Friday, 14 October 2011

Keeping Project Retrospectives Fresh

A project retrospective is a facilitated session held either at the end of a project’s lifecycle or at various intervals throughout. Also known as lessons learned or project close outs, retrospectives are held to identify and analyse what went well and what did not.

Retrospectives are utilised to learn from past mistakes and to take these lessons forward into the next phase of the project. Vincent Pickering, a Software Project Manager at Gael Ltd, believes the objective of a Retrospective is to learn and adapt.

Vincent is responsible for planning and the day-to-day needs of projects assigned to him. He oversees 2- 3 projects at a time which can vary in team size from 3 to 20 software developers.

Vincent says that they apply the Agile SCRUM project delivery method for each development assignment. Vincent is an advocate for retrospectives to be performed throughout a project. He says that not only is there a final project retrospective session at the close of the development project but a retrospective meeting is held every two weeks, at the conclusion of each sprint. A sprint is a time period, around 2 weeks, in which development takes place on a set of backlog items that the Team has prioritised.

There are issues with running a retrospective every 2 weeks. Vincent believes that these sessions can become rather stale leading to sessions seeming repetitive thus not producing any valuable insight or relevant actions. Focusing on techniques to keep the retrospectives fresh such as De Bono’s six thinking hats, 5 Whys and SWOT analysis have brought a certain amount of success to him. Switching locations and swapping facilitators also brings an element of freshness to the retrospectives.

One specific technique that is a personal favourite of Vincent’s is the mad/sad/glad framework. Every two weeks, once a sprint is completed, he will gather all project participants into a room and try to entice information out of each individual concerning the delivery of the sprint. He kicks off by starting with the positive, throwing a wide question “OK, what went well, what’s the good stuff?” Classic replies are that they met their deadlines, worked through a problem well, or that someone new had joined the team. Generally there will be people who are shy and might need a little prompting to get something out of them. Vincent has a ready set of prompts created for such situations to help encourage individuals to participate.

Fig 1. Retrospective Brainstorming session.
 Vincent believes people are happier communicating negatives rather than positives. Most people have something that annoyed them ‘sad’ and if anyone is really annoyed/angry then they usually don’t have to be prompted to speak up. Typical sadness is that “I didn’t have the time to fix that annoying bug’ or the build server played up again.

Hopefully actual anger, ‘mad,’ will already have been abated before the meeting, it would not be wise to go ahead with a meeting where people just want to throw rocks at one another. ‘mad’ answers would be ‘the build server is so unreliable it cost us two days of development and that’s why we missed our deadline’.

Vincent explains, “If there is any skill in this it’s facilitation – keep the meeting running when conversation dries up, don’t be afraid to let the group lead the discussion somewhere unexpected, be gentle with the shy folks. If there isn’t anything to talk about, don’t labour it. Only step in if things are getting out of hand. If the meetings are getting stale then change the format, or try out different activities.”

Fig 2. Mad/Sad/Glad Framework
From these Retrospective sessions, Vincent will be able to identify what areas should be enhanced, whether a new process should be introduced or whether any specific individual has performed well. Once the group has reached a common agreement, actions are derived from the session (usually round the sad/mads) and volunteered or assigned out. This is important since if you don’t try and fix what went wrong you aren’t adapting but just getting things off your chest. The next retrospective session will contain a review of actions allocated in the previous session.

A retrospective is an invaluable tool to help learn and adapt. Vincent has successfully used the mad/sad/glad framework to help keep the sessions fresh and promote individual thinking amongst the group. Using this framework in conjunction with MindGenius allowed Vincent to unearth all relevant information from the participants and keep the meeting streamlined. From the completed map, participants are able to recognize the lessons learned and have a clear view of tasks to be implemented in the next phase of the project.

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