A great retrospective!

A great retrospective!

I’ve blogged before about remote teams where I am now and how well we manage to make it work, even with people in another timezone. Because we’ve got people remote, our retrospectives are, naturally, done over video chat (hangouts in our case) and we use webwhiteboard (by none other than Henrik Kniberg!) to make it as interactive as possible.

Today, we had just such a meeting and I really wanted to show you the output. Nothing much to learn from this post (except how we retro), but I thought the webwhiteboard worth sharing – just for fun.

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Mad, Glad, Sad retrospectives

I help my first retrospective for a while recently (that’s not to say the team hasn’t been retrospecting, just that others have been doing it in my stead!) and the team wanted to do the Mad, Glad, Sad exercise.Image

Shockingly, I didn’t know it. Or at least, I didn’t think I did.

The exercise starts with everyone writing on three different coloured posts-its the things that made the mad, glad or sad during the sprint. We then stuck them all up on the whiteboard under an appropriate picture.

We all studied it for a while, but I couldn’t really work out what the difference was between mad and sad. The idea of a retrospective is that you inspect and adapt. Look at what you did, how you did it and change things if they need improving. The idea of mad and sad should be things that, affected us negatively that we want to change in future sprints.

But what is the difference? I asked the team. They didn’t know either.

So, we set about trying to decide what each thing meant. In many retrospectives in the past, we’ve realised that there are things that went wrong, didn’t work or just plain sucked that we could fix and there were things that can be classed as ‘Shit Happens’. Stuff that, while we might expend some effort in fixing them, are unlikely to occur anytime in the near future, so we draw a line under it and move on – there are always more pressing things to deal with.

So, using this idea, we renamed Sad to “Get stuff off my chest” and Mad to “I’m not going to take it ANYMORE”.

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This means, we can highlight things that annoyed, frustrated or saddened us, but that, realistically speaking, there isn’t a lot of value in dealing with and then the stuff that REALLY got under our skin and we have to deal with.

Once we’d renamed them, we then re-sorted the post-its we’d stuck under the two columns and found that, things we might have dealt with as a real problem and spent time working on, were no more than just people wanting to have a rant, and real problems might have been overlooked as they hadn’t been applied with enough gravity. Perhaps the team member feels that it’s just something bothering them and doesn’t want to make an issue of it.

We worked through all three columns and, during discussion, decided to move some from Sad to Mad and vice versa as we discussed the pros and cons of each. In the end, we had a good, solid list of things that ‘we’re not going to take ANYMORE’ which turned into a list of definite actions.

So, if you run this exercise with your team, check their and your assumptions about what Glad and Sad mean – you may be met with blank looks – and make sure you all have the same understanding to make a good exercise into a great one.

Failing sprints? Decompose your stories to the nth degree

Dive Off by Sebastian Mary
Is he about to fail his sprint? Image by Sebastian Mary

Recently I had a retrospective with one of my teams after two failed sprints. They cited unplanned tasks as one of their issues and suggested that perhaps the scrum framework wasn’t right for the kind of project they’re currently doing.

To give some context, this is a long running team on a long running project with no kind of release windows. One mistake that we did make was that there wasn’t a ‘Sprint Zero’; a chance to look at the project as a whole and do some time-boxed up front planning for a sprint. However, we’ve entered two sprints without some knowledge of how we plan to do things and it’s caused bad sprints.

When we began to plan the current sprint. There were some ‘technical’ stories in the backlog, for large chunks of backend work which had other stories dependent on them. They were all estimated quite high, without acceptance criteria or the ‘As a …, I need …, so that … .’ stanza to support them. This is fine, the stanza is only important when it provides value and usually not for technical stories. One of the problems was not having acceptance criteria, so the first thing we did was to define those.

After that and to get to the crux of the post though, I asked :

Describe this story in high-level steps.

To which the team discussed what would be done to do each story, we defined the tasks at a high level (much like you would do when planning proper), but after each task was defined, I asked the team to estimate the tasks in story points. It was an eye-opener!

The tasks were all coming in with estimates of 2’s and 3’s. Which meant that, when the broken down, estimated tasks were added up, they were more than the original story. This usually happens, but it was an ‘Ahha!’ moment for the team. It allowed them to think more abstractly about the work. It’s not the plans that are valuable, but the planning!

To compound the issue, we’ve been getting hung up on the idea of each story delivering functionality which we can demo. While this is a noble goal, I’m sure it’s not always possible. This was causing huge estimates on stories and, as we know, bigger estimates mean lower accuracy on that estimate. With this constraint removed, the team breathed a sigh of relief and began writing stories which were meaningful and well sized. What actually came out of it is that, once we’d broken them down, we could see that for some of them, there actually were things we could demo; speed improvements on database queries and data integrity which DO provide value and so can be demoed.

Finally, when choosing the stories to add to the sprint, the team committed to work which they used their gut feel (and their velocity, but only as a guide) on what they could fit in. I went through each story asking, ‘Can we do this and all the previous stories?’ They committed to less than they would have had they just added the original stories. Meaning that, the non-decomposed stories were causing them to overcommit without recognising it.

So, if you’re failing sprints due to unplanned work cropping up and causing you to have over-committed, then ask for high level tasks on how to complete the story and estimate each of these tasks as if it were a story, you can go too far by decomposing each task to a story level, but if you’re finding this is the case, then your failed sprints probably aren’t caused by your stories.