Monday, November 28, 2011

Retrospective Dialogue Sheets: feedback & updates 2 of 2

This is the second of two blog entries about the use of dialogue sheets. The first entry contain some simple statistics and findings from recent experiences and feedback from users. This entries discusses a few findings which deserve longer comment.

Those who use the sheets consistently report that they engage more team members (everyone gets to speak). Several people report that quieter team members are more likely to contribute in a dialogue retrospective than in a regular retrospective.

Another common finding is that energy levels are higher, there is more discussion and removing the facilitator changes the focus of the retrospective.

These are the results I hoped for when I created the sheets. Yet, to some degree I think these findings are simply the result of changing the format - doing something different. Perhaps a team that uses dialogue sheets for every retrospective will find that in time some of the energy is lost.

Right now I don’t know, I don’t have enough not enough data. However, I have always said these are one technique and I encourage you to use them as one for several retrospective approaches.

A few people report that they don’t like the idea of removing the facilitator. This dislike has stopped them from trying the dialogue sheet. While I understand this fear I hope they will try them all the same. After all, it is the nature of Agile to experiment.

My advice: try a dialogue retrospectives and see what happens, then decide if you want to try again.

One person did report that they felt that without a facilitator some issues were not explored as they might be. I fully understand this finding although it does cause me to ask: were some areas explored which might not have been explored? Again this could be a argument for having some facilitator-less retrospectives and some with.

There is a strange case reported from a company I will not name. Here the management vetoed facilitator-less retrospective. My correspondent doesn’t understand why and I am a little baffled. This gets curious when you know the name of the company concerned. Someone else from the same company replied independently (different country) and has had success with the sheets. I’ve put them in touch and hope this will be resolved.

Interesting, a previous correspondent told me that they kept a facilitator even when using the retrospective dialogue sheet. This hybrid could address both management concerns and the fear of missing topics. I think there is more experimentation to be done here, perhaps using the dialogue sheet to start the retrospectives and then having a facilitator follow up. Or using a dialogue sheet retrospective to identify issues and in following retrospectives deal with them in detail.

Finally, two unexpected findings which carry lessons for those doing regular retrospectives.

All the retrospective sheets include Norm Kerth’s Prime Directive:

“Regardless of what we discover, we must understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

To retrospective facilitators this is a holy commandment, something we hold close to our hearts. Yet left alone it is interesting to see how groups react to it.

While one corespondent reported “Kerth's prime directive is also in our company's culture, therefore there is no need to remind people of it, it comes natural for us.” Another reported:
“One group poked fun at the "prime directive", but the other didn’t”.

My own experience is similar. Some teams - usually those who are familiar with the directive - just accept it. One team commented that although they knew it they tended to forget it and it was a good reminder. However, several teams have agonised about the directive, they stall at what should be a routine reminder. Sometimes it is obvious that team members implicitly do blame individuals for problems they face.

I think this behaviour says something about the company, the culture and the teams familiarity with conducting retrospectives. It is, perhaps, the one place where I would like a facilitator on hand. However intervening at such an early stage in the sheet would compromise the approach.

Perhaps the lesson here is that the dialogue sheets work best when teams have trust, and accept the Prime Directive. But then, isn’t that true for all retrospectives?

The other lesson is: while retrospective facilitators hold Kerth’s directive close to their heart the same isn’t true for many others.

The second unexpected finding came at a company in the North West of England. I visited and observed a retrospective using dialogue sheets. There were over a dozen people so we divided into two groups each with a retrospective dialogue sheet.

Unusually the two teams used different sheets - I think one had a T1 and one had a T3, so a similar format but slightly different questions. The first, finding here was that using different dialogue sheets not only does work but can help add insights.

The second, much more significant and unexpected finding was a result of who joined each group. I thought I had divided the groups randomly but as it happens the majority in one group were developers and the majority in the other group were Business Analysts.

At the end of the exercise one of the Business Analysts commented: In a normal retrospective the developers dominate (there are more of them) and so the retrospective usually talks about issues of concern to developers, the issues of concern to BAs are not usually discussed.

It sounds obvious once you see it: the largest group will tend to dominate a retrospective.

However, separate them out, as we did here, gives both groups an opportunity to talk about their concerns. Now the really interesting bit.

The two groups were retrospecting the same time period, however they approached it from different points of view. Some of their conclusions were different but some were the same. To my thinking, when different people, coming from different starting points come to the same conclusions, then those conclusions have added weight.

Overall then: Retrospective Dialogue Sheets are a success.

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