Exterminators Week 7 - Discuss into Action

Reading time ~6 minutes

Retrospectives are a great tool to come up with actions to improve any team. Teams discussing their biggest challenges can lead to change and help overcome their obstacles. For improvement to stick I believe teams need to choose action items and follow through with them.

Team retrospectives are a very common agile practice. Over time they can lose focus and start to become yet another boring meeting. People show up. Talk. Leave. Nothing about the team improves. The meeting is not useful.

I believe great retrospectives are important for making teams more effective. Unlike just another meeting retrospectives are a chance to take a look at the past and reflect on how things are going. From this perfect vantage point activities, events, actions and/or interactions that helped or hurt the team are easier to see.

Mixing together the perspectives of all team members and with some discussion, consensus on team challenges or opportunities can be reached. Great ideas for taking the team to the next level can be found. From there the team can pick a few things they will try to do or change until the next retrospective. Boom, retrospected.

Lackluster retrospectives have lackluster outcomes. Sometimes teams try to take on everything they could possibly change all at once. The discussion becomes the entire meeting and no action items are chosen. Maybe the team is not comfortable together, which causes the discussion and action items to be superficial.

This week we had a retrospective which did not sit well with me. We talked in circles, but did not come to a final resolution or action for the team. Sadly, the strongest personalities dominated the discussion and we missed out on valuable opinions from the less vocal team members. I participated in the process, but was left wanting more.

In this retrospective I felt we were missing two key ingredients to go from being meh to being AWESOME. We needed to have a healthy discussion about the team challenges/opportunities and decide on clear action items to address them.

A rainbow little chips in a mosaic like pattern
Rainbows by Steve Snodgrass used under Creative Commons 2.0 BY, because that is AWESOME.

Healthy Discussion

Conversations can get messy. People get heated. Getting off track happens. There can be a million things to talk about and getting to one thing the whole team can agree on is a hard problem. If it was easy you wouldn’t need retrospectives and should probably sell your secret for a bazillion dollars.

So what are we talking about here? Oh right, healthy group discussions. In a retrospective if you goal is to walk away with action items to address the most burning need your team there are a few pointers to keep in mind.

  1. Don’t play the Blame Game
  2. Embrace the Prime Directive
  3. Leave egos and agendas at the door
  4. Engage the whole team
  5. Diverge then converge

The failure or success blame games do not belong in healthy retrospectives. They erode teams and only lead to hurting one another. Venting about problems might make you feel better momentarily, but will not help in the long term. If the team needs to let some steam off, maybe it is time to head to the pub.

Mistakes happen. Try to dig deeper and understand what issues led to the problems that were caused. Keep in mind the retrospective Prime Directive which if followed makes blame irrelevant:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

– Norm Kerth

Power dynamics with teams and egos crush discussions. Less confident team members with great ideas will go unheard if overpowered by others on the team. If a flashy developer wants to prove how amazing it can change the retro from being about the team to being about them.

It is important to hear opinions from the entire team to avoid any one person monopolizing the conversation. The facilitator, meeting format and participants can prevent this from happening. Together as a team, you can make retrospectives a safe place where everyone can be heard and work toward the best interested of the team.

Retrospectives should diverge then converge. There can be lots to cover. Exploring ideas and what the team is interested in often involves brainstorming or activities. Coming to a team consensus about what actions to take can use more activities, clustering or discussion.

Depending on the team and the approach used for diverging/converging there can be varying levels of success. Typical retrospective games can completely turn off some teams. Other teams may not feel comfortable having frank discussions together. Find something that works for your team and periodically mix it up. Try to tailor the activity to the personalities and strengths of the team.

The final goal for the retrospective is to converge on action items to improve the team. Make sure enough time is allocated to come up with ideas and topics. Focus on facilitating the conversation and ensuring the team converges on at least one viable action item.

Action Items

The conversation during a retrospective is not enough to change the team. You need some concrete action the team will do to make things better. Treat your actions like goals (or SMART goals) the team is committing to accomplish right away.

An action could be almost anything! It could be anything you actively want to do, experiment with, build or alter team behaviour. Try using a new tool. Experiment with pair programming. Treat code reviews as more urgent than any other work. What you choose is up to the team and guided by the retrospective.

The next step for your action needs to be clear. Who is in charge of making sure the action gets done? Will the action be an experiment to create new options or evaluate a choice? With behaviour changes knowing the next step can be harder. Instead focus on articulating what the new behaviour is and consistently and reinforcing the new/changed behaviour to help it stick. If you are in doubt whether your actions are clear enough, ask the team members individually and make sure they have roughly the same answer.

Since creating goals is much easier than following through on them it is important to make sure the actions are completed. Most teams I have been on try to start any action before the next retrospective. This normally gives the team a few weeks to do what then intended. In the next retrospective you can report then reflect on what you have done and discuss the changes.

Having a person responsible for following through on the action or keeping the team accountable can ensure the action is completed or applied. Obvious individuals are managers or scrum masters, but any enthusiastic teammate will do. If left to their own devices there are no guarantees the team will work on the action item(s).

To help the action or change stick the team should make it visible with constant reminders. You could write your goal REALLY REALLY big and post it all over the team area. Talking about the action during the daily stand-up will serve as a consistent reminder. Get creative with how you make your actions visible.


Improving as a team can be hard. Retrospectives can help your team get better. They can provide a much needed opportunity to step back from the excitement of normal work and focus inward.

Teams should discuss their challenges and strengths. Together, the team can decide what they want to do next to improve.

I hope your next retrospective leads to action.

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