How to save your agile retrospective’s learnings from action item purgatory

April 5, 2019

According to Esther Derby and Diana Larsen in the visionary Agile Retrospectives book, in the “Decide what to do” stage of your agile retrospectives the team’s primary job is to provide structure and guidance for the experiments and actions. We’ve explored how to bring accountability to your action items but there is a nuance to agile retrospectives that goes beyond tasks. What happens when your action items look more like lessons or habit changes than simple tasks?

Stop treating QA as the final development phase.

Story acceptance criteria should be independently testable.

Tests should be easy to write and easier to run.

All API documentation must have authentication, error messages, resources, terms of use, and a change log.

Final story acceptance needs to run by the PO, QA, and Design team moving forward.

They can be hard to spot at first. What you should be looking out for are “should”, “needs to”, “must” and other open-ended verbs in your action items that aren’t task specific, own-able, or capable of having a due date. These action items are hardly actionable but sometimes they’re unavoidable. They are more like habits your team needs to build — and it won’t be easy. But don’t get discouraged, get proactive.

1. Add them to your process 🗓

Once you’ve identified an action item like this, set it aside. If possible, keep an ongoing list for the team. Create a lessons, process, or habit backlog. Studies have shown that it takes 21 days to build a habit. They’re wrong! It actually takes over 2 months! 66 days!

Ron Swanson spinning in chair to avoid lady

Carve out time in your sprint’s team-wide ceremonies to review your habit backlog. Even if it feels dreary, it needs repetition. Over 2 months worth. Add it to the top of the sprint planning session. Bring it up every couple of stand-ups. Keep it at the top of the iteration review. Most importantly, talk about it at the top of your next agile retrospective. It sounds like a lot but in reality we’re talking about a combined 10 to 15 minutes of your team’s time over an entire sprint to get an important change right. That’s a great ROI.

2. Make them visible 👓

You want these habits to be front and center. Give each of the habits an issue at the top of your backlog so you know your team sees it. Too much? Throw it in Slack every once in a while. Still too much? Add it to the calendar invite of each of your agile ceremonies per above. With the reminder notifications subtly doing the job for you, it will help keep the reinforcement light.

3. Reward good behavior 🎉

Like any good lesson, positive reinforcement is key. Find a way to reward and remind your team every time a stakeholder adequately performs the new habit. Seeing each other celebrate the change will help realize the change and cascade the impact across all of the participants.

Not all action items are created equal. They come in different shapes and sizes and we need to be prepared for that. The ones mentioned above are probably the hardest of all action items to effectively manage but I know you can do it!

If you’re having trouble managing your agile retrospective’s action items, let us know. We built a tool specifically to address accountability in agile retrospectives in Sprintlio.

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