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How Large Is YOUR Retrospective?

Originally posted to the HBC Tech website on July 27th, 2017

Can you recall the size and length of your typical retrospective? If your team operates by The Scrum Guide, your retrospectives likely have less than ten people in one room and last about an hour for a two-week Sprint.

What if your current team is larger than a typical Scrum team and a retrospective period is longer than a month? What if the team members are distributed across locations, countries, time zones, and multiple third-party vendors? Is this retrospective doomed to fail? Not quite. These factors just add an additional complexity and call for a different facilitation approach.

Last month at HBC we facilitated a large-scale mid-project retrospective for a 60 people-project team. While this project certainly didn’t start as an agile project, bringing in an agile retrospective practice helped identify significant improvements. Here is how we did it.

From Inquiry to Buy-in

This all started with one of the project sub-teams reaching out with an inquiry: “Can you facilitate a retrospective for us?” That didn’t sound like anything major. We’ve been advocating for and facilitating retrospectives on various occasions at HBC: regular Sprint retrospectives, process retrospectives, new hire onboarding retrospectives, etc.

Further digging into a list of participants revealed that this retro would be unlike any others. We were about to pull together a group of 60 people from HBC and five consulting companies(!) In spite of working on the same project for a long time, these people never had a chance to step back and reflect on how they could work together differently.

In order to make it successful, we needed buy-in from the leadership team to bring the entire team (including consultants) into the retrospective. Our first intent was to bring everyone into the same space (physical and virtual) and facilitate a retrospective with Open Space Technology. The initial response wasn’t promising:

“We have another problem with this retro […] is concerned that it is all day and that the cost of doing this meeting is like $25K-$50K”

We had to go back and re-think the retrospective approach. How can we reduce the cost of this event without affecting the depth and breadth of the insights?

Options we considered

Thanks to the well-documented large retrospectives experiments by other agile practitioners, there was a number of options to evaluate:

1) Full project team, full-day, face-to-face, Open Space-style retro

2) Decentralized, themes-based retros with learnings collected over a period of time and shared with the group

3) Decentralized retrospectives using Innovation Games Online platform

4) Overall retrospective (LeSS framework)

Around the same time, I was fortunate to join a Retrospective Facilitator’s Gathering (RFG2017) - an annual event that brought together the most experienced retrospective facilitators from around the World. Learning from their experience as well as brainstorming together on the possible format was really helpful. Thank you Tobias Baier, Allan Jepsen, Joanne Perold, George Dinwiddie, and many others for sharing your insights! I was especially grateful for the in-depth conversation with Diana Larsen in which she pointed out that to

“Clarify the goal and commitment of the key stakeholders before you start designing how to run the retrospective.”

Back to the drawing board again! More conversations, clarifications, and convincing… With some modifications and adjustments, we finally were able to get the buy-in and moved forward with the retrospective.

What worked for us – a tiered format.

Individual team-level retrospectives

We had a mix of co-located and distributed sub-teams on this project and chose to enlist some help from multiple facilitators. To simplify data consolidation, each facilitator received a data-gathering format along with a sample retrospective facilitation plan. Each individual sub-team was asked to identify two types of action items: ones that they felt were in their power to address and others that required system-level thinking and support from the larger project community. The former was selected by the sub-teams and put in motion by their respective owners. The latter was passed to the main facilitator for analysis and aggregation to serve as a starting point for the final retrospective.

Final retrospective

For the final retrospective we brought together two types of participants:

1) Leads and delegates from individual sub-teams who participated actively at all times.

2) Senior leaders of the organization who joined in the last hour to review and support the team’s recommendations.

The goal of this workshop was to review the ideas from sub-teams, explore system-level improvements and get support from senior leadership to put the system-level changes into motion.

Retrospective plans

Each retrospective was structured according to the classic five-steps framework and included a number of activities selected from Retromat.

Example of an in-room sub-team retrospective (1 - 1.5 hours)

Set the Stage

We used a happiness histogram to get things started and get a sense of how the people felt about the overall project.

Instead of reading the Prime Directive once at the beginning with the team, we opted for displaying it in the room on a large poster as a visible reminder throughout the retrospective.

Gather Data

Everyone was instructed to think about the things they liked about the project (What worked well?) and the ones that could’ve been better (What didn’t work so well?). In a short time-boxed silent brainstorming each team member had to come up with at least two items in each category.

Next, we facilitated a pair-share activity in a “speed dating” format. Forming two lines, we asked participants to face each other and take turns discussing what each of them wrote on their post-its. After two minutes the partners were switched and the new pairs were formed to continue discussions with the new set of people.