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Need to shake up your retrospective? Try TRIZ

One day, not too long ago, my team was suffering through a very boring retrospective. We were doing the old standard retrospective format of “What was good?” and “What was bad?” followed by “What can we do now?” That worked for us for a while because my team isn’t shy when it comes to talking about what can be better. But, one day it was unexpectedly and exceedingly awkward. I found myself saying things like “You guys normally have plenty of things to say” and “Do we have a case of the Mondays?” Well, ok, maybe not that last one, but I won’t deny it didn’t cross my mind. I definitely had to don my “pointy hair.” After that I realized that something needed to change. That was seconded by one of my seniors who came by and noted that it was probably time to do something different for our retrospectives. I began looking into what we might try next.

There are plenty of places to get new retrospective ideas. In fact, Esther Derby has a whole book on doing better agile retrospectives. Even though I have the book though, for our next retro, I chose to use a liberating structure. Liberating Structures are a group of small, targeted facilitation techniques. They have step by step instructions and tell you when you might want to use them. (Go ahead and bookmark this website, you’re going to want to use it over and over again.) I perused the list and came upon one called “Making Space with TRIZ.” It had a very unique way of determining what you might need to improve on to achieve your desired goals. I tried it with my team and they were engaged for an entire hour. They left having had fun, discovered something to improve upon over the next few weeks and they were energized. Needless to say, it was a total 180 from the previous retrospective!

Making Space with TRIZ

TRIZ takes a normal activity – creating goals and mapping out what it takes to achieve them – and flips it on its head. You are guided to think of the absolute worst thing that can happen to derail you from achieving your top objective and what you’re doing to make that actually happen! Once that’s done, you work through how you can turn around any bad acts and continue preventing new issues from arriving. There are just a few steps and you can complete this in as little as 35 minutes, but I found that you can easily take 45-60 minutes on this without getting any complaints. In fact, I think there is value to do a longer version of this exercise that goes deeper into some of the findings.

TRIZ makes it possible to challenge sacred cows safely and encourages heretical thinking. The question “What must we stop doing to make progress on our deepest purpose?” induces seriously fun yet very courageous conversations. Since laughter often erupts, issues that are otherwise taboo get a chance to be aired and confronted. With creative destruction come opportunities for renewal as local action and innovation rush in to fill the vacuum.

information shared thanks to the Creative Commons license at Liberating Structures. 

Step One: Determine the worst possible result for your top objective or goal

This breaks the ice because people get to voice all the things they think are in their way as they collaborate to decide on the absolute worst result possible. Some things I heard:

  • We could add bugs with every code release.
  • We could agree to everything anyone ever thinks of and still promise to deliver on time.
  • We could spend all day in meetings and never start this project.

It won’t be hard for people to get started. More likely than not, you’ll hear laughing at this stage and it serves as a great icebreaker. This step is important because you’ll use this as the premise for the rest of the exercise.

Step Two: List what can cause that result to happen

Once you know what you want to avoid, you start postulating on the things that cause that bad result. List everything you can think of, even if you realize that you do some of it. That’s the whole point!

Step Three: Determine if you are doing any of those bad things

Now this is the harder part. You have to look at yourself and your team with a critical eye, knowing it is for the best. What are you doing that in any way, shape or form resembles the items on the list?

Step Four: Decide first steps for stopping bad acts

The entire point of the exercise is to ensure we don’t do something bad or we stop doing something bad. So, go through the items on the 2nd list and decide what things you will do first to help stop doing the things that will create undesirable results. This is the first step in designing your next experiment!

Step Five: Determine how you’ll know that your changes are successful

This step isn’t on the liberating structures page but I think that it should be. I want people to think about getting into the habit of knowing how they’ll measure changes they enact. Scientists don’t do experiments without hypotheses. We shouldn’t either. Have an idea of the impact a change will make and know how to find out if you actually realize that impact. That will help you determine if you are on the right path or need to take a new course of action.

Making Space with TRIZ: Steps and Schedule

This was a good resource for the groups to use during their exercise. Display on a monitor or print out copies for each group.

So, in your retrospectives or any other key meetings, consider using new techniques that allow you to see a situation from alternate angles. Make yourself see something from a new viewpoint. You may surprise yourself at what you find. It is also very easy to have a meeting like this by using fun facilitation techniques such as Liberating Structures. You don’t have to feel super creative to do something new! I really encourage you to go and read the liberating structures page for Making Space with TRIZ as it will give you a lot more detail on how to structure this exercise. Happy experimenting!

5 Comments

  1. Hi, Julia !

    Very interesting approach. Today I’m using Kanban to manage our tasks/projects mixed with Scrum’s classical daily 15 minute standup meetings which has been well fitted to our purposes.

    I’ll study TRIZ further as a next level tool to strenghten our critical thinking.

    Thank you very much for sharing this. Please keep up your awesome blog !

    All the best.

    Marco Sanches
    http://br.linkedin.com/in/marcoantoniogsanches

  2. I do agree, very interesting point of view! Buw still when I read this and think about my company, I can’t imagine how to do all these steps in everyday work, there’s simply not enough time… I feel that TRIZ is kanban perfect for crisis situation or when you have a litlle more time to think things through. For everyday work I prefer Kanban tool that has very simple and useful design and is quite inituative.

  3. Hi Julia, just tried this as a retro technique today. The team is pretty mature, which makes retro’s harder than teams with lots of problems. We started with the question ” What can we do to slow down delivery” (the inverse of the Tiny Things retro’s we ran the last two sessions). Using 1-2-4-All as a technique worked well, with one team member commenting it was pretty intense as they had to think all the time.
    I’d recommend this to anyone as a retro approach to try.
    Good stuff, thanks for sharing, and for the link to the Liberating Structure site.

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