Engaging Facilitators for the Retro en Masse

2020-03-09 This post is over 2 years old

Last week I talked about organizing and coordinating a Retro en Masse. To get effective conversations going for 24 people, I decided to split the group into 6. Which meant I’d need help. My natural inclination would have been to pick from the other consultants from my company. I know we share similar perspectives, and it would thus be easier to convey my intent to them. But for the Retro to be successful, the client team would need to own the discussion. So I needed client employees. I needed a succinct way to convey my intent. I needed some way to build their buy-in to the idea. And of course, I needed to equipment to do the job too.

As it turned-out it was easier to solve the ‘succinct way’ problem first. After all, I had to present this idea for sign-off to the client before I began anyway. I ended up creating a 1 page format which was heavily influenced by a book I was reading. The whole of the document read as follows:

1Pager - Distributed Retro by Topic

Coordinator’s Intent

We must protect open, honest, earnest discussion among our groups to allow voices to be heard, ideas to be fostered, and that we may improve. To do so, we must establish and maintain the psychological safety of the group and engage the participants to deeply understand the problems we face. They will provide the answers, we’ll help with the questions.

Roles - Responsibilities

Coordinator - Circulate among groups to aide facilitator, and break log-jams in discussion

Group Facilitator - Facilitate micro-retro/conversation on the topic at hand. Drive group from Observations to potential actions or revealing questions

Participant - Standard Retro participation. Share observations, opinions, and data with group to help ideation and discussion.

Scribe - aide facilitator in collection notes on discussion and action items (Optional)

Coordinator to inform/select and train facilitators.
Divide department into groups. Explain plan, announce first topic.
Timed discussion of topic
Timed Idea/result sharing among groups
Timed re-discuss period with each group.
Repeat timed discussions for each of 3 topics.

Topics (Focus on Org Level)
Topics: 1) Previous Sprints, 2) Release/Testing Phase, 3) Future Sprints.
Use the following to guide discussions for 1), and 2): What did we as a department do well? What didn’t we? What could we change?. Think inter-team dynamics, missed hand-offs silo-ing, etc.
Use more forward looking questions for 3) , like if you were to change 1 thing for future sprints, what would it be? What do you think being more successful in coming sprints looks like? How might we get there?

Rules of Engagement
Remember the Prime directive - 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.” The focus is on events and not the people

Not a Blame-game. All actions/remarks must be non-blaming. Eg. Blaming – The Bas kept missing Requirements. The Dev kept writing bugs. Non-Blaming – The Team discovered missing requirements frequently. Numerous Bugs were discovered during the last testing phase.

Buts are ugly. Everyone has one. No one wants two. Keep them to yourself. We want to drive our conversation on the art of the possible. Focus on what could work, and what would need to be done to make something work. Ask questions, with the intent to learn.

I admit I am a little over fond of the document format. So I’ll curtail my rambling by highlighting the most important piece the document: The Coordinator’s Intent. ‘Commander’s Intent’ Chapter in Extreme Ownership inspired and informed it’s material. I needed to describe the kind of service and system I aimed to make, and those three sentences fit the bill. It also served to enable the solution to the Buy-in concern. More of that later.

The next problem I addressed was finding the right people. As I mentioned, explaining this idea would’ve been easier if I only had to rely on my fellow Consultants. But that wouldn’t serve the need. It had to be employees. Thankfully, I was able to find the first half of the facilitators easily. I had planned to split the groups roughly by role. So we had a ‘Leadership’, ‘BAs’, Team Leads’, and several ‘Dev’ groups. The groups made selecting facilitators for the first three groups very easy. I had at least one person I trusted in each of those groups to begin with. So I pulled each of them into a quick meeting to lay out the plan. I used the document above to explain my intent. Then I asked if they were willing to help. To my relief, everyone agreed enthusiastically. Having a core team in place, They helped me pick the remaining 3 facilitators. Effectively, I leveraged my high trust in a couple to help me fill the slots through extended trust.

After finding the right people, I wanted to build their buy-in on the idea. That is, I wanted them to own it with me. I was asking them to perform an emotional labor on behalf of their team mates. I wanted them to feel their system supported them in ways which matters to them. I worked towards this in a handful of ways. And I built buy-in differently with each group. With one group, I took their input and changed the format. Where the plan had called for 3 segments, we reduced it to 2, and added a break. With other group, we assigned the Dev groups, building effective conversation groups.

But with both groups, I made a very specific declaration. After I read over the ‘Coordinator’s Intent’, I added a very specific instruction:

‘Everything that follows is aimed at this intent. If at any point during the retro you believe one of these rules will get in the way of that intent: Drop it. I trust your judgement, it’s why I’m asking for your help in the first place.’

The acts of changing the format and of using their group assignments were just demonstrations of that trust. While I am not sure, I believe this tone enabled our joint success.

I’ve been studying ‘Leadership’ for the past several years, pouring over content on Trust, Team-building, and even effective communication. Truth be told, nothing quiet prepared me for some of the practical facts on the ground. It was exhilarating bringing a focused team together. As was executing on a plan we each believed would work. It was also exhausting. After the Retro, I felt like a wrung-out drip cloth. But the plan worked. They made it a success. And so once again I am left in awe of the success they built. To each of my team mates, each of the volunteer facilitators: Thank you. Here’s to your continued success!