Growfish: Make Learning the Center of your Sprint Retros

Tyler Hilker

Product Strategy

It’s been said that a product is a hypothesis for how a customer’s needs might be met. If true, then there’s a corollary: the way a team works together is a hypothesis for how a thing can come into the world: “If we [do this set of things], then we will produce the thing we want.”

Scrum is one of those sets of things; but you probably knew that. However, less known are these two principles from the Agile Manifesto:

“Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.”
“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”

One of the most common — and highly recommended! — rituals to remind teams of these principles is the retrospective, “an opportunity for the Scrum Team to inspect itself and create a plan for improvements to be enacted during the next Sprint.” Oftentimes the centerpiece of these retros is an exercise called the agile starfish.

starfish diagram
Original post from Pat Kua

Its creator, Pat Kua, says, “This particular retrospective technique helps people by getting them to reflect on varying degrees of things that they want to bring up, without having it fit into the black or white category of ‘What Went Well’ or ‘Not So Well’.” I love how the nuances actually encourage discussion: oftentimes, team members will put the same topic in different categories. “I thought we were doing that,” or, “There was way too much of this…why do we need more?” and so on.

So much of our time & attention is paid to the actual work we’re charged with that this is a great way to bring attention to our meta-work — the things that we do to do our work.

Room to grow

While there’s room for nuance in this framework, a source of friction that I’ve often come across is that [something] happened, but we’re not sure what to do about it. The More/Less/Start/Stop/Keep framework implies that we have solutions, or at least observations, in mind.

But not everything fits into these categories. Sometimes we’ll have good discussions around things like:

  • “We started a rewrite in React Native and had good communication around this new language, but we realized that it’s going to have positive & negative impacts beyond what we were expecting.”
  • “Our product is getting more visibility in the organization, which means we have to communicate differently, but we’re not sure how yet.”
  • “The customer interviews this week were really good, and their feedback is influencing how we understand & interact with them on a regular basis.”
  • “We encountered a lot of technical debt in this sprint and we also took time to understand what our customers were actually doing with those parts of the product.”

How do we best capture and make the most of our experiences? How might we ensure that we’re not just changing the way we work, but doing so in a way that compounds the value of our shared & individual experiences? How do we handle time/attention investments that didn’t fit neatly into the stories assigned? Furthermore, how do we reinforce that growth is really good for the team and product?

How Might We capture specific things we learned in the past sprint?

So it’s in that spirit that we recently added an attribute to this classic model: a learning center.

starfish diagram with leanrings in middle
Growfish: An agile starfish with a growth mindset.

Building a Learning Culture

I won’t spend a ton of time trying to convince you of the value of a learning mindset. But I will spend some time.

“What are you learning right now?” is a fundamental question to anyone who’s trying to get better, be better, and/or do more. The speed of life and business and change is only accelerating, and one of the most effective ways to keep up is to team up with those around you.

As HBR notes:

“There is now a premium on intellectual curiosity and learnability, the desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt one’s skill set to remain employable.”

Yikes. That’s some Capitalism Noir material right there. Or is it? Think of it not so much as remaining employable, but growing into who we’re supposed to be. Humans thrive when we’re wrapped into an accessible challenge in service of something larger than ourselves. Living into that can be exhilarating.

And it’s true for organizations, as well.

According to The Lean Startup, “Startups exist not to make stuff, make money, or serve customers. They exist to learn how to build a sustainable business.” And then:

“The only way to win is to learn faster than anyone else.”

In order to win, your learning must—at least —keep up with the pace of change around you.

In Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter (Crema’s only required reading), Liz Wiseman, says,

“The highest quality of thinking cannot emerge without learning.”

Get yourself some high-quality thinking, friends!

Jared Spool has said that learning is an integral part of his team’s daily work:

jared spool tweet about sprint retrospectives

Carol Dweck has written & spoken extensively on the value of a growth mindset:

Carol Dweck: A Summary of The Two Mindsets

Carol Dweck Ted Talk

In summary, learning is important. Critical.

What if we saw this as part of our collective responsibility, that we actively help each other learn, compounding the impact of our experiences & knowledge?

As we go about our days & different work, we discover new information & relationships. It’s a massive loss to everyone involved when these discoveries don’t make it to the broader team and they have to go through the process — and waste!—of learning the same things. Learning isn’t just additive for personal, revenue, & operational, reasons; it’s a savings mechanism widely & somewhat organically distributed.

This learning center helps the team out of a performance mindset that can emphasize changing the way we do things, but not why. It’s akin to the difference between Activity and Productivity, or Efficiency and Effectiveness.

Create a Growth Culture, Not a Performance-Obsessed One

Hopefully, an ongoing outcome of our ability to overcome obstacles is…new challenges:

“The truth is that a life well lived is always lived on a rising scale of difficulty.”
N.D. Wilson

In some ways, it’s just about reminding ourselves of the time-scale on which we work. If all we care about is delivery in this sprint, that delivery may come at the cost of the value of future work. And conversely, if we identify & discuss the learnings gained in a sprint

Within this Growfish framework, we’re identifying what we’ve learned, discussing its implications, and how to apply it.

Frequently bringing learning & growth into our meta-work conversations can help us see the forest for the trees and bring us out of the episodic incrementalism of optimizing for what we do in the near term (at the expense of the long-term).

For example

Let’s say you’re in a retro using this learning center. There are a handful of great notes in the learning section, but one stuck out.

starfish graph with post it notes

“Okay, this is interesting. Who can provide some commentary to this?”

“Well, we were coming down the hall last week and someone stopped us to ask about the pricing model. Since it’s so different from what others in the brand already do, she was curious, not upset or anything, about our research & approach. They also suggested we talk with another group who is using a similar back-end approach. There might be some risks with other parts of the company getting wind of what we’re doing and they don’t get the full context.”

“That’s helpful, thanks, and I think you’re right. So what can we take away from this?”

starfish graph with post it notes in blue and yellow

As you can see in this fictional-but-based-on-real-life-events example, a central learning can help draw out more information from the group and improve the way they work on a different level.

In a recent retro, some real examples included:

  • “I learned that our data was more siloed than I thought. Which means we need to start asking questions earlier in the process about how we’re going to integrate with these other systems.”
  • “I had a customer tell me, ‘I think you think this is more intuitive than it is.’ That was tough to hear, but it helps us plan for more time in these other areas to support them better.”
  • “I learned React Data Grid so we can stop doing these other things and do these things instead.”
  • “After reading & learning about how others do this, I’m learning some ways we have to do it differently here.”

Each of these learnings had outcomes that belonged in a couple other sections. It’s possible that we wouldn’t have discovered these outcomes had we not discussed what we had learned. Coming at our experiences from a learning angle, and talking them through, helped the whole team get clarity, improve alignment, and learn our way further towards success.

PS: This is a new tool/concept, so we would love your assistance in trying this out and reporting back in the comments. I’ve made this a public Miro* template, for easy testing. Thank you!

*If you’re not using Miro, you should be!


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