Retrospecting Retrospectives

I shudder when considering the thousands upon thousands of hours wasted by teams going through the motions and playing pretend agile. A big part of that is all the different rituals and ceremonies done without understanding what they’re supposed to achieve. When was the last time that one of your retrospectives actually resulted in a positive change? You can do better.

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The Cost

Sometimes when I point out these useless retros people just shrug. They understand it’s not perfect, “but what’s the big deal?” Yes, all organizations have some meetings that aren’t too effective, but retros are especially harmful when done wrong. Essentially, you’re wasting your trust credit. Week after week, you teach people that meetings don’t mean anything.

These dissonances never go unnoticed, and their effects are incredibly hard to fix later. That becomes a standard once we inculcate people that rituals are meaningless, that their time can be wasted, and that words we don’t follow through on what we say. Retrospectives are a fine opportunity to start making things right.

Continuous Improvement Flywheel

First things first, we should aim to turn your retrospectives into something worthwhile. That’s accomplished by focusing on the basics: spotting improvement opportunities and acting on them. As a leader, make sure to come prepared to every retro with your observations and suggestions for improvements. Question things that didn’t work out as planned, and call out those involved to speak up and say what they think. Remember, this isn’t about pointing fingers but getting to root causes together.

By doing this, you’ll get the continuous improvement ball rolling as you focus on the more tactical aspect of the work. Every time, make sure to keep track of issues, explicitly list action items along with due dates, and assign them to specific people. Ensure to review decisions made in the previous retros to maintain momentum and get that flywheel going.

As simple as that, doing this will lay the foundation for a healthier organizational culture where we mean what we say. You’re also going to see a lot of good things emerge from this cultural adjustment. This initial stage is very tactical and ‘lower altitude,’ but it’s worth it. By reviewing the work actual work performed in each iteration, you’ll be making slow and steady progress in how you’re executing, thus improving the team’s acceleration (which controls your velocity, see?).

Stepping Back

Then, as you start gaining momentum, you should consider retrospecting with a larger scope. If you want to really capitalize on your team’s talent and growth, this is the holy grail. Essentially, we’re talking about retrospecting, not the execution of the work itself but the results it has achieved and whether the decision to do it in the first place was the right one.

With my clients and in my book, I called these Impact Retrospectives. That’s because these are retrospectives that don’t focus on the execution of any specific sprint but usually consider the work delivered over 2-3 months and the effect that it has had on the business. Most startups require time to see the results of work released because they don’t have millions of daily users. That means that, more often than not, we forget to really take the time and evaluate what we’ve achieved.

Impact retrospectives—or “meta retros”—will help make you and your team more strategic. Not in the buzzword sense, as everyone claims everything’s strategic nowadays. This will plainly help you look at the big picture and improve the decision-making that guides the work. This breaks the “pretend agile” cycle and will help you create a team worth leading.