Post-itlapper på whiteboard med rødt kryss over

Retrospectives without post-its?

Anette Bergo  
10. april 2014

Two Bouvet consultants, Morten Granum and myself are currently working with a team to introduce some elements from Kanban and Scrum. The interesting thing about this team is that they are not at all IT people – they do not in any way build or run IT systems. The tasks they are involved with mainly involve managing the data collection for various research projects, and being all-female with an average age well above 40 they certainly do not have the classical IT team profile.

Nevertheless, their manager got inspired by the Kanban/Scrum techniques used in the IT team and asked us to come and help them implement some ideas from there to help them improve their own process. In particular, a visual representation of the work (kanban/scrum board) and the brief morning status meeting (morning standup) looked useful to them. We also recommended that they include retrospectives as a practice.

Fast forward a few weeks, and it is time for the first retrospective. As an agile coach and practitioner working for numerous teams in numerous settings, one of my number one tools is post-its. A simple, effective and low-cost tool for visualisation. I always have a pile in my bag, and use them for almost everything. And of course, retros are a prime place for post-its. The classic format involves getting the whole team to write down their thoughts on post-its - the things we did well, didn't do well and  what puzzles us. They then get put up on a whiteboard or wall, we group them and prioritise them by voting. Easy!

A retrospective is a facilitated discussion centred around what has happened in the past, intended to help the team improve in the future.

The only thing is, we have a problem. This team doesn’t like post-its much. Which puts a spanner in the works for the usual approach. Time to rethink retros?

It turns out, it is not post-its per se they don't like, but the getting up and down all the time. They also don't like committing things in short form to paper (need more room for explanations), and really, all these post-its were a bit of a huff and puff for what exactly? It is actually a good question. Why do we use post-its? On most teams I have been, there are more things brought up in retro than we have time to cover, so the post-its helps prioritise what we talk about. They also provide a convenient written record of what was discussed, and helps the facilitator to group similar thoughts together.

Could we run a retrospective without post-its?

As this was the first retrospective with this team, we were planning to use Norman Kerths four questions format, which gives a good focus on learning:

  • What did we do well, that if we don’t discuss we might forget?
  • What did we learn?
  • What should we do differently next time?
  • What still puzzles us?

Our aim was to discover what, if any, effect the changes we had introduced had resulted in, what adjustments should be made and what other changes might be tried out. And really, that is all a retrospective is. Just a facilitated discussion centred around what has happened in the past, intended to help the team improve in the future. Nothing says we have to use post-its to achieve this.

We had a good long timeslot and a team we felt was secure with one another. Morten suggested we take the retrospective down to the bone and do it as a free-form facilitated discussion. I was initially sceptical, but agreed it was worth a try it if the safety check came back good.

one of the better retrospectives I have been in

When the team entered, they had each gotten an identical piece of paper in front of them, with an identical pen, and we took them through the safety check. The mood of the discussions around the safety check and the fact that we averaged well above four gave us the confidence we needed as facilitators, so we proceeded with the discussion approach. Morten took the lead facilitator role and went around the table one question at a time, and each team member answered with their thoughts. Some had none or very simple answers, others had answers that sparked discussions. I took the co-facilitator role and made sure we had notes of key words and discussion outcomes. And it worked really well. In fact, it was one of the better retrospectives I have been at for a long time.

Good things that happened

  • It felt much more collaborative and less "run" by the facilitator than most regular retrospectives.

The discussion was only occasionally nudged back on track by the facilitator, but was mostly self-directed by the team itself. As the discussion was directed towards whoever raised a topic, or around the table and not towards the whiteboard, the facilitator avoided being at the centre of attention.

  • The round-table immediate discussion format worked well for this team.

Though it forced everyone to talk, which can feel confrontational for some, there was no resentment - possibly because "what she said" was a perfectly acceptable answer that was not pushed for further explanations.

  • All the mini-discussions finished with concrete action points.

The action points also had an owner assigned (or volunteered) immediately, with no or minimal involvement from the facilitator - the exception being one slightly more complex problem that needed a few probing questions to resolve.

  • People who had contributed very little in earlier whiteboard based activities now participated on equal basis.

This was great to see as this had been a bit of a concern of ours during the preceding two weeks, where some voices were noticeably louder than others.

  • We discussed every single topic.

In contrast to a normal retro, where people vote for priority based on what they want to talk about, we discussed everything. Sometimes, there are topics that are necessary or more important to talk about than others that gets overlooked due to lack of votes. This format ensured that all topics got some attention, with the length of the ensuing discussion showing how important (or unimportant) a topic really was.

Would I do it this way again?

I would definitely use this format again in similar circumstances - a team with high security and a lot of respect for each other. In addition, I can see this being a nice break from the regular format for a team that does retros well and regularly.

What would be more interesting perhaps is to experiment with this kind of format in insecure teams. I am currently trying to work out if what the pros and cons might be.

Have you tried different formats for your retrospectives? Tell me about your experiences!