Retrospectives – Maximise Your Mouth Hours

On the 40 strong team I’m currently working on, the format of one 1 hour retro every couple of weeks wasn’t working, so we tried out a new format.

How do you run a retro with a team of 40 people? This is the question we’ve been struggling with for quite a while now. Fortunately, the team I’m on promotes empowerment so we had a chance to try out a new idea some of us had been mulling over.

Usual Format

  • Gather postits / stickies of stuff people want to discuss on a ‘retro radiator’ (as in a board for radiating information related to the retrospective. Not one of these) throughout the 2 weeks between retros;
  • Retro radiator also contains actions – these are kept up to date throughout the 2 weeks in an attempt to save time in the retro itself ;
  • On the day of the retro, cluster the postits into relevant groups;
  • Dot vote the groups (3 x dots each);
  • The 3 groups with the most dots get the lions share of the time in the retro, but we at least mention all postits at the beginning of the retro (so that everyone at least hears their postit read out, even if it isn’t going to be discussed…);
  • All 40 team members come together for beginning  of retro;
  • Ice breaker to kick off the retro – the idea being that if everyone speaks at the beginning, they’re more likely to speak later. This doesn’t work in our retros;
  • Facilitator reads out all postits (facilitator changes each retro);
  • Team breaks out of the room into 4 smaller teams of 10 or so – each person given a number between 1 & 4 to keep each team ‘random’;
  • Each team either discusses one of the hot topics, or they discuss all of the hot topics – this depends on the topics & how many there are;
  • Each team generates an action where applicable with an action owner;
  • Towards the end of the retro, 4 teams come back together & present their discussions & actions
  • Retro finishes;
  • Retro radiator updated with latest actions.

Problems

  •  People don’t put the stuff they want to talk about until the day before the retro – earlier stuff gets forgotten;
  • 40 people adding stuff they want to talk about results in a wide spread of topics which are sometimes difficult cluster;
  • The ratio of Programmers to Testers, BAs Designers etc is such that typically the topics which get discussed are related to the Programmers & as such other team members find it hard to contribute;
  • People who do take the time to add their postitis get dismayed when they are not given a fair hearing. This results in those people not putting postits up for the next retro;
  • Retros are mandatory but several team members don’t think they add value to themselves or the team;
  • The value coming  out of the retro is perceived as not being worth the cost of the retros;
  • Limited opportunities to go into depth about the topics, let alone double loop learning

One of the biggest problems we have is trying to ensure everyone has their fair say. What invariably happens is someone has a topic they would like to discuss, they try to start that discussion but that discussion gets bypassed by another discussion (which could be for several reasons – more on that later…).

This bypassing of discussions results in those being bypassed in not wanting to contribute to the retro, so they become like rocks with their mouths zipped shut.

New Format

  • Team divides up into smaller groups of max 7 people (5 being the suggested optimum – Hackman) to limit the number of the social interactions;
  • A series of retros throughout the day – still 1 hour per group, but only 7 in the group & the same facilitators all day
  • 1st group generate stuff to talk about on postits – a timeline on 1 board for date related stuff & blank board for general stuff;
  • Group decides what they want to talk about – we managed to discuss all topics in all retros;
  • Group generates some actions as needed & assign an action owner;
  • Actions & owners info gets added to the groups ‘poster’ (flipchart sheet);
  • Poster hung up in retro room for other groups to see;
  • Other groups can choose to discuss the previous topics further & / or add their own topics;
  • The postits from each group were left up on the boards & added to by subsequent groups;
  • The posters from each group are now the retro radiator.

Benefits (immediate)

  • Team was split into relevant groups – everyone in the group raised topics relevant to everyone else in the room;
  • Natural clusters form on the timeline, clustering on the other board isn’t too tricky as there are only 7 people in the group
  • Everyone got to discuss their topic – conversation was flowing & the room was energised;
  • Everyone felt comfortable talking in the smaller groups;
  • The rocks mouths were unzipped!
  • More feeling of ownership on the actions;
  • Team members pairing up on actions where they thought they could add value;
  • Retro was easier to facilitate – not so many competing opinions at once.

 

We’ve only done the one retro in the new format, but the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The plan is to keep this format, at least for a few more retros, with just a few small alterations.

I would be really interested in hearing about how other people hold retros with large teams – have you got any war stories to share?

 

P.S. As much as I’d like to take credit for “mouth hours”, the term was in fact created (AFAIK) by Mark Crossfield