Agile Retrospectives, Making Good Teams Great
is all about the process of improving process. However the inclusion of Agile in the title of the book could cause one to believe that retrospectives are only useful when applied to an agile regime. On the contrary, retrospectives - as described in this book - can make good teams great even if they are utilizing a traditional waterfall methodology.
The printed book contains 168 pages divided into 10 chapters and 5 appendices which means is can easily be consumed in one or two sittings. As introductions go, this one works better than most in laying down a solid framework for the rest of the book. The example provides a graphic example of the subject matter in the following chapters. It is further filled out with a concise explanation of each step in a retrospective. It is this explanation that works to provide a precise framework for the rest of the book.
One thing that is often left out of process books is simply how to get started. Getting started with any new activity or process requires one to think about things that are orthogonal to the task at hand. For example, there is a sidebar discussing the question of how to create a schedule for a retrospective.
It is very difficult to estimate how long it will take to do anything under the best of circumstances, let alone the case where one is undertaking something entirely new. By covering what it takes to prepare for retrospectives, the authors have added tremendous value by helping to reduce the risk to schedule. They also bring to light many activities that a novice may not uncover until the retrospective is underway. The consequences of missing something important could have a significant impact on the acceptance of a process that may have been difficult to sell to both management and project team members. The planning information is further augmented in Appendix A where you will find a complete list of supplies that will be needed to support various activities.
Even more important than the information covered in chapter 2 is the advice about how to lead a retrospective contained in chapter 3. Leading a retrospective is about facilitation and to that end, the authors share a number of significant thoughts on the subject. The most important thought is that the role of the facilitator is to facilitate and not get caught up in the discussion. Esther and Diana point out that a facilitator that participates in discussions can no longer properly pay attention to the process. It also can have a negative impact on the discussion.
The risk of giving input is that when the leader jumps in too often, it quashes group discussion.
Along with the list of what not to do you will also find a number of what to do. The to-do list includes a number of things that can be done to handle uncomfortable situations that may include tears, shouting, stomping out, laughter, clowning, silence, and undercurrents. In short, the book has a very human side to it.
The follow on chapters move to a more boilerplate style. The templates provide a consistent look that helps to organize the information being presented. In the templates we have descriptions of activities to:
- Set the stage
- Gather data
- Generate insights
- Decide what to do
- Close the retrospective
The format of the template starts with a name for the activity and brief statement about when to use it. This is followed up with sections on timing, a description of the activity, the individual steps, materials and preparations needed, and finally an example. Some of the activities were annotated with some extremely useful charts and graphics. The usefulness of the illustrations is the source of the only set of nits, well only two actually. More of the activities should have been annotated with pictures and charts and the authors really should have photoshopped the white board picture. It was grey and dingy making it difficult to see what was on the board.
All in all I found that enjoyed reading this book much more than I though that I would. The problem that I have with most process books is that they are often too fluffy written by people with a "great idea" that is just that; an idea. But this book was different in that Agile Retrospectives exposes the battle scars suffered by both Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. What gives you even more confidence in the materials is that when they stray outside the bounds of their expertise, the message is: you need to know something about this and here is a reference to follow up on. In what seems to be a rare sighting in the world of technical books these days, all references are well documented in a bibliography found in the back of the book. It may not be on your must read list however if you do read it I think you’ll realize that a post-mortem should really be retrospectives that should be many pre-mortems.