, read off the “happy” quadrant and the “flowers” quadrant.

4. See if any clarification is needed for the “ideas” or “sad” quadrants.

5. Each team member will be given 3 dot votes to put on any “idea” or “sad” item, which organizes the items into aggregate importance. I like the team members to get out of their seats and add their votes rather than have them shout them out. Note: a person can spend all 3 votes on the same item if it is really important to discuss.

6. Starting with the most voted on item, spend 5-10 minutes seeing if there are actionable team changes to fix or implement the items discussed.  Note: guide this conversation so it isn’t a complaint session, but is turned into constructive items that the team controls and can change to improve their work.

7. Move to the next most voted item until the hour is up, or until no other multiple voted items remain (I typically avoid anything that didn’t get more than 1 vote).  Depending on what happens, I typically find that 3-4 items can get adequately covered.