Retrospective Changes Culture First Time It’s Used

Recently a discussion kicked up in Twitter about picking the one, key Agile practice.  Obviously the answer can vary by situation, but the consensus I saw settled on the retrospective as the answer.  Declan Whelan, in reply to Esther Derby, seemed to say it best:

@estherderby If there was only 1 agile practice what would it be for you? For me, it would be retrospectives as they are foundational.

I fully agree that retrospectives are the one powerful Agile practice to do if no others are yet implemented.  I posted:

@estherderby The first retrospective we had was stilted and shallow. And it improved the culture of the team dramatically!

As I posted that brief message, I knew a blog post was needed to fully explain the strong statement.

Getting To Retrospective

The team had been doing “Scrum” for some weeks.  I put Scrum in quotes because we really were not doing enough of the practices to use the term.  Key members of this team and engineering management were not fully committed to Agile and Scrum.  We were adopting practices slowly, as the acceptance of these key players allowed.  We were doing:

  • Weekly Sprints
  • Weekly planning meetings
  • Daily team status meetings, like a daily Scrum
  • Using a team board with tasks

I had been requesting that we start doing retrospectives, even just do one to try it out.  The biggest objection was the perception that it would be a waste of time on a “feel good” measure of little value.  Percistent discussion and pointing out the well known desire to gather “lessons learned” finally prevailed.  We scheduled one retrospective as a test.  Maybe they just wanted to stop me asking.  Whatever works, right?

The Culture

Prior to beginning our migration to Scrum, this team had a very traditional structure.  A brilliant engineer was the Team Lead.  He determined tasks for each of the team members.  As we started doing sprints and team level planning, this lead continued the practice of defining tasks for each team member.  We shifted to emphasizing that each team member needed to accept the suggested tasks.  The reality remained that the Team Lead was determining the work of the team.  (This practice was not Scrum, nor Agile.  A dicussion of the value of such a slow shift to Scrum is another blog post.  Or an essay!)

Several members of the development team were quiet.  When discussing development one-on-one, they had great ideas and interesting things to say.  When in the team meetings, they were largely silent and simply agreed with the more dominate personalities in the group.

The Setup

I chose our Training Room as the venue for the retrospective.  This is also the same room where sprint planning meetings were held.  Usually the room has four tables pushed together in the middle of the room to form one large table with 12-14 chairs around it.  For most meetings this arrangement is appropriate but for others, it is not conducive to the meeting goals.  (See

I split the tables appart, pushing them out to the edges of the room with the chairs lining three sides of the open space in the middle.  The team board showing the task cards for the sprint just ended was positioned at the front on the wide marker boards, now erased and ready for writing.  Sticky notes and pens were liberally sprinkled around the room for attendee use during the meeting.

The Meeting

During the meeting several notable things occurred.

  • As attendees arrived they made comments about the organization of the room.  Some were quizical, some were intregued.  Two who brought notebook computers were unhappy at the lack of a table for thier electronic distractions.
  • I asked each attendee to state what value they though they could get out to the meeting.  Their responses were interesting.  More important was getting each of them to talk so each would be more likely to speak up during the meeting.
  • Each was asked to write sticky notes of what went well and what could be improved.  This minimized the effect of dominating personalities and ensured that everone had the opportunity to contribute.
  • Dot voting with performed to find the top improvements to work on.  The Team Lead was particularly irritated that his three dots were not enough to force his desired improvements to the top of the list.

Immediate Changes

As I think about it today, this retrospective was not particularly effective for the practical work of the project.  We did not even execute well on the choosen top improvements.  The team member interaction started changing from that day forward.

  • Everyone contributed at a team meeting, maybe for the first time.  And it was not just the individual answer at the beginning, though I’m sure that opened the door.  Every person provided sticky notes and comments throughout the meeting.
  • Several times comments along the lines of “I didn’t know you thought that” were heard.  The following planning meeting that afternoon was more lively than ever.
  • Right there, in the meeting, the Team Lead role began to be absorbed into the team.  This was difficult for the dominate personalities to take but the “human side” of the team started forming in a positive way.

Retrospective Power

As time went by, this team began to gel further.  Participation in the meetings and with each other increased.  The team unified further, more easily able to request changes from the larger organization.  We also had serveral meetings that dove to the heart of individual difficulties, something not possible without higher levels of trust.

Several of the dominate personalities eventually left the company, perhaps in part as a side effect of at more egalitarian team environment.  We continued to have retrospectives and attempted to apply the actions to improve our work and team.  This team eventually produced the product and has now moved on, mostly joining into a team designing our next generation project.  Retrospectives are a key part of the work and we never skip them, ever.

If you are doing a slow adoption of Agile practices and must pick only one practice, do retrospectives.  Do them regularly and with serious attention.  Daily meetings, sprints and team planning are powerful and look easier to start doing.  Real change on with the team’s human dynamics really happen when the retrospective becomes part of your habitual practice.


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