What’s the point of agile retropspectives? Why do them?

Yesterday I got a question I thought me and others had answered quite exhaustively: “Why would you do retrespectives? What purpose do they serve?” Picture me surprised to come up empty handed after a quick search here on Finding-Marbles. Turns out, I haven’t answered the question here. Which is ironic given that this is the very first topic I cover in my Retrospective workshops for teams that want to get started. I mean why would you learn HOW to do retrospectives if you don’t understand WHY they are beneficial?

So, let’s look at it now. What’s the point of agile retrospectives? Why do we do them? Or more precisely, why do I do them? Why do I think they are valuable?

If I had to answer in one word I’d pick: “Change

The point of a retrospective is to enable change. Improvement. It’s reserved time to look at how we are working together as a team and tweak that. Retros deal with the mushy, human side of work and how to collaborate better. In my opinion, retrospectives enable that in 3 major ways:

  • Allow time for (self-)reflection
    During the daily grind it’s incredibly hard to sit down and ponder your ways of working. Reserved time helps.
  • Create shared understanding in the team
    Everybody sees the world a little bit different. In retrospectives we can find out how differently from me my team mates perceive and interpret events
  • Agree to try new things: action items (or updates to the working agreement)
    Retrospectives give room to think through several improvement ideas and pick one that all team members commit too

If done well, the retrospective itself is already a pretty powerful meeting. Sometimes the increased understanding between team members – knowing what makes the others ‘tick’ – is already a great leap forward. Though, most of the time you will want to end up with concrete action items i.e. experiments. Small things that the team will do to see if it helps with one of their problems.

During any given retrospective you don’t know if an action item will be an improvement. You have to try it out. If it turns out to be an improvement you keep it and build on it. If it’s not, you stop doing it and try something else if the original problem still needs solving.

Attention: implementing action items takes time. If you do retrospectives but nobody ever has time to follow up on the action items people will quickly grow disillusioned. They will stop doing retros because, frankly, there’s no point if nothing ever changes as an effect of the retros. (BTW, Scrum recognizes that and prescribes that the most important action item from the retro is automatically part of the next Sprint Backlog.)

To recap, the benefits of retrospectives are: time to reflect, creating shared understanding and agreeing on action items. All of which hopefully lead to improvements in how the team works together. Doing retros frequently will often allow you to catch and address problems while they’re small and still manageable 🙂

Do the benefits sound good to you? If so, you might be interested in the WHAT of retrospectives now.

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