Retrospective Principles

I’ve talked about the goals of a retrospective. Now I’d like to talk about four principles of effective retrospectives. I generally find that principles help me more to be effective while doing my work than do definitions. Principles help to connect the abstract to the actual practice.

One of the principles is that it’s important to understand the goals. If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. That road is, however, unlikely to be a retrospective. As a facilitator, I find the general goals helpful in planning a retrospective. I think that the specific goals are valuable to the participants, and generally discuss them as part of Setting the Stage at the beginning of the retrospective. As always, this is moderated by the understanding of the participants and the time available.

A second principle of retrospectives is that they are separate from ordinary work. While it’s certainly possible to notice things you want to change while you do your work, taking a look while doing nothing else will help you notice things you don’t normally see. Part of this difference is due to the sharpening your focus on observing rather than doing. When you are focused on doing, you suffer from “inattention blindness” in your observations. (See Daniel Simons gorilla experiment for an example of this.) Part is being more mindful about the variety of things you observe. You can choose what to observe, rather than let happenstance direct and limit your observations.

The third principle is perhaps the most important. A retrospective should build a shared picture. We do this by reviewing the past together. Different people notice different things, even when working together in the same environment. Different people notice different things when looking at the same event. And it’s likely that some people are not present for some events. Building a shared picture of the facts is crucial to a retrospective. It’s where the “retro” part of the term originates.

This shared picture of the past doesn’t mean that everyone agrees on what happened, or the significance of events. I don’t think it’s healthy for a group to take a homogenized view. The makeup of some groups can lead naturally to a very close viewpoint, and it seems to weaken the power of the group. Instead, it means that each person’s view is enhanced with knowledge about others views, whether subtly or dramatically different. Disagreement may be congenial or vehement, but the individuals can respect each other and live with their disagreement. This is healthier than denying a difference of opinion or remaining ignorant that it exists.

Finally, facilitation skills are necessary for a successful retrospective. Sometimes the group naturally has enough facilitation skills that things work out well, but that’s not the way to bet. It’s better if a retrospective is lead by someone who’s taken some time and effort to hone their facilitation skills. Of course, if everyone has facilitation skills, then they can make things easier on the leader of the retrospective. In a pinch, someone with strong facilitation skills can be a great help to a poor facilitator who is leading a retrospective. In general, though, it behooves the retrospective leader to be mindful of facilitation, and take steps to do a good job of it.

While I suspect that there are other principles that could be identified for retrospectives, these four seem essential, to me. When I’ve witnessed a weak retrospective, one or more of these principles has been violated. If you are leading a retrospective, I urge you to consider what ways you are following these principles.

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