It seems like retrospectives are still one of the more challenges agile activities/ceremonies to execute and get right. Which is somewhat surprising to me in that it’s a fairly simple activity. For example –

A team sits down periodically to look in the mirror and brainstorm way(s) to improve themselves.

How hard can that be?

We could also apply the word kaizen or kaizen event to it. Here’s a snippet as to what Wikipedia has to say about its meaning

The Japanese word kaizen means "change for better", with inherent meaning of either "continuous" or "philosophy" in Japanese dictionaries and in everyday use. The word refers to any improvement, one-time or continuous, large or small, in the same sense as the English word "improvement".[5] 

Again, it’s a simple, yet core element of your agile culture and I don’t necessarily understand why it’s so challenging. But let me share a few stories to illustrate the point that it IS challenging. At least to do it well…

A few sad stories

  • There was a company that did staff augmentation with an offshore model. They were quite skilled at agile delivery, so their engagements solely focused on providing or supplementing client teams. They had a nearly universal challenge. When it came time for their folks to engage in team retrospectives, they became quiet. In fact, they would only raise relatively trivial, non-confrontational comments. But when, as their coach and behind closed doors, I asked the teams about their challenges, the feedback gates opened wide. In fact, the teams often wanted me to share their feedback with the clients for them.

  • I was working as an inside coach at a very large financial firm. I got the opportunity to start coaching an ongoing project with 6 agile teams distributed around the world. There was UI-centric teams in several locations and a UX team primarily based in Europe. Problem was, the UI teams felt like the UX teams were shoving designs down their throats without asking for feasibility and effort feedback. However, they’d never actually SAID this to the UX team in any forum. However, the overall project was suffering severe schedule delays because of the lack of teamwork and frank discussion.

  • At another company, I met quite a few of the ScrumMasters who were lamenting that the teams were getting tired of retrospecting. They felt the meetings were all the same. Discussions were had, but then nothing really came of it and then the cycle repeated. Things like a lack of improvement and nobody taking action were the key complaints. Everyone simply wanted to remove the meeting and get back to work so the ScrumMasters acquiesced and stopped all retrospectives.

  • And finally, I went to present to a group of testers at a large insurance company. There were perhaps 100 testers in the room that represented perhaps 70-80 Scrum teams. During the course of my presentation, I light-heartedly asked how many in the room actively participated in their retrospectives. I was trying to make the point that tester engagement could make a huge difference in their team’s continuous improvement efforts. However, and rather depressing for me, my informal poll of the audience determined that 50% of the teams represented had opted out of their retrospectives entirely. With a rumbling of – it wasn’t working so the teams self-selected out of the waste.

These stories, real stories I might add, are indicative of three of the main problems I see with today’s retrospectives.

  1. Teams don’t face their true challenges and avoid the harder, higher impact discussions;

  2. Retrospectives have become a by-rote exercise; just a checkbox; and no real actions result;

  3. Teams are opting out when they believe they’ve reached some level of maturity. Viewing further retrospectives as waste.

In ALL of these cases, it breaks my heart to watch these trends unfold.

But, if you read my writing regularly, you realize that I often try to solve the problems. In this case, I’m not going to do that. Instead, I offer an idea for you to solve them on your own…

Retro the Retro

When you're facing these sorts of challenges, and a myriad more, within your teams I’d like to encourage you to try something. Instead of slogging on and continuing to force retrospectives, why not have a retrospective of your retrospectives?

As an intro to the retrospective, please explain why you’re changing your strategy. Lay your “frustrated” cards on the table around the driver or drivers. Don’t get defensive or pushy, just tell it like it is.

Next, explain the WHY behinds agility’s focus on the retrospective. Explain its history and roots. Perhaps tell a story about how critical retros were to your past teams and share a success story or two. Explain that it is FOR the team and FOR continuous improvement.

Once you’ve set the stage, then facilitate a simple discussion from the team surrounding how to reenergize, improve, and sustain powerful retrospectives going forward. It’s their show, so let them ideate and co-create a new retrospective landscape with you.

But establish that “opting out” is not an option.

Or just picking a set of new retrospective facilitation games and hoping for better outcomes is not an option.

You’ll want to encourage challenging and crucial conversations amongst the team to get to root causes and change options so that the team reenergizes their retrospectives.

Wrapping up

And Bob, what if we can’t get to closure in the time box? What if we fall into bad habits? What if…

Then we’re in Retro the Retro mode until the team sorts out what to do to create more congruent and effective retrospectives. Period.

I know that sounds very prescriptive, but I think that something as important as a commitment to continuous improvements needs a firmer hand.


Stay agile my friends,