Retrospective Rebuttals Dispelled

Posted on May 9, 2012


I have a fundamental belief that Retrospectives are far and away the most important component of the Scrum Framework and an activity that is universally valuable and applicable.  Taking time to reflect on what has happened over a given period of time is an extraordinarily valuable exercise.  The Retrospective is the team’s opportunity to identify experiments that can be executed to improve performance or validate learning.  For this reason, I would like to take some time to address some common rebuttals to the investment in Retrospectives.

We don’t have time for Retrospectives.

What percentage increase in performance would make a 1-hour per week investment in a Retrospective worth it?  What percentage increase in effectiveness or efficiency would justify pulling your whole team away from their day-to-day work for two hours every other week?  Let’s do some quick math to find out… if we identify improvements in our retrospectives that increase each team member’s productivity by a minimum of one hour per week, then it would appear to pay for itself.  However, if you look at the long-term impact of these improvements across a six month project with seven team members with an average hourly rate of $50/hour, you get a return of $54,600 or another 1092 man-hours of productivity.  Wow!  Now that’s what I call a good investment. 🙂

Even if there wasn’t an ROI associated with Retrospectives, there is still very real value in taking a couple of hours at a regular cadence to stop and reflect on what you have done.  These meetings typically speed team development and rejuvenate team members.  It also works to reinforce the fact that we value teams and are actively investing in them.  Therein reinforcing the culture we are trying to promote.

Our Retrospectives are boring and pointless.

If you continue to use the same format for every Retrospective you hold, they will very quickly become boring.  The facilitator of the Retrospectives should actively seek out new and interesting activities to try with their team.  There are an obscene number of ways to run a Retrospective and many of them are well documented in blogs and books.  There is no excuse to repeat the same Retrospective agenda, iteration after iteration.  It is also advantageous to regularly change the focus of these meetings.  Do not come into the meeting every iteration with the blanket statement of, ‘how can we improve?’  That is boring and often far to general to incite useful discussion.

One easy way to make your Retrospectives pointless, is to end them without identifying and implementing actionable improvements.  This is a common failure mode of Retrospective meetings.  Every single Retrospective must conclude with actionable items that can be enacted to improve the team or organization’s performance.  Then, you must actually put those items into action.  It seems simple, but this is commonly where teams miss the boat.

We don’t need Retrospectives; Our team leads identify improvement action items.

The people that do the work, often have the best insights into how to improve how the work gets done.  Also, people are inherently more likely to adopt improvements when they play a part in defining those improvement action items.  It goes back to the core of team-based approaches to work.  You provide the team a goal, and they decide how to achieve that goal.  Once you start telling the team exactly how to achieve the goal, you are undermining the autonomy of the team and therein greatly diminishing the power of the team to collaborate and solve complex problems.

We don’t need Retrospectives; We practice continuous improvement.

It is rare that I run into a team that can honestly say that they practice true continuous improvement.  However, even if you have adopted a stop-the-line mentality and you address problems in the moment that they are detected, it is still extremely valuable to stop at a regular cadence to analyze the whole system and how well your continuous improvement framework is working.  One side effect of solving problems in the moment, is the possibility to sub-optimize the system by focusing solely on the issue currently impacting you.  This is why I believe that a regular Retrospective cadence is still of very high value to teams practicing continuous improvement.

No matter what environment you work in, people you work with, or product you are working on, Retrospectives can help you make things better.  It is a fundamental and universal truth (at least in my brain).  Once you are sold on this, the only questions remaining are how do I run a great Retrospective and at what cadence should I hold these meetings…. I will address these issues in a future post. 🙂

Posted in: Agile Methods