A Guide to Surviving Your First (Or Hundredth) Retro

Ask most Scrum Masters, and they’ll tell you their favorite event is the retro.  It’s rewarding to create space for learning or to inspire a conversation between team members as they discover brilliant, new ways of working together.  And you’d think that after the 750+ retros that I’ve facilitated that I’d have it down to a science.  I don’t.  Humans always find a way to surprise me.

Do you know who has it worse though?  New facilitators.  And although I’ve written about retros previously, it’s mostly been about theory.  Not today though.  Today, let’s talk practical.  Below is a list of questions I ask myself as I prepare for every retro.

  • What could go wrong?  This isn’t just for retros.  I use this as I prepare for almost any meeting.  For example, do I expect someone will dominate the conversation? Or maybe I worry the group will go off script so I’ll draft a one sentence purpose statement and place it front and center.  Recently, I was concerned a team would convince themselves they should work more hours.  In big, red letters across the top of a white board, I wrote, “Do different, not do more.”  I referred back to it often as we talked.
  • Did I get everyone talking early?  I find it useful to get everyone to say something–no matter how trivial–within the first five minutes.  For example, ask everyone to write on a sticky a 1 (worst sprint ever) to a 5 (best sprint ever).  Then ask them to share their number with the team and give a single sentence explaining why. There’s many others, and I don’t always use an ice breaker like this.  However, if I have a less interactive retro lined up, I’ll employ one.
  • When and how do I get them on their feet? Let me be clear here.  I’m not suggesting we should gamify the retro.  In fact, as an introvert myself, I find the notion of crafting games for retros contrived and awkward so I avoid them.  But how do I get and keep them engaged?  Is there an opportunity to converge on an idea using dot voting?  Or maybe utilize spectrum lines as a means to prime the conversation.  What matters is to get them moving periodically.
  • How am I budgeting my time?  I always have Excel open on my computer, and as I prep for a retro, I brainstorm by writing ideas, concepts, or whatever else comes to mind as they come to me.  (Visit Retromat for inspiration.) One thing I always do before a retro is write out a grid like you see in the image.  As I’ve mentioned before, it’s the facilitator’s job to create the container, and this is an example of one such container I used during the first retro with a new team.  It’s very rough and ugly because it’s just for my own purposes.  Finally, I jot down a few notes and that grid on an index card that I keep in my back pocket and refer back to it during the retro, if need be.

  • Will we arrive at a solution?  A good rule of thumb is that we want to walk out of the retro with one–and usually only one–tweak to how we work together. This tweak should be easily understood and immediately actionable by the team. From experience, I’ve learned solutioning is often what takes longest.  And there’s nothing worse than having a great conversation, being on the cusp of some great, new idea to help the team, but getting kicked out of our conference room before arriving at it.  So be sure when we’re budgeting time to reserve enough time here.

I can think of many other questions I ask myself as I prepare for a retro, but they’re more nuanced and situational.  I hope these questions will help you and your teams, and I hope to hear how in the comments below.

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