Holding a retrospective during crisis: a practical case of a Scrum master

March 7, 2023 3 min read

Retrospective: where to start and why? 

Each Project Manager, Scrum master, or facilitator chooses the retrospective format in line with the needs of the team. Regardless of the style, the goal is roughly the same — to set up work, help the team identify project bottlenecks, and define steps to achieve the result. A retrospective is a team session that belongs to the Scrum framework and is held after the completion of another work phase to analyze and improve work processes and team interaction. After each subsequent iteration, the efficiency of the scrum team should increase. 

As per the Agile Manifesto principles, the team must systematically analyze possible ways to enhance efficiency and adjust their work style accordingly.

Teams work within defined sprints — a certain timeframe. Given this, some companies have monthly sprints, we have two-week sprints. At the end of each sprint, we analyze our work and evaluate obtained results with a view to the goals, compare them with expectations, define the blockers and outline what we lacked to complete the plan, and determine the future steps for improvement. These meetings usually last between 60 and 90 minutes. 

Each retrospective has key attributes: goal, timing, agenda, rules, preparation, icebreakers, and action plan. Most often, a retro follows a list of predefined units: 

The most common framework is a SWOT analysis, where we highlight the project’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. 

There is also the ‘6 hats’ technique when participants try to look at the same problem from different angles and discover non-obvious facts. The ‘5 Why’ technique works very well for analyzing recurring problems. 

It is quite simple to conduct a retrospective according to such schemes, but in times of crisis (pandemics, wars, natural disasters), it becomes a task with an asterisk. Usually, gathering people and adjusting to work presents a challenge. It took us two weeks to recover and set up a meeting in such a crisis situation. I have to say, this was quite quick considering the fact that people were still in a state of confusion and uncertainty and had a hard time coming to their senses. Rather, this meeting was not a retrospective but a ‘roll call’ just to check in on everyone and to find out who could work and how much time one could allocate for tasks. This process was very gentle and careful. 

We had no prior plan and were not prepared for such a development. But the team got their bearings instantly and adapted all work processes against all odds. We all demonstrated flexibility and adaptability, which is definitely a manifestation of the Agile methodology. The crisis became a litmus test showing exactly how flexible we were. I cannot but recall Nasim Taleb’s book ‘Black Swan’  with a very apt metaphor. Black swans are small local problems as well as global conflicts, crisis situations, pandemics, and wars, which are always accompanied by the effect of unexpectedness. The reaction to painful events reflects our flexibility, the so-called ‘anti-fragility’.   

During the meetings, I observed how quickly we all engaged in the work and got back to tasks. After a month, they were able to fully return to duties. The questions I asked during these retrospectives have lost their relevance. I could not ask what hampered a task, what was bad, or what the blockers or stoppers were. Therefore, at first, there were regular meetings where asked about each other’s affairs. 

Later, I had the idea of conducting a retrospective aimed at a specific person rather than a team or work process. This happened after communicating with a colleague who, due to devastating ordeals, felt very bad and turned inward psychologically. The state was expressed by tabooing any joy or comfort in everyday life. For example, drinking coffee because someone cannot afford it at this time. When going into such a state, a person refuses to be happy and enjoy simple things. On the one hand, you sympathize with others, and on the other hand, you delve into self-destruction. This is the so-called destructive empathy, which has nothing to do with sorting the problem. Therefore, complicating the situation leads to a stupor and apathy toward work and life. Сompassion, sympathy, pain, joy, love, and hope are equally vital emotions. One cannot accept some and reject others. If you are not happy, you will not be able to function normally and work. 

And then I started thinking about how I could help. If there is an issue with one teammate, others will likely suffer from the ‘survivor syndrome’. So, at one of our meetings, I suggested moving away from the standard retrospective and focusing on each colleague, their feelings, emotions, and experiences. Before doing that, I gave the team a heads-up that we were refocusing from work to our well-being. After all, since the beginning of the crisis, everyone has overgrown with problems they were afraid to admit, even to themselves, believing that complaining and self-care are something bad. We were ashamed to acknowledge our pain. Therefore, I asked the team to think about what makes them happy and angry; about the circumstances that hold them back and prevent them from doing what they planned.

Three Pillars of Scrum

When having a retrospective, I rely on three important principles of the Scrum methodology:

  • transparency 
  • inspection 
  • adaptation

Being transparent and honest with others and yourself is pivotal when talking about certain problems or difficulties. During crisis situations, there is a silent ban on weakness and whining. Feeling broken, holding on to all the inner pain, we can convince ourselves and others that everything is ok. At this point, it’s essential to admit that it’s okay to not be okay and to allow yourself to name those meager moments that are annoying. Perhaps you live with impossible neighbors or relatives who ruin the mood and annoy you. Or maybe you have experienced the loss of a loved one, lost your home, or are forced to abandon your settled places due to misfortune events. It can be anything, but it is necessary to identify and name problematic nuances. Honesty with yourself will allow you to assess areas of improvement, whether there is an alternative, what can be fixed in this situation, and what should be accepted. 

Dealing with small problems makes things easier. Looking for a solution, we become flexible, we don’t stand still, and we are not paralyzed, but we act. The willingness to act despite everything is a sign of flexible people. 

If you need a vacation, allow yourself to rest. When you return, you will be inspired and able to be more productive in volunteering and work. We should not oppress and forbid ourselves to live in a way that is comfortable for us. We’ve got to admit things that bother us and, if possible, make a change. 

Crisis Retrospective Case Study: Focusing on the Person, Not the Work Process

I usually host a retrospective using the interactive Mural platform. All topics of the meeting are divided into blocks with questions. Having answered, we analyze, discuss a certain topic, and provide insights. The person-centered retrospective consists of 5 key stages. You must either continue the statement, indicating your answer option, or write down your emotions or thoughts on a certain occasion. 

The first stage: complete the sentence “I feel bad because…”

Each teammate was asked to continue the sentence by naming a list of factors that disappoint, demotivate, upset, and prevent work. The answers were as follows: uncertainty, guilt, difficulty concentrating at work, financial difficulties, etc. 

People revealed even, at first glance, minor inconveniences, which they were afraid to voice. In turn, I asked to focus on these small things because, at that time, they were the easiest to solve, but a person has not yet done this for some reason. Having solved what is the easiest, as a rule, we feel our ability and strength to solve more complex problems. 

At this stage, complete transparency with yourself helps create a wide field for analysis and adaptation. This was the exact moment to think about ourselves without denying that someone is worse off now. 

People did not allow themselves to live well, creating even worse conditions for themselves, although they could improve them. This atmosphere needed to be changed. We should get rid of the factors that hinder us. We want to be capable, do our job, support the country’s economy, and pay taxes. But for this, you must satisfy your needs and take care of yourself in the first place.

Second stage: Change your vision 

At this stage, I encouraged the team to consider the situation from a different perspective. Not all of our problems are entirely negative, often, positive factors can be found. 

In moments of uncertainty, we hone our flexibility and become stronger. People manage to survive the crisis, adapt, and develop fearlessness. In such events, we definitely learn something and get to know ourselves and our neighbors. 

Difficulties are the driving force of progress. We acquire new skills, discover new opportunities, and begin to work better. 

The third stage: What inspires you? 

At this stage, everyone wrote down a list of factors that make them happy, motivated, and energetic. 

All of us were in different conditions, and we all found a source of inspiration, whether a lake near the house or a favorite coffee house. Everyone had precious things of their own — nature, flowers, birds, bicycle rides, family, children, and good news. 

For me, it was a magnificent park with a beautiful cathedral. Every location we find ourselves in has something pleasant and nice. We need to focus on this. It motivates, inspires, and makes you feel better. 

Step Four: What can you do to feel more productive?

At this juncture, the team generates new ideas and looks for change options: evening walks, studying, playing, exercising, sports, and talking with friends, relatives, and colleagues. This is what our everyday life consists of. 

People come to realize that they have yet to exhaust all opportunities to boost their morale and find the energy to work. It is not necessary to write the answer to this question publicly on the board, everyone could answer just for themselves. In any case, it is important to work it out. 

The fifth stage: Kudos

Here, we shift the emphasis from our experiences to gratitude for teammates. It’s a team stage that is supposed to unite. We write our thanks to our colleagues for everything we consider necessary. Our team didn’t write but just talked and thanked each other verbally. And it was a great mutual support. We felt that we were one and valued each other. 

Even before the beginning of the retrospective, I wondered whether people would be skeptical about it. After all, it looks more like a coaching session, which is also one of the retro formats. But still, I had different thoughts. 

As a result, everyone was delighted. I felt that people needed this. Those who were not shy thanked me through personal messages and shared their impressions. For some, it was inspiring, while others could exhale emotions and move to the next stage. 

Of course, I was worried about crossing the line because this type of question normally arises in one-to-one meetings where people are more open. But this time, we wanted to work it out as a team. Because all of us, due to the crisis situation, found ourselves in more or less similar circumstances. Indeed, it is worth admitting that this technique is not one-size-fits-all. I knew that our team was mature enough, friendly, and sincere, and such an unconventional approach would not embarrass anyone. Therefore, it turned out even better than expected. These are simple but relevant questions that need to be raised and answered to understand your needs and feel better. 

The tools to make a retrospective smooth

I use Miro and Mural most often in my work. Mural has many ready-made interactive templates that are constantly updated. The work process demands visualization and illustrative parallels. For example, a team is compared to a ship that sails in a given direction, overcomes obstacles, and reaches its destination. At a certain mental level, such metaphors simplify the perception of information and help to plan one’s work. 

In addition, this platform specifically avoids templates as much as possible. The questions have the same content but are formulated differently. And this allows you to discover new aspects of the problem you did not even know about. As in testing and design, following a pattern can miss important details. They can be detected if the question is reformulated slightly differently. 

The article was previously published on ProjectManagement.

Anna Yakubova
Senior QA and Scrum Master at Innovecs
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