Sunday, July 10, 2016

Starting and Closing Agile Retrospectives with People in Mind

One of the more powerful aspects of agile software development methods such as Scrum is that they acknowledge the importance of individuals and their interactions in delivering quality software. As much as it is important to review and adapt the product backlog by having sprint review meetings at the end of each sprint, it is also important to have retrospectives to inspect and adapt how the Scrum process works on a team. The Sprint Review is about the tasks and scope (the “What” of the sprint). The Sprint Retrospective is about the Scrum process (the ‘How”). Sadly, many teams miss out on some value by glossing over the parts of a retrospective that acknowledge the human elements of the scrum process. By using some simple techniques teams can improve their retrospectives by putting more emphasis on people.

Allocating time for a retrospective every 2 weeks (if you use 2 week sprints) can be a challenge. The 5 step structure that Ester Derby and Diana Larson describe in their book Agile Retrospectives is an excellent framework for making good use of retrospective time. The steps are:

  • Set the Stage, where you introduce the plan for the retrospective, and help people move towards a mindset that will help identify problems
  • Gather Data, where you collect information about what went on during a sprint. Some of the data collection can happen before the actual meeting, but people will likely think of information to add.
  • Generate Insights, where you identify patterns and connections between events, and start to consider why things may have happened.
  • Decide what to do, where you collect ideas for things to do going forward, and then focus on a handful to explore in detail.
  • Close, where you review action items, appreciate the work people did, and perhaps discuss the retrospective.

These steps create an environment where people can feel safe, and help the team to explore the really impediments to improvement. Often teams skip steps, merge steps, or don’t consider whether the exercises they use at each stage move the process forward. Using structured exercises like those in Derby and Larsen’s book help keep the retrospective focused. Another common tendency is to problem solve too early, combining the Gather Data, Generate Insights, and Decide What to do steps. These mistake is often self correcting, as teams discover that they come out of retrospectives with actions that address superficial problems.

A bigger problem is when teams skip the steps that address the humans on the agile team. For example, particular, some facilitators skip over Setting the Stage, or Closing, in an effort to allow time for the “significant” parts of the meeting. While only a small part of the meeting time, the Setting the Stage and Closing steps, are quite valuable in terms of impact.

Setting the Stage for the retrospective can take just a few minutes, and can improve the effectiveness of the entire meeting by creating an environment where people feel comfortable collaborating. There are many reasons people may not contribute, including simple shyness or lack of attention, or even concern about getting blamed for something. Setting the Stage correctly can help engage the team more fully in the process by bootstrapping participation and emphasizing that the retrospective is about improvement not blame.

I often start a retrospective with an exercise that involves going around the room and giving people a chance to say a word or two about something, for example “one word about how they feel the sprint went”, or “how they feel about the retrospective ”, or even “one thing about yourself that you’d like you share with the team.” This often helps people step out of a spectator role. Note: Always give people the option to say “Pass,” since forcing people to reveal something about themselves is counter to the values of a retrospective; even saying “Pass” gets people engaged in the process.

To reenforce the constructive goals of the meeting, teams I work with sometimes start retrospectives by having someone read The Retrospective Prime Directive, and ask everyone if the agree. While some people initially feel like this process is a bit silly, may teams find it valuable, and make an effort to rotate who reads the Prime Directive.

The other part of the retrospective that can help maintain connection is the Close. I encourage teams that I work with to incorporate appreciations into their closings. Appreciations are a structured way of acknowledging the work someone did during the sprint. A quick appreciation can really help people feel engaged and valued, and the process helps the team consider the value each brings to the group.

By setting the stage and closing your retrospectives well you can help your team get more value out of retrospectives, and help form a stronger, more effective team. Inspect and Adapt isn’t just about the tasks, it’s about the how the team works too.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Grit with the Nuances (Book Review)

The headline version of what Grit is and how it is important to success doesn’t do the concept justice. That hard work and persistence are as much, if not more, important to talent for success is both appealing on the surface and simplistic. Many subtle details get lost in the elevator pitch, and reading Grit answered many of my questions, and gave me some guidance on how to be more successful in reaching my goals, and how to give my child tools to do the same.

Duckworth draws on the work of people like Cyzmenthaly (Flow), Seligman (Learned Optimism), Carol Dweck (Mindset), Adam Grant (Originals, Give and Take ) . I’ve followed the work of all of these people in my quest to better understand how to help teams be more effective, and also how to be a better parent. These concepts are more widely applicable than you might initially think. Flow first came to my attention via Kent Beck, and Learned Optimism via a reference in a book by Jurgen Appelo (Management 3.0) Team and family dynamics have a lot in common.; Gerald Weinberg often refers to the work of Virginia Satir in his writings on quality management.

Through a combination of summaries of her research, stories, and discussions of things to do Duckworth both helps you understand the nuances of grit, and give you ideas for ways to understand and improve the level of grittiness for yourself and those in your charge. Parents, managers, and leaders will find this book an inspiring read. Well written and easy to get through quickly, and you will find yourself wanting to refer to your notes and bookmarks often.

My favorite line from the book is “before hard work comes play” which summarizes the concept that to be gritty you really need a goal that engages you, and it may take some time to discover that. While some of the headlines on grit left me wondering about were how much torturous hard work was involved in being gritty as opposed to just having fun, Duckworth’s use of the phrase “play before passion” was both comforting and intuitive to me. It takes a while to understand what gets you interested, and only once you find those things can you apply yourself in a way that doesn’t totally wear you down.

If you’ve read Mindset, Originals, or Give and Take, there will be some familiar moments. Flow, Learned Optimism, Growth Mindset, and Grit compliment each other; one can lead to another. That I’ve read many of those books over the years in my quest to better understand motivation and engagement (and thus try to be a better manager and parent) may speak to my “Grittiness”

Duckworth also speaks to the issue of practicality. Some passions aren’t practical pursuits, but she gives examples of people who incorporated seemingly impractical passions into their more pedestrian careers to be both successful and helpful. Likewise she relates stories of people who do seemingly mundane things (managing a subway system, managing a janitorial company) and find it extremely rewarding. Since you can only have so many goals that you can focus on, finding commonality between goals is also helpful. For example, many of the things I learn about being a better parent are applicable in people management, and vis versa.

Along with a non-academic description of the theory of Grit, Duckworth discusses how you can better understand and develop your Grittiness and help your children develop it. This book goes into more detail about what Grit is, resolving many of my questions about what Grit really meant and how to improve it (possible) and measure it (not simply). This is a very clear discussion of what Grit is, and is not, and also a pragmatic guide to finding your passion, and develop your skills. If you are a parent, a manager, of just someone trying to master a skill, Grit will inspire you and give you much to ponder.

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