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Retrospect on Retrospectives

February 6th was the first Annual World Retrospective Day! As a co-organizer and participant at a local meetup, I was struck by the lack of understanding around the use the power of retrospectives. Let’s take this time to unpack what’s wrong with Retros and how we can get them living up their promise.

What is a Retrospective? A Retrospective is a time set aside for a team to celebrate successes, identify improvements and plan to take action. The Retrospective is the mechanism to implement the principle of Continuous Improvement. If you put a process improvement in place and you don’t have retrospectives, you are limited to the effect that one improvement, usually a 10 or 20% productivity bump. But if you commit to Continuous Improvement, your productivity improvements are limitless! Teams have reported productivity improvements upwards of 10X.

Any consultant can give you a 10% productivity improvement, you can get that by offering free coffee. I’m not interested in improvements that end in “%”, I’m only interested in improvements that end in “X”.

You may find retrospectives reminiscent of the old Project Management led “Lessons learned” or “Post-Mortems”, but there are two key differences.

  1. Retrospectives take immediate action. Looking into the past is only useful if you use it to make a change in the present. In my experience, “Post Mortems” were done and filed away hoping that someone would remember to do things differently next time.

  2. Retrospectives happen frequently during the project. Teams typically hold retrospectives every 2 weeks. Commit to making one or two improvements each time. Resist the temptation to fix everything at once. If each improvement gets you 1% better, at the end of a year you are 25-50% better. It adds up quick!

Despite all this wonderfulness, teams are still struggling to effectively use Retrospectives.

Here are some Retrospective pitfalls and ideas on how to rectify them.

  • My team doesn’t have time for Retrospectives. This is like saying “I’m too busy running down the road to get in the car.” It’s an investment, you’re buying more time in the future, the very near future. Teams are very focused on short-term goals, but not investing in mid-term improvements. The improvements pay off pretty quickly, we’re not talking years, but when the boss is yelling, there’s no time. What’s the solution? The team has to feel like the Retrospective is worth their time. You might start by targeting a specific obstacle that is slowing the team. Run some numbers on how much time they could save if they solve it. Hold a meeting for just that one improvement, you don’t even need to call it a retrospective yet. Then do it again in two weeks for something else. This time ask if there are other things that the team might work on. Start generating an improvement list and review it every two weeks. Track the effect of the improvements and share them each time. Let it morph into a Retrospective.

  • The Scrum Master is not holding Retrospectives. Waiting for someone else to do something will get your team nowhere. I’ve heard everything from “the scrum master won’t do it”, “we don’t have leadership support”, “my manager won’t let us”. Let’s call BS on all that. If you want to have a Retrospective, schedule it yourself and invite the team. Period. Decorum is not serving you.

  • We talk about the same things every week, but we can’t change any of them. When teams focus on the things they can’t change, it can turn into a periodic bitching session. Here are a few things you can do to turn this around.

    • Start by focusing on things you can change. Get some momentum by fixing things within the team’s span of control.

    • Get creative on the “things you can’t change”. Challenge yourselves on “Can’t”. Brainstorm, get creative. When I hear things like “It has to come from the top”, I see room for a strategy. Let’s face it, folks, it’s not going to come from the top because the top is not thinking about whatever it is you want them to think about. So how are you going to influence the change from the bottom?

    • Agree on a limit for uncontrollable. It’s worthwhile to raise the larger issues. Decide on an action to get them into the right hands, and then stop talking about them. If an item shows up at 3 Retrospectives and doesn’t make any movement, it’s probably a constraint. Constraints are unchangeable, and the team must navigate around them instead of fixing them.

These things worked for me. What have you done to improve your Retrospectives?

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