Fun Feedback-Gathering Techniques for Project Retrospectives

Emily Emerson | November 7, 2017 | Mobile App Development Mobile Strategy

At the end of every Sprint (or every project), you find yourself in the same meeting, being solicited for feedback. Your Scrum Master or project manager always opens the meetings the same way, “Retrospectives are a best practice used by teams to reflect on the way things went in order to keep improving what we do and how well we do it. Let’s start with what went well.” And in every meeting you find yourself wondering why there aren’t any better feedback-gathering techniques for project retrospectives.

Meanwhile, Bob is engrossed in his potato chips; Jane is checking out the latest Apple release while John stares blankly at the wall. Sue rattles off the same feedback she provided on the last 3 projects. Dick sits and documents it all—another checkmark off his list.

Sound familiar?

Well, it shouldn’t. Not if you’re doing things right, anyway. And don’t blame the Scrum Master. The most likely scenario is the company is still following the Retrospective approach taught in that “comprehensive” Agile class they all attended a year ago. Unfortunately, we see these symptoms far too often. So let’s take a closer look at the cause of the disease, find out what it was that led to the team’s disengagement, and check out some novel approaches to eliciting project feedback.

Personality Types & Ability: Sue’s an extrovert. She reliably provides the bulk of your feedback but she also tends to dominate the conversation with her venting. Jane is a new junior employee still getting up to speed. At her last company, people were really sensitive to feedback so unfortunately she’s been conditioned to think honest feedback isn’t always welcome, even though this is no longer the case. Bob, a respected member of the tech team, might provide some valuable insight but is clearly more interested in his chips. John is too shy to speak up, though his opinions are always valuable.

Your time is up: Sure the team provided some good insight. But by the time Dick was able to capture everyone’s initial feedback the hour block was up. There just wasn’t time for team brainstorming or deeper analysis to figure out the root causes and solutions for improvement. As a result, no hard questions were asked, and the Retrospective didn’t even scratch the surface.

Retrospectives fail to bring about change.
The truth is retrospective feedback is often dominated by a few individuals and revolves around their limited comments. How many times have you followed the same Retrospective format and as a result heard the same comments each time? This is de-motivating and a waste of everyone’s time. It’s no wonder your project team has checked out!

Recognize the Value.
Retrospectives aren’t easy. They’re time consuming, challenging, and take courage. And when projects get busy they are often the first thing to go. Big mistake. But understandable. Because if your Retrospectives sound at all like the ones above you’re probably right; they aren’t adding value. But when done effectively, the benefits of Retrospectives are game-changing—both to your project and potentially to your entire organization. Retrospectives give the team the opportunity to recognize and detect inefficiencies and issues before they turn into larger pain points and risks. They empower your team to make real-time adjustments that improve morale, internal processes, standards, and deliverables.

Apply the Scrum Master’s Retrospective Toolkit.
As a Scrum Master, it’s not enough to simply facilitate conversation. You need to facilitate the right kind of conversation, using the right technique, based on your specific project team, with consideration to all project variables. So do away with the vanilla format you’ve been using. Leveraging multiple techniques from your toolkit will ensure you get the most value out of the Retrospective. Introducing new techniques and tools to a Retrospective will be fun and engaging, improves the team’s outlook, and boosts their motivation. Let me introduce you to Starfish, Goldie Locks, and Fly High. No, these aren’t NASA space missions, or even celebrity kid’s names, but rather real techniques used to maximize value and bring life back to your Retrospectives. Let’s explore:

Starfish Retrospective:
Feedback-Gathering Techniques for Project Retrospectives
This is an evolution from the standard three-question retrospective format. It is centered around five words: Keep, More, Less, Stop, Start. Place these words in a circle and draw lines separating them such that they resemble a starfish. This technique provides a big picture of what’s going on in a given sprint. Starfish is particularly useful when teams experience both successes and obstacles in a given Sprint. This format can be followed for teams of varying maturity levels, and also helps individuals conceptualize issues instead of having to delineate between what either went well or needs improvement.

Goldilocks Retrospective:
Feedback-Gathering Techniques for Project Retrospectives
We all know the story. Sometimes it’s too hot, sometimes it’s too cold, and once in a while it’s just right. Sometimes a great Retrospective is simply a matter of picking the right topic to discuss. A variation of the Timeline Retrospective, Goldilocks reduces the time investment and allows your team to focus on a specific topic (of the Scrum Master’s choosing). The key here is to pick a hot-button topic most relevant to an issue or situation at hand.

Fly High Retrospective:

Feedback-Gathering Techniques for Project Retrospectives
Created by Madhavi Ledalla, this technique gets its inspiration from the simple act of flying a kite. On the ground sits the spool of string tied to the kite. Sometimes this string can get knotted. Up in the sky are the electric power lines that can cause your kite to get tangled. Well, Madhavi thought, projects aren’t much different. Begin with a sketch of a kite flying in the sky. The knots at ground level are the impediments to be resolved by the team. The power lines above represent organizational level bottlenecks or blockers that only your PMO team, sponsors, or executives can assist with. The project team then identifies obstacles they can resolve themselves versus those that require help from senior management to resolve. This strategy is particularly useful when your team finds themselves having to incorporate other vendors’ or clients’ standards, tools, or processes within their current methodology. It also assists in overcoming challenging project environments constantly in flux.

Liftoff: Action Plan
Ultimately what good are these refined insights if they aren’t actionable? Know that understanding what needs to change is very different than taking steps to change. And real change is always the ultimate measure of a Retrospective’s success. Therefore every retrospective technique or exercise should end not just with a list of action items for improvement, but also by assigning specific due dates and owners for each task. Because it becomes much more difficult to adapt and improve, without being accountable and committed to seeing those action items through as a team. So start small. First try to identify any low effort/higher value action items your team can tackle in order to improve. These small incremental improvements will compound over time to become measurable benefits your entire company can capitalize on.

Lastly, if you need find you help with any issues around Project Management best practices at your organization, please give Propelics a call. We’d love to lend a hand.

Emily Emerson

Emily Emerson; CSM is a highly driven Agile Project Manager with experience leading large scale enterprise mobility initiatives to successful closure. Emily has consulted across many verticals including Financial Services, Medical, Manufacturing, Environmental, boasting successful track records with; Waddell & Reed, Sentara Healthcare, Putnam Investments, First Solar, SKF, RRDonnelley, E.&J. Gallo Winery and dozens of other enterprises. She has a strong technical background, passion for mobility, and unique ability to provide leadership and guidance to teams throughout all project stages. Emily can be reached at emily.emerson@propelics.com

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