The Life changing magic of Retros

I heart Retro

I heart Retro

Retrospectives are one of my favourite topics, you may recall from Blogs of Christmas past


I find Retros so utterly magical that I’m often given to exclaiming ‘Wow I love Retros!’ in the middle of a Retro, because the insights are incredibly simple to come by, and yet simply wouldn’t have been surfaced or released with the approach we’d used up until that point.  


My business partner and I Retro regularly, mainly because we didn’t Retro regularly, and that caused us a lot of problems. We drifted, spent too long on low value stuff, paired on tasks that could have been accomplished solo, spread our focus over too many things and lost traction with the ideas we had in play.  Maybe we believed we were too good for Retros, or beyond Retros? Two experienced Agile consultants. Pah! Physician, heal thy selves! Like dodgy plumbers, our own essential plumbing infrastructure, was clogged.  


Does a two person team really need to Retro? 


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Yes! As I’ve stated before, if there’s only one practice to take and apply from all these Hocus Pocus Agile tree hugging Lean and systems thinking approaches, it’s the Retro. The process of looking back in order to move forward. 





Retro is a safe space, where you can air your opinions without judgement, the ‘Prime Directive’ of the Retrospective as created by Norm Kirth is the mechanism that assures safety. "Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand." 


If you’re coming up with a negative observation it’s because it’s invited in the reflection on ‘What’s not Working'.  You’re not being a wet blanket, you’re answering the request ‘Look at your way of working and identify something you don't like’.  


Retro is somewhere to identify things that are working well, well you better! If you don’t grok the things that are working well, how are you going to amplify that? 


And Retro is a great time for asking out loud the questions that have been clanging around inside your head. What’s been bugging you that’s been hard to diplomatically drop into conversation? Asking these questions (even if you can’t answer them) is incredibly freeing, a feeling of “Thank the Gods I got that off my chest!” Wooo! Is it me? Or does everyone else feel lighter now too?  


With the safety provided to highlight negatives, the improvement that blooms from marinating in the positives, and the freedom of asking confusing questions out loud, we are ready to decide what to change.  


Retros are such a time efficient approach to getting to great insight, you may as well stop any other meeting or activity you were about to undertake for 30 mins to an hour, and do a Retro instead. Any activity you were about to undertake will be approached with more vigour, focus and success, when fuelled by the outcomes of a Retro.  


This happened today, we were about to bowl into a planning session and then start executing various tasks that felt urgent and important. Some were in progress already, some seemed critical only a week before. But a quick retro informed us that we needed to focus on what was important, use our time more efficiently, and stop some things altogether.  Instead of stumbling along, debating each other, trying to second guess ourselves in the moment, and wondering aloud whether we are going about stuff the right way,  we had created a space of true reflection, observed without judgement what we had done well and badly, and what we needed to change. We arrived at insights that now seem obvious, but we couldn’t have hoped to stumble across them with such clarity in the midst of all the hurrying. It’s pure magic I tell you! 


Do Retros always go magically? 


No! Like any practice there are ways to do a Retro badly. I’ve certainly facilitated some train-wreck Retros.  When anxiety is high and safety is hard to create, a Retro can be challenging to manage, and it might not be possible to create these magical moments of clarity. But even in my most angst ridden Retros there were insights generated, and there’s always something that can be improved in an awful team, even if it’s a tiny thing, rather than a fundamental thing. Even dysfunctional teams can increment their way to improvement using a Retro.  


What then, are some Retro Anti-patterns to avoid? 


Here are a few tips that I hope will help you generate Magic from your Retros: 


1. Don’t decide not to have it


Avoid putting off Retro, if you think you’re too busy then find a way to Retro in half the time. If it seems to unsafe or that the atmosphere may be challenging then consider asking someone outside the team to facilitate.  If it’s a long time coming then some pent up angst may need to be released and a qualified facilitator, with a few more sophisticated techniques could be a good investment. 


2. Same Same but different


There’s an advantage to using the same Retro format every time, especially if the world seems to be moving too fast to stop for some reflection. Using the same technique is easy to repeat quickly, easy to cycle around different team members, and  it takes less cognitive load for a team to stick with an approach than to adapt to different flavours of Retro every time. There are plenty of articles out there that encourage changing Retros up with ‘Speed boat Retros’ or ‘Anchors and Engines’ etc. sometimes I wonder if those variations are serving us well. We’re here to improve ourselves, so I favour the quickest and simplest way to get there. 


3. Don’t boil the ocean


Use voting to decide what 2 or 3 priority things you will improve and then only commit to those. If you obey tip #1 and have Retro regularly there’s plenty of time to fix the less important stuff later.  The stuff that needs fixing tends to change as much as your scope, so you don’t want to create a massive improvement backlog to add to your regular backlog and cause additional grooming burden every week.


4. You can start at any time, for any team, in any place


Retros are excellent for small, autonomous self organising agile teams. Retros are also great for large departments, leadership teams, communities of practice, mothers groups, innovation incubators, conference organisers,  in fact ANY COLLECTION OF PEOPLE THAT GATHER TOGETHER AT ALL.

How many executive teams do you think do Retros? My guess is not enough! Instead many spend hours in meetings in endless discussion about how to boldly move this company forward into new eras of growth etc., without giving themselves the courtesy of a little reflection and insight.

Retros can be used for groups large or small, sure the mechanics of the session may change, and the introduction might be tailored to fit the specific need, but at the heart of the matter will be: 

    Reflection on what’s gone Well,  

    Reflection on what’s going Badly,  

    and a sharing of Questions,  

    and following that some decisions on what to Change, arrived at using collaborative techniques.  



So put an end to your excuses for not having Retros - don’t go breaking my heart -  using Retros we can unlock life changing magic for any team and you can start today! 



Get in touch with us if you have a Retro you would like facilitated, or check out this enduringly excellent book on Agile Retrospectives