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Kintsugi - Fuel your retrospectives

kintsugi teapot

Most agile teams break projects down into small pieces of functionality and deploy these deliverables all the way to production, and then move on to another piece.

Sometimes the deliverable gets broken along the way. This can be a result of bad acceptance criteria, bottlenecks, environment issues, or any one of a hundred reasons. However, it’s a rare case that you erase everything you’ve done and start again from scratch. Instead, you examine, repair, and improve. This post focuses on a methodology for highlighting the history of a card and embracing the mistakes you may have made, rather than sweeping them under the rug.

The Japanese have a word for this underlying philosophy; stemming from the repair of broken pottery with veins of precious metal, Kintsugitreats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise”.

On my team here at Paddy Power we’ve adopted this philosophy into our Kanban board. We’ve added an extra lane to our board after “Done/Live” called “Review”. The premise is very simple. If you encounter any kind of blockages, erroneous criteria, key person dependecies, or any interesting observation you make a note of it on the back of the card.

In order to progress the card through the board, the owner must solve whatever problem is at hand. But, by incrementally updating any issues passes through the lanes of the board, they’re constantly thinking about how to prevent this happening in future. Having to revisit the card as it passes to the Review lane only compounds this.

The problems associated with a card can be shared with the team at standup meetings if the facilitator simply asks “Have you encountered any issues with this card?”. This simple question give the whole team perspective for the upcoming retrospective.

When we have our retrospectives on Friday mornings, we physically take the cards from our review lane into the meeting room and stick them to the whiteboard. There are a number of immediate improvements with this approach.

Rather than sitting down and thinking of one or more things you wish to address, then thinking of example for each one; you already have an example, with potentially multiple issues associated. Right away, this gives your retrospective facilitator context to help you and your team come up with prospective solutions.

Immediately we’ve seen that the time coming up with topics and examples to discuss at retros has been slashed. Here’s the kicker. If the right questions have been asked at standup, nobody on the team needs context because they’ve been exposed to all the issues already.

Next, the team will spend a few minutes tease out any potential solutions. But if you remember, the owner of the card, and possibly the whole team, have already been thinking about potential solutions. So really, all we have to do is present possible solutions and agree on the best one.

Provided the team agree on a solution, all they have to do is introduce that solution into their daily process.

On our team, we’ve actually eliminated the need of an external facilitator for our retrospectives. The role of a facilitator is to tease out problems, find examples, aid the team in finding potential solutions, moderate discussion, and assign actions. Provided your team are comfortable enough to have frank conversations, and delegate actions to one another, you can avoid using up another person’s time by simply writing on the back of a card.

In conclusion, you can fuel your retrospectives by using the Kintsugi philosophy to find improvements. Kintsugi helps your team by

  • Not wasting time finding retro topics
  • Having potential solutions already at hand
  • Sharing visibility and understanding of problems
  • Getting cards done quicker