Introducing the Retro Facilitation Canvas

Agile Coaching.

Nov 07, 2023  ·  David Mole

Agile Coaching

Peter Drury, the well known English football commentator, is famous for his witty, brilliant remarks which always appear to be spontaneous and off the cuff.

"and Jesus heads home from the cross" (exclaimed Peter Drury, when Gabriel Jesus of Manchester City scored from a header)

So I was intrigued when I came across his pre-game handwritten notes recently.

Introducing the Retro Facilitation Canvas

Image: The painstaking handwritten notes of football commentator Peter Drury

One look at his meticulous preparation shows that he is less ‘off the cuff’ - in fact he is just really well prepared. In a world of productivity hacks and automation, something that really resonates with me in the idea of doing the long, slow, deep work when you prepare to do something important.

Peter’s notes remind me of my approach to important facilitation. When I am starting to think about facilitating something important like a retrospective, I commonly start by just writing, and then I talk to people and write more to get all the thoughts and ideas out of my head. The paper starts to fill and whilst it’s a comprehensive process to go through, it is hardly efficient or effective.

I have always felt I am missing (or re-inventing each time) a structure and that the right prompts would inspire better work. We already have the outstanding facilitation canvas which I use all the time for different sessions, but it doesn’t fit the needs of a retrospective.

All my repetition and over-preparing has led to the creation of the ‘Retro Facilitation Canvas’. I have been using this for a while now and refining it along the way. I’ve also been testing it with facilitators who have provided promising feedback.

Introducing the Retro Facilitation Canvas

Image: The Retro Facilitation Canvas

Like any canvas, it doesn’t attempt to cover absolutely everything, that’s the point of a one-page constraint, but I have found that the right retro facilitation plan relies on getting three things right:

  1. What is the right DESIGN?
  2. Who are the right PEOPLE?
  3. When is the right TIME?

1. What is the right DESIGN?

Start by identifying the right focus points

Does this sound familiar from retros you have attended? We start with a really long icebreaker, then we have some unconstrained brainstorming of ‘all the things’ before we dive down some rabbit holes and follow some unhelpful tangents. At 57 mins past the hour, someone notices the time, so we panic a bit and someone (usually begrudgingly) agrees to schedule a meeting that no-one wants to go to.

Enter ‘Retrospective Focus Point(s)’. A small improvement on one thing, beats trying to cover everything.

Friend of Nomad8 Brian Healy introduced us to the idea of ‘Debrief Focus Points’ at JAFAC from his time in the US Air Force. The post-flight debrief specifically focuses on the most important points, which the pilot and crew would then unpack together. The idea translates incredibly well to an agile retrospective and the canvas encourages you to define these clearly, or at the very least, to plan for how you will quickly arrive at them early.

Sketch the Plan

Use this area of the canvas to outline the structure you intend to follow.

The most commonly used structure for your retro plan might follow the five stages of a retrospective made famous by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen’s excellent book and that is certainly the best place to start. Although you might want to adapt it, do something different, or come up with your own structure that suits your team and your context.

The canvas purposely de-emphasises the choice of the retro technique, that’s because your success/failure won’t be based on choosing between a sailboat or a hot air balloon. Instead it’s about getting to the right discussion which is honest, perhaps difficult and leads to improvement for the team.

2. Who are the right PEOPLE?

Identify who should be there

While we were all taught that retrospectives are for the team and the team only, it is my belief that was a backlash against managers trampling over any sense of psychological safety in the bad old days.

We have hopefully grown since then and I like to consider who can add to the conversation, who might give a different perspective, or trigger the right improvements? The addition or subtraction of a single person can have a dramatic effect on your meeting, so consider your options here wisely.

Articulate the team context and what might go wrong

The canvas also challenges you to think about the relevant context and it prompts you for what might go wrong, which includes any challenging behaviours you might be expecting. The hardest time to deal with challenging behaviours is in the midst of the meeting, so plan for those and act up front if you can.

When is the right TIME?

Here the canvas starts with identifying the period of time you will look back on. It could be a sprint, a quarter or a specific timeframe which covers a piece of work. If you only ever do sprint retros, now might be a perfect time to change things up.

Under ‘Timing and duration’ you are challenged to think about one of the most overlooked factors affecting retros. That is the time of day when you start and finish the meeting (Note: This might just be the smallest effort, greatest return change you can make to your retrospective meetings).

In Daniel Pink’s excellent book When he does an outstanding job of convincing you never to have a medical operation in the afternoon (!) and explains in depth how and why we all go through inevitable peaks and troughs in the day.

If your team holds retros at the same time (possibly late in the day, or squeezed into lunchtime to fit them in) consider Dan’s research. While Dan didn’t review retrospectives specifically, he did review company earnings calls (the type of quarterly calls that update on your company performance and directly impact your stock price) and found that when you correct for all the known factors, the timing of the call had a significant impact on the stock price.

Introducing the Retro Facilitation Canvas

Image: The impact of time of day on company earnings calls

I've observed the same issues with late afternoon retrospectives, participants who show up grumpy and argumentative, to the team's overall detriment.

If you really believe that the retrospective is the most important thing a team does (continuous improvement for the win) then the timing prompts on the canvas should help you identify the best possible time.

Have a go with the canvas

The canvas is numbered from 1-8 and whilst you don’t have to move precisely in order, the sequence should assist your planning. For example, if you complete boxes 1-3 you should have enough information to get started with sketching the plan next. Working through the remaining boxes might send you off to find more information, speak to people or adapt the plan.

The final box, number 8, should give you a handy checklist and hopefully a feeling of being fully prepared by double checking you have everything in good shape.

I would love you to try out the canvas and test it out when you are next planning a retrospective. I hope it helps to structure your thinking and I would love to hear your honest feedback and ideas to make it better.

Categories: Agile Coaching.