The Agile Tribe

Unusual questions to ask at a Retrospective

on November 4, 2010

Author: James King

I was in an agile training session recently and we were discussing retrospectives. A participant bravely mentioned that he was going to be running a retrospective for 70 people. This resulted in a great discussion where the class and I (and one of the agile coaches) went through some potential approaches. But I also promised to publish some of the more unusual questions I sometimes ask in my retrospectives and a suggested agenda. So here goes!

A Fantasy Retrospective

I thought the easiest way might be to tell a story. This is a bit different to the agenda that I think our hardy training member followed but let’s see how it might go:

The Possible Agenda

I turn up with heaps of butchers paper, textas, whiteboards and helpful assistants to make the day work. People come flooding in almost on time and I break them into 10 tables of 7 people. I try to make sure that each table has a spread of different roles but it’s a bit chaotic. I explain the workshop and, after I get my sponsor to put away his iphone, I have HIM to ask the group who they think we are doing the retrospective for.

“The team”, says one agilista.

“But”, says my sponsor,”The team is disbanding. How can we apply our lessons if we have finished”.

“Future projects”, says a project manager.

“But how will they know what we say if they aren’t here?” asks someone, who has been in a lot of retrospectives and seen the information filed away never to be seen again.

After some discussion we agreed that there are two audiences:

  • Future projects; and
  • Ourselves – wherever we end up next.

So I tell people that the workshop will be in three parts:

  1. We will ask a bunch of unusual questions;
  2. Then we will spend some time thinking about how we can use this information ourselves on our next project; and
  3. We will write a letter for “the new project team” to summarise what we learned (you could make a video if you are a modern agilista I guess). We will give this letter to Mary from the project office (who I now introduce) and she will put it on her “project wiki” for others to read when starting their project.

The Plot Thickens!

Now I tell people that each table has been assigned a different set of questions to answer. The questions are printed out on butchers paper and teams have 10 minutes to discuss (and write down) their answers.

After 10 minutes I move most of the team to another table (I move them all clockwise to avoid confusion). However, two people at each table stay behind to explain the answers to the new people arriving. They will not have to justify the answers. At the end of the 10 minutes I move everyone again, but this time a different two people stay behind. This means that I am shuffling up groups a bit and also means that no two people are stuck doing the explaining.

After this we have a ton of information but it is uncollated. So I give each table 2 minutes to summarise the information in front of them (nowhere near enough time, but hping that a pticture will pain a 1000 words)) and then I have them present briefly to the rest of the room.

This takes a little too long, but we get through it and I call for a coffee break. People are relieved to think that it is all over but in fact we are only half way through!! People chat informally over coffee and lamingtons and then I drag them back. Once back I give them 15 minutes to talk about what they learned that might help them personally on their next adventure. After exactly 15 minutes I shut down all conversation, tell people to spend the next 10 minutes writing down a goal for what they will do differently on the next project, as well as what support they might need from others. I trust them to take these lessons with them and don’t ask them to report back to the group.

Next I ask the people at each table to write down a paragraph for a letter to “a new team”. This paragraph takes a while to write and includes anything the team at the table think is relevant to summarise the learning from the information in front of them. Finally I get people to pin the paragraphs up on the wall and everyone walks backwards and forwards reading the paragraphs. This section of the day ends with people asking questions or making final comments about the paragraphs and having Mary (from project office) collect the paragraphs to put into a letter for the “new team”.

Mary will now simply load this onto her wiki as a source of information that the next project team can read if they choose to. So there are no action items left and the team happily disband to head off for a well earned lunch. Hopefully they will read the letter they wrote to themselves (and others) when they are on the next project, but that is up to them.

As they leave I suddenly realise that I should have included a short session at the end of the day to review whether the retrospective itself was useful and whether (or rather how) it could be improved on next time. Ah well – next time I will do better I promise myself.

So, I hear you ask in exaspiration – what were the unusual questions?

Table 1:

  • Let’s assume that communication was one of our biggest challenges.
  • How could we have communicated better within the team during the project?
  • How did we communicate on the project?
  • Would you do it the same way again?
  • What informal channels of communication existed?
  • How did people find out “what was really going on”?
  • How can we do something similar (or better) in a new project?

Table 2:

  • One thing I will miss about the project is ____________
  • Something I hadn’t seen before is ________________
  • Why did these things happen? Do you think you will see them happen on the next project? Should they?
  • How could a new team make it more likely that something similar will happen?

Table 3:

  • What only became apparent well after we started?
  • What should we have seen coming that we wish we avoided?
  • What would have helped us to identify these things earlier?

Table 4:

  • What is the one lesson we should learn from this project that we probably won’t learn?

Table 5:

  • What happened by accident on this project that would be really good to do again?
  • What seemed bad (or frustrating) at the time, but was well worth doing in hindsight?

Table 6:

  • What mistakes did I/we make on this project that were the same as the lessons I/we learned last time?
  • What did I/we do on previous projects that would have been good to do on this project?

Table 7:

  • What changed because of this project?
  • If it was my business, would I do things the same way?

Table 8:

  • What was the most common theme for the retrospectives during the project?
  • What was the best thing we changed after a retrospective?
  • How could we improve on, or repeat the value of, our retrospectives next time?

Table 9:

  • If I had to pick a movie that captured the essence of this project, what would it be?
  • What about a book? Why? What can we learn from that?

Table 10:

  • What new tools, skills or knowledge did I learn on this project?
  • How did I learn it?
  • What tools, skills or knowledge would have really helped me on this project?

2 responses to “Unusual questions to ask at a Retrospective

  1. […] here to read his musings on some great questions to ask at a post-project […]

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