Retrospectives: The Hidden Gem Enabling Teams to Thrive – Part 1

Damon Stoddard

Let me ask you a question. If you asked a world-renowned expert what the single most impactful thing a team could do to improve, what do you think they’d say?

I had the opportunity to ask Scott Tannenbaum that question during a recent meeting. Scott is the co-author of the book “Teams that Work”, an evidence-based book outlining the factors that thriving teams have in common. His work has helped over 600 organizations including a third of the Fortune 100 companies. He’s been studying teams for more than 35 years and has written over 175 publications. It’s not a stretch to say Scott is a world-renowned expert on teaming. When asked what his “moon shot” goal would be for teams in our organization, Scott quickly responded, “100% of the teams in the organization are regularly debriefing”.

When he said that, my ears perked up. Enabling individuals and organizations to continuously improve has been my focus for most of my 30+ year professional career as a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and Agile Coach. Debriefing, as Scott calls it, is a simple method enabling teams to continuously improve. In an article co-written by Scott in the Spring 2018 issue of People and Strategy the authors share that the best teams become great because they learn from their experiences, and they adjust. They self-correct. This process is known as debriefing.

Agile has another word for debriefing, it’s called retrospectives, and the founders of Agile believed it was so important that they added it as one of the 12 principles in the Agile Manifesto, stated as follows:

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Scott’s research indicates that teams that regularly debrief achieve between a 20 and 25% improvement in overall productivity through the simple intervention of retrospectives taking from between 15 and 60 minutes to conduct.

Additional research from the 2018 State of DevOps report indicates that Elite performing software development teams are 1.5 times more likely to consistently hold retrospectives and use them to improve their work.

Based on our own data, we estimate that fewer than 15% of active software development teams regularly conduct retrospectives, and our best estimate is that less than 5% of non-software teams globally regularly conduct retrospectives. Given the simplicity and impact of retrospectives, why isn’t every team on the planet regularly conducting retrospectives?

Our mission at Microsoft is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more. Given that the majority of individuals attest to being on a team, we believe that retrospectives are a foundational element to achieving our mission.

We’ve created a Retrospectives extension for Azure DevOps enabling teams to conduct retrospectives and create work items to track improvement actions quickly and easily. As of this writing, more than 57,000 organizations around the world have installed this extension.

On The DevOps Lab we talk about retrospectives, the research, and we introduce a new capability enabling teams to assess themselves across multiple dimensions that are predictive of high performing, thriving teams. Furthermore, we discuss the approach to using the retrospective approach to quickly identify and prioritize improvement opportunities across these same dimensions. Here’s a brief walkthrough of how to immediately start doing a standard retrospective with your team.

  • Identify a facilitator who will learn the retrospective process, schedule the retrospective meetings, facilitate the retrospectives, capture retrospective action items, and ensure action items are completed prior to the next session. The ScrumMaster will be the facilitator if your team uses Scrum.
  • Install the Retrospectives Extension for your instance of Azure DevOps.
  • Schedule the first retrospective. Your first session should take about an hour.
  • Follow the instructions in the help file to conduct your first retrospective.
    • Create the retrospective board.
    • Share the retrospective board link with your team.
    • Start the meeting and read “The Prime Directive”.
    • Collect: Everyone on the team provides feedback on the retrospective board.
    • Group: Facilitator groups the feedback items together. *Note: We’ve discovered that adding a new column in the retrospective set-up titled “One action in the next sprint” and only grouping the actions speeds up the time to conduct a retrospective.
    • Vote: Everyone clicks the vote tab and applies their votes to the areas they believe the team should focus on.
      • Note: We’ve discovered that voting on the “One action in the next sprint” cards quickly focuses the team’s attention on where to act. *Act: Work items are created for the top voted items.
    • Act: Work items are created for the top voted items.
      • Note: We recommend 1-3 actions max for each retrospective with each action being something that can be completed in the next sprint. Furthermore, we recommend allocating capacity in the upcoming sprint cycle to accomplish these actions. If action isn’t taken, then retrospectives will quickly become a non-value-added activity for the team.
    • Schedule the next retrospective.

Watch the full video on Retrospectives here:

In the next blog we’ll introduce the Team Assessment Retrospective. This approach ensures that retrospectives are value added and surfacing all the issues by quantifying psychological safety, the top predictor of team performance. Furthermore, the Team Assessment Retrospective helps teams quantify the dimensions that research shows contribute most to individuals and teams thriving.


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