Teaching retrospectives by example: NFJS Salt Lake City

Want to learn about agile retrospectives? Participate in one! At the No Fluff, Just Stuff software symposiums, I am doing a talk on retros where we begin by doing a retrospective on the conference itself.

At the Salt Lake City show this weekend, we had eight participants for the retrospective. NFJS talks are ninety minutes long, so we took the first sixty minutes to run a retro on the conference. Given that we only had a day of experience to retrospect on, and that we were not a cohesive team but were "thrown together" by people selecting the talk, I wondered if we would have enough to talk about. This turned out to be a non-issue, as everyone threw themselves in with gusto. We could have easily gone longer, and as facilitator I had to enforce the timebox on each phase.

Setting the stage

As an icebreaker, we did a variant of the Checkin exercise from the Agile Retrospectives book, using the question "If this conference was a movie, what movie would it be?" Answers included:

  • Driving Miss Daisy
  • Casino Royale
  • El Diablo
  • Lord of the Rings
  • Serenity

We had a few laughs, and the exercise broke the ice. However, nobody referred back to the movies in later exercises, so we will all just have to wonder if NFJS folk are orcs, reavers, outlaws, chauffeurs, or Quantum.

Gathering data

Next, we performed the Team Radar activity. After a few minutes of brainstorming, the team came up with eight possible topics to rate and discuss: prescriptiveness, (topic) diversity, relevance, scheduling, comfort, inspiration, food, timeframe. In order to hit the timebox for the retro, we agreed to use dot voting to select only four of these topics for further discussion.

Each attendee then ranked the four topics on a scale from 1 to 10, resulting in these averages:

  • 6.9 (topic) diversity:
  • 7.9 relevance
  • 5.9 scheduling
  • 7.4 inspiration

There were no major outliers on any of the scores. Overall, these scores are pretty high for a group who is taking seriously the challenge of finding things to improve.

Generating insights

Given the small group size, we elected to have a free form discussion to generate insights. Some of the ideas included:

  • Happy to see non-Java languages such as Clojure, Groovy, and Scala.
  • Would like to see even more non-Java, but
  • … very happy that the Java topics were directly applicable to attendees jobs.
  • The agile talks were developer-focused, would like see more holistic talks.
  • For inspiration, the cornerstone is the first day keynote. Keynote was good, but could have been more novel.
  • Half of the participants had been to multiple NFJS conferences. The feeling of "it blew my mind" was still there, but not as strongly as in the past. Suggestion was made that this was the attendees changing over time more than the conference.

SMART goals are hard …

The initial discussion of possible SMART goals attacked the lowest-scored item from the Team Radar: scheduling. How can the topics in a multi-track event such as NFJS be better organized so that participants are excited about every talk they attend? After a few minutes talking about track definitions, topic tags, website improvements, etc., we agreed it was a hard problem that was not going to yield a SMART goal in the time we had.

…Until you focus on the people

And then, by focusing on people instead of technology, we came up with two ideas that could significantly mitigate the scheduling problem:

  • Make it socially acceptable to walk out of a talk. Half of the participants said that, given a specific invitation to do so, they would have ducked out of at least one talk after they had seen the first few minutes and understood the agenda. So, at the next show, we request that all speakers choose a point 5-10 minutes into the talk to, well, invite people to leave. Keep count of the number of people who take the offer to decide whether this should become a standard practice.
  • Provide easy-to-find video on the NFJS website so that attendees can get to know each speaker before the show.

I brought the second idea to the conference organizer, Jay Zimmerman, immediately after the talk. He laughed because he is already doing it, building a collection of five-minute videos introducing the NFJS tour speakers. If only all SMART goals went so smoothly!


We voted up/down/neutral on whether the retro was worth the time, with all participants voting "up." The discussions helped each of us clarify our own perspective on the conference. Also, we were happy to have found easy-to-implement recommendations to improve the conference experience. After the retro, we had twenty minutes to discuss how to run a similar retrospective for an agile team, and some of the attendees are planning to try it with their own teams. As facilitator, I was pleased with the retro, and I am looking forward to taking this idea to other cities over the remainder of the year.


  • The Agile Retrospectives book includes dozens of retro exercises, and guidelines for when different exercises are appropriate. It is one of the books we recommend to team members on our projects.
  • Check out the agile talks at an NFJS event near you.
Get In Touch