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Retrospectives: Making Action Items that are cats

May 19, 2022

One of the primary purposes of a Retrospective is to create action items, but it’s not uncommon to come up with action items that aren’t actionable.  They’re aspirational.  Aspirational items might never be addressed, and it might not be possible to know when they are addressed.  Aspirational items are like saying, “I want to lose weight”: pretty fuzzy.  On the other hand, an actionable item would be “I plan to lose 5 pounds this month by eating no chocolate”.  A good actionable item is CAT (Concrete, Attainable, Timely).  

You might have seen action items like these:

  1. We need to reduce our defect count
  2. We should start using better integration tools
  3. The user stories need more detail
  4. We work together well, so let’s continue to do so

They look like good action items, but there is no focus on a solid outcome.  They are aspirational, something we’d like to do, but they are not necessarily actionable.  None of the examples have concrete results and are neither attainable nor timely. As a result, the “action” items may never impact the team’s effectiveness.

I’ve been using a technique to derive CAT actionable items from aspirational items for several years.  It is the five how-ya-gonna-do-that’s, similar to the “five whys” used by business analysts.  You ask your team, “how ya gonna do that” when they propose an insufficiently concrete, aspirational item.  Keep asking until you get an actionable item that is CAT – roughly five times. 

Let’s try a hypothetical exchange with the Scrum Master and Team Member.

Team Member (TM): My action item is that we need to reduce our defect count.

Scrum Master(SM): Yes, we need to lower our defect count!  That’s great!  Now, how ya gonna do that (HYGDT)?

Team member: Well, I guess we’ll stop introducing bugs.

SM: Wow!  That sounds like an important action.  HYGDT?

TM: Well, we can check for errors and correct them as soon as we find them.

SM: Aha!  Let’s check for errors for sure.  But let’s make a more detailed plan here.  Regarding checking for and fixing errors, HYGDT?

TM: Well, we could look into tools to help us find the bugs sooner.

SM: Man, that sounds like an awesome action – trying to find a tool.  HYGDT (or who can do that)?

TM: Cripes, I’ll do it!  Just stop asking me HYGDT.

SM: Great, that’s an action item: you will look into tools that help find bugs sooner.  Then you will share your findings, right?

Now apply the same conversation with some of the other “action” items listed above.  Using the HYGDT technique may result in these action items.

Aspirational item  We should start using better integration tools

Potential action item  Ramesh and Sarah will pick one or two integration tools that we can analyze next sprint and possibly use

Aspirational item  The user stories need more detail

Potential action item  Matma will work with the PO to get good examples of a user story that we can use as a basis going forward

Aspirational item  We work together well, so let’s continue to do so

Potential action item  We will try mob programming at least twice this sprint.  Dhiraj will lead this.

Notice the rework action items are CAT certain qualities: 

  • Each item has one or more persons who will shepherd the action item to completion.
  • Each item has a concrete result that is observable.  
  • Each item can be completed in a matter of days or weeks.  


Remember,  Retrospectives always need to create action items.  Differentiate between aspirational items and actionable items and drive toward actionable. A good actionable item is concrete, attainable, and timely (CAT). One way to achieve actionable items is to repeatedly ask “how ya gonna do that” until an actionable item emerges.  I hope this helps!

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