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Book Review: The Retrospective Handbook

09.08.2012
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My colleague Pat Kua recently published a book he’s been working on for the first half of the year titled ‘The Retrospective Handbook‘ – a book in which Pat shares his experiences with retrospectives and gives advice to budding facilitators.

I was intrigued what the book would be like because the skill gap between Pat and me with respect to facilitating retrospectives is huge and I’ve often found that experts in a subject can have a tendency to be a bit preachy when writing about their subject!

In actual fact Pat has done a great job making the topic accessible to all skill levels and several times covers typical problems with retrospectives before describing possible solutions.

These were some of the things that I took away:

  • One of the most interesting parts of the book was a section titled ‘Be Aware of Cultural Dimensions’ where Pat covers some of the different challenges we have when people from different cultures work together.

    I found the power distance index (PDI) especially interesting:

    The extent to which the less powerful members of organisations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally

    If you come from a culture with a low PDI you’re more likely to challenge something someone else said regardless of their role but if you’re from a culture with a high PDI you probably won’t say anything.

    The US/UK tend to have low PDI whereas India has a high PDI – something I found fascinating when participating in retrospectives in India in 2010/2011. I think the facilitator needs to be aware of this otherwise they might make someone very uncomfortable by pushing them too hard to share their opinion.

  • A theme across the book is that retrospectives aren’t about the facilitator – the facilitator’s role is to help guide the team through the process and keep things moving, they shouldn’t be the focal point. In my opinion if a facilitator is doing that well then they’d be almost invisible much like a football referee when they’re having a good game!
  • The ‘First-Time Facilitation Tips’ chapter is particularly worth reading and reminded me that part of the facilitator’s role is to encourage equal participation from the group:

    A common, shared picture is only possible if all participants give their input freely and share their view of the story. This is difficult if one or two people are allowed to dominate discussions. Part of your role as a facilitator is to use whatever techniques you can to ensure a balanced conversation occurs.

    I think this is much easier for an external facilitator to do as they won’t have the burden of inter team politics/hierarchy to deal with.

    Pat goes on to suggests splitting the group up into smaller groups as one technique to get people involved, an approach I’ve found works and from my experience this works really well and gets around the problem that many people aren’t comfortable discussing things in big groups.

  • There’s nothing more boring than doing the same retrospective week after week, nor is there a quicker way to completely put people off them, so I was pleased to see that Pat dedicated a chapter to keeping retrospectives fresh.

    He suggests a variety of different techniques including bringing food or running the retrospective in a different location to normal to keep it interesting. I’ve heard of colleagues in Brazil doing their retrospectives outside which is another angle on this theme!

  • Another good tip is that when creating actions we don’t need to spend time getting someone to sign up for them right there and then – an alternative is to encourage people to walk the wall and pick ones they feel they can take care of.

I think this book compliments Esther Derby/Diana Larsen’s ‘Agile Retrospectives‘ really well.

I find their book really useful for finding exercises to use in retrospectives to keep it interesting whereas Pat’s book is more about the challenges you’re likely to face during the retrospective itself.

There’s lots of other useful tips and tricks in the book – these are just a few of the ones that stood out for me – it’s well worth a read if you’re a participant/facilitator in retrospectives on your team.

Published at DZone with permission of Mark Needham, author and DZone MVB. (source)

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