Sprint Retrospective Experience – Essentialism

This post is all about the sprint retrospective experience I had using the technique I invented and wrote about last time in “Scrum Retrospective Idea – Essentialism”. I won’t go through the 5 stages again here, so I recommend you give that a read first.

I was more nervous about using this technique than the ones I’ve used previously as this was the first technique I had actually created, as opposed to read about. Previously I’d been using tried and tested methods. Although I felt comfortable with my ability to cope with problems, I had my pride on the line as I really wanted this to be a success!

Result

I’m pleased to say that overall, the technique worked and would happily recommend it to other teams. As with everything, there were positives and negatives but with some further tweaking (see below) I’m confident it could be even better. Importantly, I believe it would work for both struggling and already successful teams as it really focuses on the slowest tasks that can be improved.

Positives

  • The team ended up with a couple of actions that have since been implemented and have lead to positive results.

Negatives

Personal Retrospective

What went well?

  • Focusing on slow tasks that can be improved lead to great actions and resulting improvements;
  • Some painful tasks were highlighted that I never considered before;

What could I have done better?

  • Perhaps limit the groups to their 5 slowest tasks. We had a lot of post-it notes that it was clear we didn’t need.
  • Combine the lists differently. I’m not convinced that was clear until half way through so it either needs more explanation or an example.

What should I not do again?

  • Assume everyone on the team knows what I’m talking about!

Thanks to @GregoryMcKeown for his book, and thanks to my team for letting me try something new.

Sprint Retrospective Idea – Essentialism

Until now, I’ve always used someone else’s ideas for retrospectives. That’s fine, but I’m always on the lookout to push myself, so wanted to see if I could come up with something of my own design.

Over the Christmas break, I read the book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” by Greg McKeown. There was one bit that stood out for me from a sprint retrospective idea standpoint. I think it aligns well with continual improvement and is hopefully a good way to increase team efficiency and velocity.

As with all the techniques I use, this technique is made up of the 5 stages of a retrospective.

Stage 1 – Set the Stage

This is paraphrased, but tell the following story of the “Herbie” metaphor:

A scout group is out walking and need to get to their destination before sunset. It's clear they're not going to make it as one of them is too slow, let's call him Herbie.  Herbie constantly falls behind forcing the whole group to wait for him to catch up. The scout leader tries several things and then an idea hits him. 

By putting Herbie at the front of the group and the others behind him, in order of speed, so the quickest walker is at the back, the leader can guarantee the group stays together as everyone can keep up with the person in front of her/him.

To speed the group up, the leader just has to concentrate on Herbie. The first thing he does is share out Herbie’s bag amongst the other hikers.  Herbie can now speed up and the whole group moves much more quickly.

Explain that the aim for the retrospective is to find our slowest task(s) and come up with ideas of how to make them quicker.

Stage 2 – Gather Data

To encourage everyone in the team to contribute, break the team up into groups of 3. Ask each group to create a list of tasks that we do regularly and sort them based purely on speed, slowest first. Give the teams some time and then with everyone gathered around, combine these on a white board or table.

Ask for the slowest from each team, group similar activities, order them as a team and then move on to the next slowest working your way down their lists.

To get team consensus, ask for clarification from the whole team as to the order they think the tasks should go.

[N.B. I’m expecting some issues in this step, but can’t think of a way of making it smoother beyond getting the team to do it which seems lazy!]

Stage 3 – Generate Insights

Now that the list is agreed, for the top 5 tasks, as a team answer the following questions:

  1. What makes the slow tasks slow?
  2. What makes the fast tasks fast?
  3. Are they essential?
  4. Yes/No answer to “Can we improve them”?
    1. If the answer is no, ask “is there an alternative way of doing it”. Again yes/no?

Stage 4 – Decide What to Do

Pick the top 1 or 2 tasks that answered yes to number 3 and 4 above and come up with some suggestions to try for future iterations.

Stage 5 – Close the Retrospective

Close the retrospective with a nice game, something like AHA! from Ret-O-Mat.

Conclusion

If you’ve got this far, I’m hoping you can see the potential in the idea. I’m going to give it a go tomorrow, and will report back with how it went.

Retrospective Experience – Appreciative Inquiry

It’s been over 6 months since I started using different retrospective techniques with my current team and although we are a long way from repeating the same thing over and over, I was beginning to worry about stagnation. A great deal of the techniques I’ve been using have essentially been “what are we doing wrong?”. I wanted something that was “what are we doing right”.

A quick bit of googling lead me to a post titled Appreciative Inquiry Retrospectives by Doug Bradbury. The following quote really stood out:

“Are you discouraged and pessimistic about all the problems that your team has?”

We had our fair share of problems in the lead up to Christmas and the more I read, the better it sounded. A bit more digging and one of the search results was from one of my favourite tools, Retr-O-Mat. Turns out Remember the Future is also appreciative inquiry so I followed the link to Diana Larsen’s post on how to use the technique, and the rest is history.

Result

We tried something different and I’m very pleased with how this technique played out. Looking forward to look back seems strange, but it resulted in different topics to those we normally see. In particular, I don’t think the managers in the room would’ve ever predicted the top most voted for topic.

There also seemed to be a confidence boost among the team. I’m putting this done to the fact that none of us discarded any of the points raised with “we’d have never done that”.

Summary

Appreciative Inquiry offers a change of pace from most of the other techniques out there. I would highly recommend it if you’re just about to start a new release or have been hit with a load of problems, as it’s a great way of finding out what the team think should happen soon. One of the team afterwards also said (which I think is fantastic):

“[it was] a great technique to celebrate our qualities”

Thanks to @dougbradbury for his post which started my research, @findingmarbles for Retr-O-Mat and @dianaofportland for the details of how to perform the technique.

Personal Retrospective

What went well?

  • Flipping the direction of the retrospective from backwards looking to forward looking was great;
  • Discovering an unexpected desire from the team;
  • We got the chance to highlight both our individual and team successes;
  • The team confidence boost

What could I have done better?

  • I should’ve provided more examples of team and individual qualities as we didn’t get many of those.

What should I not do again

  • Forget over the Christmas holiday that the first Tuesday back is retrospective day :)

Retrospective Experience – Halloween Special

The end of the sprint was approaching and I was researching which technique to try next, when I saw this tweet from @aaronjmckenna which I had to try:

Thankfully the team are used to the 5 stages technique so after getting some speakers from IT, queuing up a few spooky songs and introducing the theme, we plowed head first into it.

Stage 1 – Setting the Scene – Halloween Treats

Each team member should think of a Halloween treat to describe how the last sprint went

As with all first stage techniques, this was great at getting every single member of the team to talk at least once and generally wake people up. We had some nice friendly banter at weird definitions of treats, so the team were set for the next stages.

Stage 2 – Gathering Data – Ghost Stories

Each member of the team had to come up with a scary story (which could have a happy ending) describing a key event in the last sprint

This was probably the least successful part of the retrospective as only a small number of team made an actual story. That’s a problem with either my explanation or the team, not the technique, and we still ended up with a decent set of views.

Stage 3 – Generate Insights – Trick or Treat

Each member of the team had to come up with 1 treat (something that will help improve the team) and 1 trick (something that is or could hold us back)

This worked really well as it limited everyone to just one idea. As you can see below, I also decorated the board:

Trick Or Treat Board

Trick Or Treat Board

Stage 4 – Decide what to do – Pick a Door

The team had to decide which doors to visit to talk about, aka dot voting

Stage 5 – Closing the Retrospective – Spook of the Sprint

Each member of the team had to thank one other member for something they did in the last sprint.

I must admit, we don’t normally do much for this part of the retrospective and we certainly don’t do anything as gushy as thanking each other, so I was a little skeptical!

I could tell by the audible groans from the team that they thought the same thing when I introduced the idea, but I’m pleased to say it was quite a positive thing. What’s more, we now have a wonderful mascot for the next sprint.

Sprint Mascot

Sprint Mascot

Summary

All in all, this was one of our better sprint retrospectives and I really like using a theme. Aaron’s idea of timing each thinking section with a song worked fantastically, so I’ll be looking to do that again.

I’ll also definitely be keeping an eye on his blog for any future themes to try.

Personal Retrospective

What went well?

  • The limit of 1 good thing and 1 bad thing helped focus the team. I’m not sure I would use this for every retrospective as it’s nice to let the team vent, but it’s a good way of getting to the most important matters.

What could I have done better?

  • Given more time (and courage) it would have been nice to decorate the room a bit more;
  • I’m not convinced I summarized the stories from the second stage clearly on the board, or even guided the team to use these as a basis for the next step. I think I’ll try and get the team to come up with a summary statement next time, rather than something only I understand.

What should I not do again

  • Talk about writing a blog post over a week before having the time to do it!

Sprint Planning Technique – Group Sorting

Do your sprint planning meetings contain a lot of disagreements and arguments? Are you spending more time trying to decide how many points a PBI is worth than it would take to develop it? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

To combat this, my current team tried a technique which worked really well. Not only did the meeting take less time than normal, but more of the team were engaged and every team member was happy afterwards.

I’m sure this has an official name, but I’m going to call it “group comparison” until I find out what that is. Thankfully it’s really simple.

Step 0 – Prepare

Hopefully you’re performing some sort of backlog grooming so this is relatively quick. If you’re not, this planning technique might help, but I strongly encourage you to schedule a regular grooming session. We do 1 hour every 2 week sprint and it seems to be enough. YMMV.

Print out (or create on Post-It notes) the PBIs that you think the team will be able to commit to. I’d suggest a little more than your velocity after taking into account capacity.

From your planning poke decks, place the cards on the table that match the size of PBI your team can normally deliver in a sprint in a line. For us, this was 1, 2, 3, 5, 8.

Step 1 – Introduce the PBIs

This is simply refreshing the minds of all the team members so they know what all the PBIs are.

Step 2 – Split the team into groups.

We split into two groups, but I guess you could do more. Basically, each group is invited to come up to the table one group at a time and sort the PBIs under the poker card they think that PBI is.

Step 3 – Invite the other teams

Once the first team has finished, invite the next team up. Second and subsequent teams should check the previous grouping. If they disagree with a position of the card, move it to where they think it should be. The team should mark each card with a dot to show that it’s changed.

Repeat this step for each group and – excuse the hideous use of paint – something like this:

End of sorting by size

Fig 1 – Table after grouping PBIs into story point buckets

Step 4 – Discuss any significant changes

Once all the teams have finished, invite everyone back to discuss any cards that have moved twice, i.e. have two dots. It doesn’t matter if they’ve moved from 3 to 5 and back to 3, just discuss them so the group can have a consensus.

Step 5 – Write the story points on each card

Once that’s finished, there should be some sort of agreement to the size of the PBIs, so write the story points on the cards. This step is really important as we’re about to move them all around!

Step 6 – Order by dependencies

Ask the whole team (or a subset if you’re a really large team) to order these by dependencies . We used a column for each chain of dependencies and staggered them if there was some overlap, i.e. shared parents.

PBIs ordered by dependencies

Fig 2 – PBIs ordered by dependency

As you can see in the above image:

  • PBIs 1, 4, 6 and 7 were marked, and the team discussed 1 and 7 further;
  • PBIs 1, 6, 4 and 5 have no dependencies so can be started at any time;
  • PBI 7 has a dependency on PBI 4;
  • PBI 3 has a dependency on PBI 2;
  • PBI 2 has a dependency on both PBI 1 and PBI 6.

Step 7 – Mark Dependencies

By now, the PBIs should be sorted not only by size, but it should also be clear which are dependent on another PBI and which are standalone. Simply write this information on each card ready to transfer to your tool of choice.

Final Step – Task Breakdown

Perform you’re task breakdown as normal and you’re done.

It’s important to note, that the team can change their mind about something half way through. Just because a PBI started step 5 as 8 story points and dependant on another one, doesn’t mean it needs to end up in that state.

Conclusion

Once you’ve completed this, you should have a sized and sorted set of PBIs ready to be committed to and placed in the sprint backlog. If it’s anything like us, you’ll see the following benefits:

  • You score PBIs much quicker
  • The PBIs are scored relative to each other
  • It’s easy to work out dependencies
  • MUCH less arguing
  • MUCH more team engagement

The only downside I can see, is that it’s possible for the business priorities to get lost in the re-shuffle. As this is limited to just the sprint and you’re going to deliver them all, it’s not a problem.

Retrospective Experience – High Performance Tree

For this retrospective, I was struggling to pick an appropriate technique. The team’s velocity has been creeping up and the actions from each retrospective were mostly minor tweaks. So I hit the books and saw this in the “When you would use this exercise” heading of Luis Gonçalves and Ben Linders Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives book chapter on “High Performance Tree”:

“A good team that is looking for the next step to become a high-performing team”

Clearly that sounded perfect, and after a little more digging I found a fantastic video by Lyssa Adkins called The High Performance Tree which demonstrates the technique perfectly.

Gather Data, Generate Insights and Decide What To Do

I was a little nervous about using the metaphor as it’s not something we’ve done before and I’d read that the team can get a little uncomfortable. Thankfully that didn’t happen at all.

I won’t re-iterate the steps, or embarrass myself by including a photo of the “tree” I drew, but I will say that each root, leaf and fruit led to really interesting discussions. Having a visual representation of our target worked really well. It helped guide the conversation towards parts we are missing, but also towards part we are doing well.

Summary

I can’t list all the outcomes, but I’m particular pleased we realised we don’t currently have a “can do anything” attitude but perhaps should. I’m really hoping we can turn that around in coming sprints.

Overall, this was a great technique and we had an excellent retrospective. If you’re a ScrumMaster of a mature team and are looking for inspiration to become high performing, I’d definitely recommend this technique.

Personal Retrospective

What went well?

  • My drawing of the tree!
  • The team responded well and it was good to go back to first principles

What could I have done better?

  • When writing up the meeting, I noticed a few points that we said we’d get back to, but didn’t. I need to come up with a better way of tracking these points.

What should I not do again?

I don’t think anything went so badly that I can put in this category.

Retrospective Experience – 6 Thinking Hats

To make the team think a different way during the retrospective I decided to try 6 Thinking Hats. We’re used to saying what went well and what didn’t, so I thought this would be a good way to get some different discussions going.

I was a little nervous beforehand as the description warns about something I’ve been struggling with in previous sprints, namely facilitating rather than controlling. So at least the technique forced me to deal with that head on!

“Tip: The facilitator should try to stay out of the circle and try to avoid the participants talking directly to them”

I was also a little worried that I was flooding the team with lots of new techniques, so we used ESVP as a check-in exercise like we did a few sprints ago. This not only did the job of getting everyone off their feet, but we had a much better split of positive over negative categories this time, so it gave me a nice boost too.

Gather Data, Generate Insights and Decided What To Do

Things started slowly as we didn’t really know what we were doing (see Personal Retrospective below) and we’re not used to Blue hat thinking, but once we got onto topics we felt comfortable with the meeting progressed well.

I found facilitation to be quite hard to begin with, as it seemed like the team were stopping to see what I wrote on the board, but again, that seemed to improve as time went on.

Finally, I won’t go into the actual details, but the meeting ended on a really positive note and there seemed to be a real air of optimism for the next sprint. It will be interesting to see if that’s something this technique brings, or we just had a good retrospective. It was certainly more noticeable than previous retrospectives, but that could be coincidence.

Summary

The exercise started slowly with the team talking directly to me, but as things progressed and we got onto topics we’re more comfortable with – what went well, what went badly – time started to fly.

I’m lucky as I have several strong characters who are more than willing to lead such a debate (which could be a bad thing if they dominate), but if I didn’t, I’m sure there are ways around that.

Overall, I think it’s a good exercise to conduct and one I’ll certainly use again.

Personal Retrospective

What went well?

  • The team produced some good insights, which is a good sign we can become more self-organising;

What could I have done better?

  • A team member mentioned that the strictness of the hats meant he couldn’t/didn’t say something when he thought of it and then forgot. I could provide pen and paper or perhaps tell everyone that than anything could be mentioned and if it’s not allowed we’ll note it for later;
  • I don’t think the time slots of 10 minutes needs to be a strict rule. Next time, we’ll treat it as a time-box, rather than “we must talk for 10 minutes”.

What should I not do again?

  • I’m not convinced I explained the hats particularly well, so next time I’ll try to give examples of each before starting the exercise.
  • Related to that, I didn’t use the results from the previous hats to guide the conversation for subsequent hats particularly well. During the write up I noticed a few facts we didn’t discuss.

Retrospective Experience – One-Word with Marmite Voting

The last couple of retrospectives – “ESVP, Sailboat and Constellation” and “Self-Assessment and Circles and Soup” – had much larger scopes than you’d normally use. So for this retrospective I wanted to bring the scope much tighter and concentrate on what you’d normally discuss, i.e. the last sprint.

Stage 1 – Set the Stage

As usual, the team recapped the last retrospective and went through the progress made on the previous actions. It was great to see some of the team calling me out on not following up on some of the actions I had. They’re not only paying attention, but they also care. Perhaps one day I will make myself redundant and the team will be truly self-sufficient!

Perhaps one day I will make myself redundant

As we’d all just had a nice long weekend thanks to a bank holiday Monday, I wanted the check-in to get the team talking. So I used a slight variation of One-Word where we split into two and were tasked with saying the one-word your partner would use to describe the last sprint.

I time-boxed that to 10 minute discussion, and I’m pleased to say it worked rather well. As expected the words chosen were on the negative side, but it achieved the engagement I was looking for and woke everyone up.

Stage 2- Gather Data

To gather data, we used a technique I read about called Marmite Voting​. I created 8 pre-written topics and each person in the team is asked to rate their feelings between 0 (“HATE IT”) to 10 (“LOVE IT”).

Stage 3 – Generate Insights

I collated the results of the Marmite Voting and wrote up on the board the scores. We then discussed as a team what we thought each score meant, i.e. why it was low, are we suprised by that score, what does it mean.

As an example we realised that using technology X is new and therefore slow going (as the scores were low when asked if we liked using it), but we should try and stick with it (as the scores were high when asked if we thought the team/project would benefit in the long run).

Stage 4 – Decide What to Do

As I only asked 8 questions, we were able to discuss the low scoring topics thoroughly and come up with ideas to raise the scores next time.

Stage 5 – Close

I thanked the team for their hard work and ideas produced so far.

What went well?

  • I realized the team were feeling a bit lethargic and used a Check-In exercise that got all the team involved.
  • Marmite-Voting is pretty good when you have a clear question you want answered.
  • It was great to realise the team didn’t particular enjoy using a new technology but could see the benefits. This really focused us towards tweaking the way we use it to hopefully make things easier.

What could I have done better?

  • I don’t think I explained the One-Word variation particularly well as some of the team members had blank faces for a while. (Although the subsequent laughter at me explaining it badly for a second time certainly woke some of them up)
  • I might consider asking the product owner (or perhaps even other team members) if there are any topics they want discussed the next time I do Marmite Voting.

What should I not do again?

  • I think I led, rather than facilitated the Generate Insights part of the retrospective. Perhaps that isn’t a bad thing, but I think my voice was over used.

Retrospective Experience – Self-Assessment plus Circles and Soup

After recapping the previous sprint retrospective actions, where I’m pleased to say we made a handful of small improvements, I introduced the team to the notion of team self-assessments. We all agreed it was worthwhile, so completed SAFe ScrumXP Self-Assessment which despite some disagreements took about 15 minutes.

I won’t share the result, but it’s nice to have a baseline and have clear indication of places we need to improve. We will definitely be repeating this exercise in the future.

We then proceeded through the 5 stages of a retrospective.

Stage 1 – Set the Stage

I noticed in the previous retrospective – see Retrospective Experience – ESVP, Sailboat and Constellation – that there were a lot of negative comments about things we really didn’t have control of. I was therefore worried that this was going to be another negative retrospective and although it risks going against the advice:

“It is extremely important not to use a retrospective to identify purely negative parts of a project”

I thought I’d give a broad context of “anything goes”! I had some positive points up my sleeve, so I decided the risk of focusing on the negative was worth it.

Stage 2- Gather Data

The team split into pairs (with one group of 3) for 15 minutes to discuss the various topics they would like to raise.

Stage 3 – Generate Insights

As I was expecting a lot of negative comments, I decided I’d use a technique I’d recently read about called Circles and Soup. This categorizes all the points raised into the following groups:

  • The team have direct control over so can take direct action
  • The team have influence, so their action would be a persuasive, influencing or recommending action
  • The team may have no control or influence, but they can choose actions for how to respond collectively when they find themselves swimming in the soup​

I was hoping the team would then be able to get some closure on the things out of our control and subsequently put less thought into.

Stage 4 – Decide What to Do

After the groups presented their points to the rest of the team, we then used Dot Voting to pick out the points the team thought were worth further discussion. We then took the top 5 most voted for things and brainstormed some solutions that we could try. It’ll be my job over the coming sprint to make this happen.

Stage 5 – Close

I thanked the team.

Personal Retrospective

The team didn’t produce anywhere near the number of negative comments I thought they would so I’m not convinced Circles and Soup was the best technique to use. It was definitely worth trying, but I think it would be nice to apply this technique once you knew there were a lot of negative things being mentioned, rather than doing it regardless.

What went well?

  • Individually the Self-Assessment and the Circles and Soups worked well.
  • We identified a few team worries about external factors that we can think about and prepare for.

What could I have done better?

  • I should’ve researched and explained Circles and Soup better. I thought it was a self-explanatory technique, but after introducing it to the team, it was clear that it wasn’t. As I couldn’t explain it simply also shows I didn’t fully understand it! I should stop assuming these things are simple and/or the whole team are as keen as me!
  • I distanced myself from the team discussion, so had no idea of the issues being raised. If I was more involved, even if it was just observing more closely, I could’ve swapped out Circles and Soup for something else.

What should I not do again?

  • Although I’ve been acting as ScrumMaster to the team for 18 months, using these types of techniques is new to me. As such, I don’t have the confidence to swap out techniques on the fly. That should come with time though, so I’m not beating myself up about it. Time will tell.
  • Another sign of my inexperience is that I’m too keen to try out all the new techniques I’ve heard of! I’m not convinced doing both a Self-Assessment and a “normal” retrospective is right. I’ll need to read more into this.

Verify WordPress Backups Using Azure

I suffered some minor data loss today which I managed to restore from backup, but not before a few minutes of “why can’t I restore”. It reminded me of the classic quote:

“Backups always succeed. It’s restores that fail.”

I then realised that although this site is backed up via the excellent UpdraftPlus Backup / Restore / Clone plugin for WordPress I’d never tested the backup.

So, I did some digging and it seems the general advice is to see if you can open the zip file the backup process produces. Now call me a skeptic, but that makes me a little uncomfortable. Restoring on top of this site (shudder) or restoring to a sub-domain was also unappealing and then I remembered Azure.

I’m lucky enough to have a MSDN subscription which gets me some free Azure time, but there always seems to be free trials out there. Once I was logged into the management portal the process was very simple. Click New -> Compute -> Web Site -> From Gallery -> WordPress and fill out the following two dialogs:

Azure Create Website 1

I didn’t bother filling out the “Deployment Settings” section as I would be deleting the site as soon as I was done.

Azure Create Website 2

Once Azure has done it’s thing, go to the websites dashboard and find the URL which will be something like “restoredsite.azurewebsites.net”. Go there and WordPress will lead you through the installation steps of setting up an admin account. Once that’s finished, all that remains is to install your backup plugin of choice, upload your backup file and hit restore.

If all is well, after a little while (depending on how big your site is) you should see your blog, but hosted in azure at “restoresdite.azurewebsites.net”. All your links will redirect to your original domain, so be careful which site you’re on, but you can verify that everything has come back correctly.