How to Conquer Agile Retrospectives thanks to a book

If you want to be serious about facilitating a retrospective you must first read and then use this book!


Esther Derby and Diana Larsen provide us with a comprehensive view of what a retrospective is and of what are all the aspects to consider and to be comfortable with.

”Retrospectives help teams – even great ones- keep improving.”

and I would reinforce the concept changing it in: ‘and help great ones even more’.

In the book I found great teachings about the different points of attention and the related needed skills. Topics like group dynamics, self-awareness, time-boxing, managing conflicts, fostering collaboration and participation and facilitating activities.

They underline the facilitator’s role in supporting collaboration, given that a:

Shared picture of facts raises commitment to change and experimenting

These contents are a reason compelling enough to read the book but the two authors do not limit the content of the book to generic suggestions.
They teach us how to structure a Retrospective in 5 pre-defined phases that provide a safe skeleton to build upon:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Gather Data
  3. Generate Insights
  4. Decide what to do
  5. Close the retrospective

For each phase they present a useful set of activities describing which purpose the different activities can better serve.
This is the part of the book that you will want to use as a reference for your daily work.

I keep opening the book looking for information and tools. I do it every now and then, based on the specific situations I encounter on my path.

If you want an anticipation about the contents I can tell you a couple of things I found interesting that can give an idea of the diverse range of topics covered.

I appreciated the suggestions about how to manage Group dynamics:
the authors point out the need to mediate between talkative and quiet team members, they suggest how to shift to ‘I’ language to avoid blaming and to foster constructive conversation.
They suggest ways to divide the team in small groups, when needed for the activities, and they give hints about how to prepare in advance for the retro, with interviews for instance and doing examples of what to look for during such interviews.
Eventually they talk about which kind of problems can be solved in a retrospective and which kind of problems cannot (not every kind problem, after all).

Emphasis is put on the importance of Debriefing, suggesting a bunch of methods for debriefing activities.
Most notable is the 4 phase debriefing for activities, reported from another book (The Art of Focused ConversationThe Art of Focused Conversation):

  1. Observed events
  2. Associated emotions
  3. Insights based on facts and feelings
  4. Actions derived by those Insights

Another good hint is about how to support larger changes, helping teams transitioning through the 4 phases of:

Loss, Chaos, Transforming Idea, and Practice and Integration,

it’s about keeping valuing what people was used to do not assuming that the old way is the ‘wrong’ way. It’s about supporting the temporary structures that form during the uncertain phases, amplifying useful patterns and it’s about responding to rumors and fears. These points are better described in the book for helping us support the team in the transition phase.

Summarizing: my suggestion is to quickly prioritize this book in your reading list and have it available from now on.

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