A few times recently I've been asked about retrospectives -- specifically how to keep them from becoming a gripe session. Here are a few things that I've found effective:
1. Start with the positive
While we certainly want to talk about and address any issues, I like to talk about the positive things that have occurred during the last period before we delve into things we might want to change. I haven't yet been involved in a retrospective where the list of positive things wasn't long. This helps set the tone for the rest of the retrospective.
2. Wording matters
I still have strong memories of watching Linda Rising run a retrospective for the Agile Vancouver organizing team in 2010. The words she chose as facilitator were powerful in keeping the retrospective positive yet useful. Instead of writing down "what went well", participants were asked to complete the phrase "it was great because..." (see the full quote and story at the link above). Instead of writing down "what didn't go well", they were reminded that no process is perfect and to write down "what they would do differently the next time". This simple re-wording of the phrases is powerful.
3. Every voice is heard
If you've met me in person or even just through my blog, you probably know my passion for silent brainstorming. Generating in silence and discussing out loud isn't just a great way to get more ideas on the table, it is also a fantastic way to make sure every voice is heard. We've all been at retrospectives where one or more people with loud voices carry the conversation and the ideas. That isn't fun and doesn't encourage a positive atmosphere.
4. Build up Trust
Using the 3 things above have shown themselves to be important in building up trust but sometimes you need to go a little farther. With new teams I've found that walking through Norm Kerth's prime directive can be a helpful way to eliminate blame from the discssion. They don't even have to believe the prime directive is true, they just have to act as if it is true for the period of the retrospective. I have found this pattern to be important to building up trust over time.
5. Do the (small) change
Finally, the point of all of this is to find ways to improve. If your team is having positive discussions about change and then doesn't follow through, the retrospectives become a waste of time. One simple way to make sure the change happens is to put the action items into your backlog and then start off the next retrospective by reviewing them to see if they were done and if they were helpful.
All the best in making your retrospectives more powerful by making them a positive experience. Feel free to add your tips in the comments.