I often tell students, “If I were stranded on a desert island and could only have one part of Agile, I would take the Retrospective. As long as you have a well-run Retrospective, everything else in Agile comes naturally.”
Recently I’ve had the opportunity to apply this advice in my own career. For the last four years, I’ve been taking the steps necessary to become a Certified Scrum Trainer. It wasn’t easy. And I couldn’t have done it without making the Personal Retrospective central to the process.
The Retrospective Framework
In my experience, the best explanation of the Retrospective framework originates with Esther Derby and Diana Larsen in their 2006 book Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great.
In their book, Derby and Larsen outline five phases of an effective retrospective:
- Set the Stage
- Gather The Data
- Generate Insights
- Decide What to Do
Despite the intuitive logic of the framework, my coaching clients sometimes claim that they don’t find Retrospectives that useful. Usually this occurs because they’ve only given cursory attention to steps 2 “Gather the Data” and 3 “Generate Insights” and none to “Decide What to Do.” It turned out that I fell into the same trap in my journey to become a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST).
Applying the Personal Retrospective
Becoming a CST takes years of focus, learning, and improvement — lots and lots of improvement. To even submit an application, you have to prove your mastery of Scrum and your ability to teach. This requires teaching hundreds of students and having your skills evaluated by a veteran CST.
The First Retrospective Lesson
Co-training was the first place I really began to understand how important a good Retrospective could be. It is not uncommon to have to co-train with another CST more than once before they will give you a letter of recommendation. This happened when I co-taught with Jesse Fewell. He saw opportunities for me to improve and wanted to teach with me again before he would give me a letter.
Unfortunately for me, Jesse shifted his focus shortly after I trained with him. He all but stopped teaching Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) workshops as he focused on advanced certification training. However, I had written a Personal Retrospective after our co-teaching experience. The insight I generated led to a focused set of improvements that I was able to clearly communicate. This, combined with videos of later teaching, showed Jesse the improvement that he was looking for.
So I was able to submit my CST application.
The Second, Third, and Fourth Retrospective Lessons
Once you submit your CST application, you face the review committee. The review includes a live multi-hour interview and training simulation in front of a group of CSTs and Scrum Alliance representatives. This is all capped by a Personal Retrospective of your performance that you then present to the review committee.
Facing the review committee was one of the most stressful events in my life.
And I did this four times…
It’s rare for a CST to pass the review on the first try. The review tests your mastery of Scrum, your ability to teach, and your skill in handling a live classroom. And it tests your ability to inspect and adapt yourself. Unfortunately, the review board didn’t think I was ready, even after the third try.
Why did it take me four attempts to pass the review? The first three times I appeared before the review board, I fell into the same trap my clients so often fall into. I didn’t actually complete a proper retrospective. I did a cursory review of my performance, identified some things I didn’t do well, and then made some vague statements about how I would improve.
After my third appearance, I sought out advice that led me back to that Personal Retrospective. A mentor explained that I needed to do the Retrospective properly, following the five stages:
- Set the Stage: I focused my context narrowly, “How can I improve my teaching based on what I learned in my third review?”
- Generate the Data: I didn’t just sit back and think “what happened?” I looked at photos from the review, hand written notes, the official Scrum Alliance feedback, interviews I did with mentors. I even dug up all the notes from my previous two attempts.
- Generate Insights: I affinity mapped, I turned my head sideways, I recognized things that were working well and didn’t need attention and I highlighted the areas that did.
- Decide What To Do: A key piece of advice Derby and Larsen give is to pick one or two items for improvement. From my Retrospective, I found one dominant theme that appeared in all three of my previous attempts: Classroom Management. That’s another way of saying, “Are you going where the students need to go, while still getting them to the destination?” So I focused on that as my key improvement.
- Close: I had a plan, ready to implement. However, before jumping right back in, I gave myself a two week break. Sometimes what you need is a little space to think.
After doing this the right way, I finally passed…
I know my improved classroom management skills contributed a lot to passing the committee review. I also took a new, more deliberate, approach to the Personal Retrospective. During my post-acceptance feedback two of the reviewers mentioned how my self-reflections were contributing factors in their approval.
Don’t Skimp, Don’t Skip, Don’t Surrender
Being honest with yourself can be incredibly difficult – especially when you have decades of experience under your belt. Taking the steps necessary to truly improve yourself can be harder still. I hope my personal journey can serve as inspiration to all of you to revisit the power of a good Retrospective.