I’ve been reading recently about teams who only focus on positive retrospectives – never asking “what did we do wrong”, and focusing instead on “what can we do better” – with great results. While the idea makes sense to me, I wasn’t sure how I could introduce the concept to my team.

But today the team decided to bring the retrospective forward by half a day, to this afternoon instead of tomorrow morning.* And being a “last responsible moment” kind of planner, as well as a “Don’t prepare, just show up” kind of improvisor when the situation dictates, I headed off to the shops to grab snacks & ponder which format would be best for the team. They’re doing pretty well, and the sprint review was a success, but nothing in particular sprang to mind on the walk.

Armed with my prompt-list of retrospective activities and a vaguely related transcription of activity formats, I headed to the room & got going, praying that inspiration would strike. It didn’t – or at least, it didn’t seem to.

Fortunately I follow a pretty standard format which the team knows well, so we got started with the sprint metaphor followed by review of the sprint artifacts. By which time I was sure inspiration would strike. Still no. Except for the nagging idea to ‘put it to the team’.

So when we got to the “Gather Data” section of the retrospective, I turned to my list of standard activities, and read them to the team, saying “this is the list I usually work from, let’s see what makes sense for us today”.

“Try appreciative inquiry

Instead of looking at where to improve, look at what’s working well and how you can build on that. Use short, pair interviews to explore questions such as, “When were you at your best on our last sprint?” “Who else was involved?” and “What conditions were present?” After the interviews, put the pairs together in groups of four or six (two pairs or three pairs together) to find common themes.

From Esther Derby’s blog 7 Ways to Revitalize Your Sprint

I explained each one as I went along, and watched the team weigh up each option. Top of the list was Esther Derby’s Appreciative Enquiry (see right) – a technique I hadn’t used with this team before.

Another format that seemed valid to me was “We’re Good At / Worry About / Wonder About” since there are changes afoot, but one of the members pointed out we’d done that about three sprints ago – I love that they respect variety! – and asked about Appreciative Enquiry. This team is pretty logic-focused and also contains quite a skeptic, so I was surprised when they all agreed – essentially to work in pairs, ask each other nice questions, and feed back on their pair’s behalf.

I’m pretty sure that if I’d planned this activity without their input, it would have bombed. But because they’d chosen it, everyone got stuck into the exercise. There was a brief moment as they wondered what they’d got themselves in to, with a bit of ‘do we have to answer all of the questions’ but since the questions are simple and follow each other well, it wasn’t much of an objection. And what was really interesting was how consistent the answers to the questions were – with variety indicative of personality rather than differences of opinion. This really emphasised how well they work as a unit.

To take the leap of making all this ‘fluffy stuff’ actionable, I had the team answer the question “How can we apply this knowledge to future sprints?” in round-robin format. From this we generated some very concrete goals and actions – concrete enough for the team to feel comfortable committing to two – a change in work patterns (limit WIP) and a specific action to change their environment setup to reduce external dependencies.

So my facilitation lessons from Just Showing Up today were:

1. It’s okay to just show up – when everyone knows how to make an informed decision
2. Fluffy stuff can go down well with an outcomes-focused team – as long as we work towards clear and concrete goals
But most importantly:
3. As always, the best way to make sure everyone’s engaged in the process is to include them in the decision making.

I think the team needs to have a relatively good understanding of the retrospective process for this to work (“Ha” in the Shu-Ha-Ri scale), but it’s magic to see.

* We usually have the retro straight after review, but the post-holiday period for work and school had meant some parent-focused rescheduling.