Agile Principle # 12 states, “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”1 The agile ceremony of the “sprint retrospective” is designed to accomplish this principle. Unfortunately, many organizations and scrum teams feel that sprint retrospectives can be skipped because this ceremony has become repetitive, boring, and non-effective for their teams. This removes an important opportunity for the team to continuously improve.
In my experience, the sprint retrospective is a critical catalyst for propelling teams through the “forming-storming-norming-performing2” group development team model presented by psychologist Bruce Tuckman. When a scrum team is first formed, they may or may not know each other or have worked together. The forming phase is where the team members become acquainted with the other personalities on the team. I call this the “dating” phase. Most team members are usually on their best behavior, not wanting to offend others or bring attention to themselves, much like a first date. If a team member is a natural listener, he or she expresses that quality immediately. Team members who find listening a challenge, may be more reserved and withdrawn or boisterous and opinionated. The forming stage is an opportunity for agile coaches to observe personalities and how they conduct themselves in an initial group situation.
As the team begins work, they usually move into the storming phase of the team model. Individual personality traits start surfacing, without the control demonstrated in the forming phase. I call this the “honeymoon’s over” phase. For those of you who have experienced a personal marriage, you know what I am talking about. It’s in this phase that you have your first argument over how your partner squeezes the toothpaste tube (up from the bottom or from the middle) or which way the toilet paper roll should be installed (sheet in front or in back). These arguments really aren’t about toothpaste or toilet paper, they’re really about learning to listen to each other, communicate effectively, and live with your partners’ special quirks without going crazy. Teams go through much the same thing. Individual team members may dominate other members, avoid team members, segregate themselves or try to bring members together.
During one of my recent coaching engagements, I had a lead developer who believed that it was his responsibility to speak for the junior developers. I am going to call him Joe. Joe believed he was the end all, be all for the development work and was going to make sure everyone knew it. His personality was aggressive, boisterous, and sarcastic, which can be a challenge for submissive personalities. This team went through a longer-than-normal period of storming because of Joe. One of the other team members – I will call him Sam the Brave – voiced his frustration over Joe’s behavior in a sprint retrospective. Sam was not judgmental or disrespectful, he merely stated that an improvement for the team would be listening to others before voicing an approach. Naturally, he had my attention; it is imperative for a coach to watch this dynamic very carefully because it can roll out of control in a second.
Joe was reserved after the comment, almost pensive. When his turn came, he expressed that the reason he was the first to speak was that his manager had made him responsible for the development work of others without giving him the tools to effectively lead them. He didn’t want them to fail, so he was bearing the brunt of the decisions so that they would not feel the sword, so to speak. It was a breakthrough for the other team members because they finally understood the underlying cause of Joe’s aggression and were able to voice how they all wanted to bear the responsibility with him, as a team. The team was then able to finally move from storming to norming, the “solid marriage” phase. Communication, cohesiveness, and team support were apparent almost immediately. My sense is that if the team continues to remain together, they will become a performing team in no time. I think of performing as the “growing old together” phase where team members know and respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses and work symbiotically. If this team had skipped the sprint retrospective, they would still be stuck in the storming phase and burn-out and turn over would likely be high.
If your sprint retrospectives have become repetitive, boring, and ineffective, you’re probably wondering what you can do to encourage your team(s) to get engaged? Fortunately, there are several Internet sites where agile enthusiasts and practitioners post their ideas and techniques for sprint retrospective activities. Below are some sites and reference books I go to when I need a fresh idea: