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Agile Retrospectives: Two Ways

Agile Retrospectives: Two Ways

Agile retrospectives are like a team huddle for software development squads. They’re a prime time for everyone to regroup, reflect on recent events, highlight what’s working, pinpoint areas for a boost, and strategize the next big plays.

There are two types of retrospectives that seem to dominate the scene - open and prompted retrospectives. But which ones have suited your team best? Or perhaps you've tried a blended approach?

Prompted Retrospectives

Prompted retrospectives are structured sessions where the facilitator or team uses predefined questions or prompts to guide the conversation. These prompts can touch on various topics like team dynamics, process efficiency, and product quality. The idea is to give the discussion a clear direction, helping the team focus on specific areas and making sure all important aspects are covered. 

We are proud in Agile Stationery to have a fantastic collection of prompted retrospective tools created by some great minds who've been in the industry for many years either as engineers, coaches, trainers and consultants. The variety is impressive taking into account different team cultures, styles and experiences. 

Squad Health Check by Henrik Kniberg

Created by agile enthusiasts at Spotify and based on insights from Google's Project Aristotle, the deck features 14 cards, each highlighting a specific aspect of team dynamics. Accompanying these are sets of 3 traffic light cards, allowing team members to rate each area based on their perceptions of team performance. The goal is to foster discussion and reflection, identify areas for improvement, and celebrate the team's strengths. 

Richer Retrospectives by Laurence Wood

Laurence has carefully curated 44 critical behaviours on individual cards. The cards are a mix of positive and negative traits that a team should reflect upon when looking back on their performance in a retrospective. The cards are colour coded to help teams decide which ones to use depending on their situation and needs. The output of this exercise is a matrix that you can display in a shared space, and a single action focus for the team to work on next.

Retrospective Lexicon by Paul Goddard

Paul's Retrospective Lexicon cards allow participants to access the content of their emotions and create a more constructive retrospective. The Retrospective Lexicon contains cards that can broaden and deepen your retrospective discussions by introducing some new and alternative vocabulary. The facilitator can select words from the lexicon that address some subjective need of the team, or pick at random to keep things fresh.

Team Retrospectives by Allan Kelly

This technique was created by Allan Kelly to guide teams through retrospectives without a facilitator and promote good conversation and discussions during these sessions. The set includes ten core retrospective cards that guide the discussion, as well as additional quote cards to inspire or humorously prompt new conversations, keeping the sessions lively and dynamic. The cards are shuffled and dealt among team members, with each person facilitating a discussion based on the card they draw. This rotating facilitation ensures that all team members, including the scrum master or agile coach, can participate or observe. 

Retrospective Coaching cards by Geoff Watts

Another great source of rich content, these cards are meant to act as prompts for scrum masters and agile coaches for when they are thinking about how to approach an upcoming retrospective or want to change things a bit.  The cards contain reflective questions to examine, ways to freshen up retrospectives, inspiration for what to focus on and reminders of what makes a great retrospective. 

Open Retrospectives

Open retrospectives, on the other hand, are more free-form and flexible. They allow team members to bring up any topic they feel is important, without the constraints of predefined questions. This format encourages spontaneous and organic discussions, often leading to insights that might not surface in a more structured setting. Lean Coffee is a popular format used in open retrospectives. Participants suggest discussion topics, which are then prioritized and discussed in a series of time-boxed conversations until the end of the session.

Other ways to categorise techniques?

Dealing with a lot of retrospective formats, as we do, we see a couple more ways that retro formats vary. 

  • Is the prompt more or less focused?
  • Does the format allow for open ended responses, or does it constrain them?

Even a notionally open format like lean coffee tends to have a topic or point of focus for the session which acts as a prompt. The topics at Coffee Ops London will be necessarily more general than your team's weekly retrospective session, for example. These are different events, with the same format, but different breadth. Likewise, even pre-printed prompts vary in breadth. MSDA's prompts are not the same as those in the Retrospective Lexicon!

If you consider how the session format allows participants to respond, you see another dimension of openness. Health checks can be binary, trinary or use a constrained rating scale. Richer Retros is superficially similar but answers are given as frequencies.

Looking at it this way, there could be up to four different flavours? Can you think of examples that fit into each category?

Choosing the Right Format

The choice between prompted, and open retrospectives depends on several factors, including the condition of the team and the retrospective's goal.

  • Team Maturity: Less experienced teams may benefit from the structure and guidance of prompted retrospectives. More mature teams might prefer the flexibility of open retrospectives. 
  • Specific Challenges: If the team is facing specific, known issues, prompted retrospectives can help address these systematically. For more general reflection or when the issues are unclear, open retrospectives might be more effective. 
  • Numerous challenges: if a coach can see several different sources of discontent, they might want to probe the audience for feedback on priority. Using a large number of focused prompts, such as the MSDA or Richer Retros formats allows the whole team to give feedback on the priority or prevalence of a range of factors and sort out what to do about it.
  • Autonomy: if a team is succeeding at acting autonomously then a tight format focused on agreeing action points will speak directly to their needs. An open ended retrospective that gathers useful data might allow the department or organisation to offer the right kind of help. However, will the team be grateful for the assist, or resentful of interference?
Is there a format that's worked for you better than the others?

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