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  • Writer's pictureSavita Ferguson


Updated: Jun 20, 2021

Retrospection is the single most important cultural habit to get right in order to have a self-organizing team. If the team have an effective process for making improvements, every other problem they encounter will be tackled.

While retrospectives became popular as one of the scrum ceremonies, retrospection is actually a highly recommended life skill. It is the act of reflecting on what has happened, trying to think of it from other perspectives and deciding what, if any, actions you should take as a result. It is a conscious learning. I highly recommend taking time to retrospect just as part of your daily routine.

I love a retrospective meeting. The cadence acts as a wonderful reminder that the team needs to slow down and consciously think about how they are performing, and look for avenues to improve. But I believe the best teams retrospect even outside of these scheduled events. They are the ones pointing out, during standup that something didn't go quite well and already making plans to improve. They don't wait, they act.

So why then do so many people find retrospectives useless?

It's just a vent session and nothing comes of it, we talk about the same problems over and over:

What is the problem you are trying to solve? Are you empowered to solve it? If not, who is? Is that person aware of and in agreement with your perspective on the problem? Are they tackling it? Does this require escalation of some sort?

If not fully solving the problem, are there things that you could do to mitigate the harmful effects you are experiencing? When we're stuck discussing the same things repeatedly, I encourage my teams to try viewing the problem from a different lens. There are tons of structured activities for thinking about a problem creatively, for example De Bono's 6 thinking hats or brain-writing.

I suggest starting with an understanding of what you want to accomplish in the meeting - what would make it successful in your eyes. Oftentimes you might already know the problems you're trying to resolve and even have ideas for the actions that would get them there but just need some buy in from others. Make sure you know what would be useful to accomplish in the meeting and plan an agenda that drives you there.

People don't bring up the elephant in the room

There's always a question at the back of people's mind - is this the appropriate setting to talk about this difficult topic? That's a good question, but I would say - if it affects the team, the retrospective absolutely IS the right setting to discuss this. HOW you discuss it is an entirely different question.

Can you, team lead, raise the topic? If you can't do it directly, maybe talk to someone 1-1 and ask them if they can. I make it a habit to keep a mental list of individuals on a team who can be used to spike conversation. Brainstorm together for the right approach to bring it up so that everyone is receptive. If there is an implication to a specific individual, I recommend talking to that individual up front so that they have an opportunity to think about how they would respond. And actually, perhaps you can ask the person who is affecting the others if THEY would bring it up instead of asking someone else to bring it up and have them respond instead.

There's always a question at the back of people's mind - is this the appropriate setting? It's a good question, but I would say - if it affects the team, the retrospective absolutely IS the right setting to discuss this. HOW you discuss it is an entirely different question.

Some people never speak up

Facilitating an effective retrospective is not an easy job. You've got to manage so many different personality types at the same time. Is it a problem that this individual isn't speaking up? Do you think they have things to say that they aren't comfortable saying? Or are they just someone who prefers to listen and observe? You've got to bear in mind the neurodiversity that exists in your team; some people aren't comfortable speaking up in those settings. If you really want to get things out of them, I suggest trying a round robin brain writing activity - maybe it's easier for them to write. Or alternatively, if you're concerned about engagement, maybe ask them to facilitate the retrospective a couple times?

We never fulfill our actions

Are they sensible actions, especially considering your current workload? Have you broken longer to enact things into smaller more immediate steps where you can make consistent progress? How are you tracking these actions? I recommend keeping track of retrospective todos in the same place you keep track of actual software development work so that it remains at the forefront and can be discussed during standup. Are you reviewing them regularly? Did you assign a specific person to completing this task?

We're kind of bored of retros now

Can you skip it for a bit? Or change it up entirely, not necessarily by introducing a new game - though that's always worth a shot; but maybe sit outside/ do a retro lunch. Perhaps you can do mini retros where you add 5 minutes extra to your standup time and solve one problem. Try what you can, but make sure the team consciously reflects and learns - that's the important thing, not the meeting of itself.

It's hard to remember what happened since the last retro

I'm not a fan of holding discussion topics until the retro. If you think something is worth discussing, bring it up in your standup meeting or via your chat mechanism. If it requires a longer/synchronous discussion then add it as an agenda topic. My point is, maybe you don't have to remember, bur rather deal with the issue sooner when it is acute and you can't forget.



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