In Learning

Last week I was at one of my favourite Agile events of the year – the ACE! Conference in Kraków. It always attracts interesting speakers and this year was no different. But talks are only a small part of such event for the real value is often is the conversations that follow.

During a few talks this time I happened to have been sitting near Bob, in two of the talks speakers shared their ideas about retrospectives.

Monika talked about “Gamified Retrospectives” and Mark talked about “Retrospectives, the most boring meetings ever”. Both are very passionate and excellent speakers. Their talks were enjoyable, made important observations and shared interesting ideas about novel ways of improving retrospectives. However both Bob and I felt that they were focused on doing the wrong thing righter. Bob, it turned out, has already had some more thoughts on the topic in his “Retrospectives – Wronger and Righterblog post. We followed it up with a few conversations with others who were slightly concerned about our attitude. After all retrospectives are a cornerstone of many Agile teams. The main argument of the discussions was that retrospectives should reflect on a hypothesis stated before the work has started and too often they don’t.

Another aspect that I would like to draw your attention to is that retrospectives are prone to suffer from the Hawthorne effect. Read the full Wikipedia article but the essence is that subjects improve or modify an aspect of their behaviour being experimentally measured simply in response to the fact that they know they are being studied. In other words retrospectives may be improving the way we work simply because we run them and not because they result in meaningful improvements to the way our system of work is organised.

You might ask, whether it’s that relevant. After all the team is achieving visible improvements anyway so do we need to care why? Well, we should, we should indeed and the two talks starkly brought this to my attention. They both gave many interesting and innovative ideas about how we could make our retrospectives more engaging, more motivating, different. (And, no, this summary doesn’t do justice to the two talks). So I asked myself: Why do we need to re-invent retrospectives, why do we constantly strive to turn the dial up to eleven? Perhaps that’s because the standard way of running them no longer works.

Our retrospectives are not sustainable.

The workers are being observed and they improve but as they get more used to this observation, improvements fade away so we need to keep changing the observation and experimentation to keep fuelling the Hawthorne effect and this loop eventually runs out.

Instead, let’s focus back on the loop that was always there at the heart of retrospective – the PDCA cycle. By all means, make your retrospectives fun, engaging, challenging, use the great ideas shared by Monika and Mark but make sure that you used them for validation of your hypotheses and to seek to create meaningful, objective changes to the way your work works.

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