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Retrospective 101

A look into the future of agile retrospectives

Through this guide, we have embarked on several adventures. We have imagined our first and fiftieth retros. We have developed ways to build and maintain safety. We have asked our teams to review relevant data, establish value, and follow through on ideas. We have discussed ways we can all form an environment for progress. 

Along the way, we discussed the value of different techniques, shared strategies to facilitate meaningful discussions, and challenged you to build your own retrospective experience. 

We have gone over 15% solutions, working agreements, oops walls, and radars. 

As we near the end of our time together, let's go on one more adventure! This time, let's take a deep dive into the heart of retrospectives to explore where retros started and how they are adapting to fit the needs of agile teams as they face new challenges and opportunities. 

To get started, we have to examine one of the most famous agilists of all time. Iron Man. 

Yup. It's true!

Although you won't necessarily see Tony Stark in sprint refinement, the fandom has noticed a specific trait that is quintessentially agile. 

Tony learns from his mistakes. 

In each movie and through the lifetime of the comics, Tony and his suit have crashed, burned, broken, fallen from the sky, and improved with each iteration. Sound familiar? 

Humans have been working in an agile method since the dawn of time. While some adaptations took longer than others (indoor plumbing took a bit longer than estimated), we are constantly striving for improvement. 

So why has agile been so revolutionary for teams around the world? And where do formal retrospectives fit in?

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The “Big A” Agile Approach

Agile is and, in some industries, remains the revolutionary way of thinking. In the 1970s, when the internet was barely out of the idea phase, software production worked under the ideas of The Waterfall Model –originally explained by Winston W. Royce. This method pushes software developers through sequential steps to complete a project: requirements, design, implementation, verification, and maintenance.

This system worked well as long as there were no changes to scope, cost, design, bandwidth, and any variable associated with the project. In fact, while Royce is often given credit for the method, he even wrote, "the implementation described above is risky and invites failure" in his original paper on the method, Managing the Development of Large Software Systems. 

It's probably no surprise that this lack of flexibility caused massive frustration amongst growing development teams that worked with constantly-changing technology. 

So, in the mountains of Utah in 2001, a group of Extreme Programmers retrospected the issues with the current methods for developing software. The Agile Manifesto came out of those very discussions. And both capital "A" and lowercase "a" agile were born. 

Confusing, I know. Let me explain the difference.  

Grammar enthusiasts or some sharp-eyed sticklers for detail may notice that throughout this guide, I use agile in two forms, capital "A" Agile and lowercase "a" agile. Both are important, but they describe vastly different perspectives within the Agile community. 

Capital "A" Agile refers to the formal values and principles developed in the Agile Manifesto. When organizations use a specific framework based on the Agile Manifesto principles, they are implementing Agile. Often through top-down implementation, these organizations follow the ceremonies and events, collect the artifacts, and follow the guidelines as closely as possible.   

You might be familiar with some of the most popular Agile Frameworks including: 

These are just a few of the dozens of Agile frameworks that exist. Each one follows its own definitions and adherence to the original Agile Manifesto. 

The Agile Manifesto Values

The “a” agile mindset

The controversy (and confusing grammar change) is in those teams and individuals that follow the manifesto's ideas without following a strict framework. Instead, they focus more on an agile mindset. Think about Tony Stark and his Iron Man suit. While he may not follow strict ceremonies, he takes time to retrospect on past errors and shortcomings and improve moving forward. 

You have heard me reference the agile mindset several times throughout this guide. To be agile is to have the belief that issues can be improved upon, no matter how large or small. The agile mindset forces you to shift your focus from a perfect ending to valuing the progress made. And to constantly retrospect on ways you can continue to improve, whether that improvement happens on a software team, within a leadership group, or even within a personal relationship. 

Those that have read Carol S. Dweck's bestsellerMindset: The New Psychology of Success, will see the overlap between a growth mindset and an agile mindset.

"When people are in a growth mindset, the stereotype doesn't disrupt their performance. The growth mindset takes the teeth out of the stereotype and makes people better able to fight back. They don't believe in permanent inferiority. And if they are behind—well, then they'll work harder, seek help and try to catch up.The growth mindset also makes people able to take what they can and what they need even from a threatening environment."
Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

In both a growth and an agile mindset, you are forced to recognize that struggles are not permanent. Instead, they are opportunities to evaluate the current systems of our lives and remain adaptable. In other words, struggles are the events that can lead to learning and improvement.

Once you get into the agile mindset, you'll be surprised by the small ways you find to improve.

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Remaining agile in an Agile world

It is essential to understand that both agile and Agile have their benefits. Formal Agile frameworks help organizations that are new to agile adoption or are trying to create alignment between multiple Agile teams. It can also create shared habits and language across organizations and industries. But it is difficult- and nearly impossible- to have a successful Agile team without the agile mindset. 

Why is that? 

Why aren't the extra meetings and special documentation enough? 

As discussed in Chapter 12, Getting Buy-in on Retro Value, intent, and enthusiasm can make the difference between success and failure. It is also the difference between a murder and manslaughter charge, but I digress. The agile mindset encourages people to remain adaptable and embrace the change needed for a truly agile organization.

And one of the best ways to introduce and encourage that mindset adoption? 

Retrospectives. Our old friend. 🧡

Rethinking is a skill set, but it's also a mindset. We already have many of the mental tools we need. We just have to remember to get them out of the shed and remove the rust.
Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know  

Retrospectives Beyond The Team

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
Agile Manifesto, Principle 12 

Many in the agile community have asked me, why retrospectives? Why do I care so much about this singular meeting? 

My answer has changed over the years, but it all comes down to a firm belief that through reflection, we understand, and through understanding, we grow. While the purest in the Agile community may disagree, teams can succeed without sprint refinement or formal daily scrums. But you can only grow and improve by examining issues. And once you get into the habit of consistently retrospecting and making improvements, you want to keep going. 

Through retrospectives, people experience handling disappointments (and triumphs) as opportunities to understand the system, try new approaches, and learn.
Larsen, Diana; Broderick, Tricia., Lead Without Blame: Building Resilient Learning Teams

Retrospectives are the single most important part of agile because it forces us to make the time and space for intentional reflection as a team about how we are experiencing success and how we can improve upon failures. And while the habit of reflection goes by many names, it continues to be cited as one of the fundamental tools for improvement by scholars, leaders, and psychologists. 


Here are some of the thoughts from today’s leaders on the importance of reflection for improvement:

“Before you try to increase your willpower, try to decrease the friction in your environment.”
James Clear,
Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones

Preventing avoidable failure thus starts with encouraging people throughout a company to push back, share data, and actively report on what is really happening in the lab or in the market so as to create a continuous loop of learning and agile execution.”
Amy C. Edmondson,
The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth

Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
Brené Brown,
Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts 

“As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”
Bessel A. van der Kolk,
The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

“We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”
Attributed to American Educator, John Dewy

We found that taking time for articulation was always beneficial compared to spending the same amount of time practicing, independent of the task at hand or one’s familiarity with it.” 
Giada Di Stefano, Francesca Gino, Gary Pisano, and Bradley Staats,
Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning 

The most useful reflection involves the conscious consideration and analysis of beliefs and actions for the purpose of learning. Reflection gives the brain an opportunity to pause amidst the chaos, untangle and sort through observations and experiences, consider multiple possible interpretations, and create meaning. This meaning becomes learning, which can then inform future mindsets and actions. 
Jennifer Porter,
Why You Should Make Time for Self-Reflection (Even If You Hate Doing It)

For both teachers and students, [reflection on practice in the classroom and phenomenological reflection on the nature of science teaching and learning] reflection acted to improve their knowledge, awareness, and control of themselves and their classroom practice.”
John R. Baird, Peter J. Fensham, Richard F. Gunstone, Richard T. White,
The importance of reflection in improving science teaching and learning 

These scientists, authors, and leaders have discovered that when we purposefully make the time to reflect, it is easier to improve. This is why retrospectives provide such a valuable opportunity for teams and individuals to examine their own habits and the systems and points of friction that can be improved. 

Ultimately, I am a firm believer that retrospectives –when done effectively- can enhance our lives inside and outside of the office environment. I have a  teammate that runs monthly retrospectives with their spouse to examine more efficient ways to complete chores. Another teammate runs retros with their daughter to find ways to improve school performance and help work through challenging social relationships. When she had an issue with a teacher, it was Mad Sad Glad to the rescue. 

Even though reflection can be frustrating and uncomfortable, it is always better to learn from our mistakes than to continue to repeat them. And learning to try new ideas can often lead to expected benefits. Since retrospectives are cumulative, they help build a foundation for your team to scale success in the future. 

A futurespective on retrospectives

Do I think retrospectives have a place in the future of the workplace and beyond? Of course, I do. 

As more and more data suggest a link between reflective practices and the value of psychologically safe environments, it calls to reason that a meeting that can help facilitate psychologically safe moments of reflection will thrive. And both Agile and agile will play a significant role in that growth. 

We have already started to see the growth of agile beyond software development.

Agile Marketing 

Marketing teams worldwide have been adapting agile methods to such great success that teams have adapted their own version of the agile manifesto. The Agile Marketing Manifesto switches focus from final products to working relationships and adaptable behaviors. Principle number five of the Agile Marketing Manifesto: ​​"Take chances, and learn from your failures."

Agile Sales

One of the original Agile Manifesto's core values is customer collaboration over contract negotiation. That customer-centric approach has created an easy transition to agile for many sales leaders. Agile sales use an agile approach to understand and solve customer pains. Through adopting Scrum-style standups and retrospectives, agile sales teams are consistently testing and adapting to customers' needs. 

Agile HR

How could agile work for teams without set products, though? As many Human Resource professionals are discovering, it isn't that much of a leap. Viewing organizations, teams, and individuals as customers, Agile HR teams have been able to adapt the feedback loops outlined in traditional Agile frameworks to create change to work environments in a matter of weeks instead of years. 

Agile Finance

Finance and accounting are two of the newer industries to start adopting agile principles. However, initial research from global management consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, and Oracle - a cloud technology company- show signs that finance leaders are interested in the fast-paced adaptability that agile practices are known for around the world.

Your retrospective, your way

As we see more companies adapt and create their own agile practices, will we see retrospectives change? Probably. And that is a good thing! If there is anything I hope this guide has taught you, it’s that retros are meant to be collaborative and cumulative experiences where your team can grow and improve together. 

So create the safe environment that fits your team. Try an oops wall and an appreciation Slack channel. Follow-though on action items that bring excitement. Use the techniques and strategies that bring your team joy and success. Try ones that fail spectacularly. But never be afraid of hard conversations. And never be afraid of change. Create your own value for retrospectives, and stay agile. 😉

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