First of all, I have to acknowledge that conducting effective retrospectives is hard... Its not easy, so hang in there... don't give up. Lets just try to get better at it, one step at a time...
Lets own our retrospectives and make the best use of our time. If it didn't work well, lets make sure the next one works better. Lets raise the bar every time and demand better retrospectives (for that matter, any discussion).
Here are some things I learned and plan to apply in the next retrospective...
My key takeaway is that retrospectives are really problem solving sessions. We're better off structuring retrospectives for effective problem solving and leverage online/offline and asynchronous/synchronous means to achieve the desired result. For example, problem solving is ineffective in a distributed team setting, so decrease the barrier as much as possible using video conferencing etc.
1) Allow more time for problem solving
We put a lot of pressure on ourselves when we expect to walk out of a 1-2 hour discussion with most important opportunities, their root causes and action plans identified.
Effective problem solving (root cause identification, action planning) can take longer (sometimes days, weeks and its okay!). So I plan to let the team mull over the opportunities longer via online, asynchronous means. This can be effective as more ideas, discussions can happen without any time pressure. E.g. online discussions, brainstorming, debates.
2) Use team time efficiently
- Don't force the team to come together for activities that can be done as/more effectively without all of them present at the same time e.g. data gathering, data sharing, voting.
- Perform all activities (possible) before the retrospective to focus the team on problem solving. Leverage easy and effective online tools like wiki, microblogs/discussions, survey.
3) Don't follow the routine blindly
Be thoughtful of what you do and when.
- Don't follow all steps suggested for retrospectives blindly. For example, once you've identified the opportunities for your team, you may not need to collect data in the next few weeks to identify the opportunities again. The team might be better off focusing on actions for those opportunities. When a new opportunity comes up, discuss it and if it has higher priority, add it to your list.
- Forget the rhythm of doing it every 1or 2 weeks just because you have to reflect in each sprint... Have a specific purpose in mind and conduct a retrospective only when needed... Make sure you know exactly why and when is the right time to do it. People get bored with ineffective discussions.
4) Go slow
Don't take big bites. Too many teams try to improve too many things, too quickly, which often results in inaction. We're better off identifying the biggest opportunity and working on it, letting it become a part of our team's DNA before moving ahead to the next opportunity.
Bottom line: Effective retrospectives require everything that effective meetings need. Think about it. Don't follow the process blindly. Demand improvements.