How a good retrospective can avoid a Suárez!

It is World Cup season and fans are out in hordes, cheering for their favorite teams – my personal favorites are Netherlands and Germany. Whilst keeping a keen eye on the games, I did not have the faintest idea that I could write a blog related to Scrum, based on what happens in a global football tournament. But, Voila!!! Italy & Uruguay gave me with my next blog post – of course, with a little bit of help from Subin Jacob, who actually triggered the spark.

By now, I am sure the majority of you have realized that my post is going to revolve around the (in) famous biting incident involving Luis Suárez. And no – I am not going to pass a verdict on whether he is guilty or not! 😀

So what can Scrum teams learn from the Suárez incident?

As I interact more with Scrum teams and try to educate those making a transition to Scrum, I have noticed a common behavior when it comes to executing ceremonies – namely Product Backlog grooming, Sprint Planning meetings, Daily Stand Ups, Sprint Reviews and Sprint Retrospectives. After the initial enthusiasm, many teams start viewing these ceremonies as nothing but ceremonies – mundane, and done for the sake of the process. As someone who tries to spread the word of Agile, and Scrum in particular, Retrospective is one activity I place huge emphasis on. This is simply because it is one exercise that allows the team to reflect, identify, acknowledge and act upon all that was good, bad and ugly in the Sprint.

Retrospectives are true stepping stones

Retrospectives are the stepping stones for the team to continuously improve and weed out bad habits. Here, the first step is for the team to identify and acknowledge if they made any mistake – understand what went wrong and can be improved upon. I believe that in every retrospective, good Scrum teams will come up with a list of items they can improve upon, and never miss even the smallest opportunity to set right every shortcoming. Good Scrum teams are not afraid of facing the fact that they did commit mistakes – it could be something as simple as getting the estimation wrong to underachieve, or something as big as understanding a requirement incorrectly to deliver the exact opposite of what the PO wanted! The retrospective should be an exercise that leads to learning lessons, and then implementing those lessons learnt. A good retrospective will always provide new learning, and more importantly, will bring to the surface issues and problems that will have to be dealt with.

Bad habits come back to bite you

On the other hand, a Scrum team that tends to view its retrospective as just another ceremony would more often than not end up with a Suárez – the problems and bad habits comes back to bite you. Suárez has successfully managed to bite his opponent a good three times, and suffered varying degrees of punishment. Whilst this speaks about his ongoing troubles, it also displays a collective lack of will from governing authorities to end Suárez’s troubles – both for himself and his opponents. Similarly, Scrum teams who undervalue the retrospective ceremony tend to pile up their problems for the fear of retribution.

The crippling fear of responsibility

Generally, Scrum teams get their retrospective wrong due to one primary reason – fear of responsibility. If a mistake or a fault is identified, who takes ownership? Will the failure be attributed to the individual rather than viewed as a collective failure by the team? What would be the reaction from the Product Management team if a fault is identified? Fear of answering and associating with faults stop Scrum teams from identifying, acknowledging and collectively acting on them. When this becomes the attitude towards retrospectives, many a Scrum team hates this activity, causing them to pretend everything is fine. They only address minor issues without repercussions. Ultimately, there is a breaking point when all the shortcomings come tumbling down – evoking a Suárez kind of situation.

How to get better at retrospectives

To help teams get better at retrospectives, my experience advocates that initial set of retrospectives are conducted in the absence of authority – Project Managers, Product Mangers or Executives. This allows the team to open up without any apprehension, and discuss problems. This will lead to a growth of trust, and will encourage behaving like a family. Eventually – over subsequent retrospective sessions – when the team has confidence and trust built up, the retrospective can be opened up to a wider audience to include Executives and Managers. For a successful Scrum implementation, the organizational culture has to focus on transparency and trust – which are the essential fundamentals for retrospectives too.

As ever, I like to leave my readers with some food for thought –

  • How do you manage team members like Suárez who are habitual offenders?
  • As a Scrum team member, what do you need to have a successful retrospective? What challenges are frequently faced while participating in a retrospective?

Disclaimer: In no way do I believe Suárez is guilty or innocent. The incident was used as an example to symbolically express the role of retrospectives in Scrum. Uruguay fans and Suárez supporters please spare me the cross of crucification!

Image Credit: SportsCenter

Author : Praveen Prakash Date : 27 Jun 2014