Thursday, January 23, 2014

Can you Learn and Improve without Agile Retrospectives? Of course you can…

Retrospectives – bringing the team together on a regular basis to examine how they are working and identify where and how they can improve – are an important part of Agile development.

Scrum and “Inspect and Adapt”

So important that Schwaber and Sutherland burned retrospectives into Scrum at the end of every Sprint, to make sure that teams will continuously Inspect and Adapt their way to more effective and efficient ways of working.

End-of-Sprint retrospectives are now commonly accepted as the right way to do things, and are one of the more commonly followed practices in Agile development. VersionOne’s latest State of Agile Development survey says that 72% of Agile teams are doing retrospectives.

Good Retrospectives are Hard Work

Good retrospectives are a lot of work.

For the leader/Coach/Scrum Master who needs to sell them to the team – and to management – and build a safe and respectful environment to hold the meetings and guide everyone through the process properly.

For the team, who need to take the time to learn and understand together and act on what they've learned and then follow-up and actually get better at how they work.

So hard that there several books written just on how to do retrospectives,(Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great, The Retrospective Handbook, Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives), as well as several chapters written about retrospectives in other books on Agile, and retrospective websites (including one just on how to make retrospectives fun) and a wiki and at least one prime directive for running retrospectives, and dozens of blog posts with suggestions and coaching tips and alternative meeting formats and collaborative games and tools and techniques to help teams and coaches through the process, to energize retrospectives or re-energize them when teams lose momentum and focus.

Questioning the need for Retrospectives

Because retrospectives are so much work, some people have questioned how useful running retrospectives each Sprint really is, whether they can get by without a retrospective every time, or maybe without doing them at all.

There are good and bad reasons for teams to skip – or at least want to skip – retrospectives.

Because not everyone works in a safe environment where people trust and respect each other, so retrospectives can be dangerous and alienating, a forum for finger pointing and blame and egoism.

Because they don’t result in meaningful change, because the team doesn’t act on what they find – or aren’t given a chance to – and so the meetings become a frustrating and pointless waste of time, rehashing the same problems again and again.

Because the real problems that they need to solve in order to succeed are larger problems that they don’t have the authority or ability to do anything about, and so the meetings become a frustrating and pointless waste of time….

Because the team is under severe time pressure, they have to deliver now or there may not be a chance to get better in the future.

Because the team is working well together, they've “inspected and adapted” their way to good practices and don’t have any serious problems that have to be fixed or initiatives that are worth spending a lot of extra time and energy on, at least for now. They could keep on trying to look for ways to get even better, or they could spend that time getting more work done.

Inspecting and Adapting – without Regular Retrospectives

Regular, frequent retrospectives can be useful – especially when you are first starting off in a new team on a new project. But once the team has learned how to learn, the value that they can get from retrospectives will decline.

This is especially the case for teams working in rapid cycles, short Sprints every 2 weeks or every week or sometimes every few days. As the Sprints get shorter, the meetings need to be shorter too, which doesn’t leave enough time to really review and reflect. And there’s not enough time to make any meaningful changes before the next retrospective comes up again.

At some point it makes good sense to stop and try something different. Are there other ways to learn and improve that work as well, or better than regular team retrospective meetings?

XP and Continuous Feedback

Retrospectives were not part of Extreme Programming as Kent Beck et al defined it (in either the first or second edition).

XP teams are supposed to follow good engineering (at least coding and testing) practices and work together in an intelligent way from the beginning – it should be enough to follow the rules of XP, and fix things when they are broken.

XP relies on built-in feedback loops: TDD, Continuous Integration and continuous testing, pair programming, frequently delivering small releases of software for review. The team is expected to learn from all of this feedback, and improve as they go. If tests fail, or they get negative feedback from the Customer, or find other problems, they need to understand what went wrong, why, and correct it.

Devops and Continuous Delivery/Deployment

Delivering software frequently, or continuously, to production pushes this one step further. If you are delivering working software to real customers on a regular basis, you don’t need to ask the team to reflect internally, to introspect – your customers will tell you if you are doing a good job, and where you need to improve:

Are you delivering what customers need and want? Is it usable? Do they like it?

Is the software quality good – or at least good enough?

Are you delivering fast enough?

By understanding and acting on this feedback, the team will improve in ways that make a real difference.

Root Cause Analysis

If and when something seriously goes wrong in testing or production or within the team, call everyone together for an in depth review and carefully step through Root Cause Analysis to understand what happened, why, what you need to change to prevent problems like this from happening again, and put together a realistic plan to get better.

Reviews like this, where the team works together to confront serious problems in a serious way and genuinely understand them and commit to fixing them, are much more important than a superficial 2-hour meeting every couple of weeks. These can be – and often are – make or break situations. Handled properly, this can pull teams together and make them much stronger. Never waste a crisis.

Kanban and Micro-Optimization

Teams following Kanban are constantly learning and improving.

By making work visible and setting work limits, they can immediately detect delays and bottlenecks, then get together and correct them. This micro-optimization at the task level, always tuning and fixing problems as they come up, might seem superficial, but the results are immediate (recognizing and correcting problems as soon as they come up makes more sense than waiting until the next scheduled meeting), and small improvements are all that many teams are actually able to make anyways.

Take advantage of audits and reviews

In large organizations and highly regulated environments, audits and other reviews (for example security penetration tests) are a fact of life. Instead of trying to get through them with the least amount of effort and time wasted, use them as valuable learning opportunities. Build on what the auditors or reviewers ask for and what they find. If they find something seriously missing or wrong, treat it as a serious problem, understand it and correct it at the source.

Moving Beyond Retrospectives

There are other ways to keep learning and improving, other ways to get useful feedback, ways that can be as effective or more effective and less expensive than frequent retrospectives, from continuous checking and tuning to deep dives if something goes wrong.

You can always schedule regular retrospective meetings if the circumstances demand it: if quality or velocity start to slide noticeably, or conflicts arise in the team, or if key people leave, or there’s been some other kind of shock, a sudden change in direction or priorities that requires everyone to work in a much different way, and start learning all over again.

But don’t tie people down and force them to go through a boring, time-wasting exercise because it’s the “right way to do Agile”, or turn retrospectives into a circus because it’s the only way you can keep people engaged. Find other, better ways to keep learning and improving.


Ben Linders said...

Jim, thanks for this great blog post about learning and improving in organizations!

It is true that retrospectives are only one of the ways to improve. When I work with teams I always look for multiple ways to reflect and adapt their way of working. Some teams get benefits out of retrospectives, others just have an improvement corner on their taskboard where they put things to improve, and there are also teams who include improvements in the sprint backlog or include them on their Kanban board. Whatever works for the team is fine.

A retrospective or root cause analysis can also be used to explore the problems when teams are not improving sufficiently. Causes can be inside or outside the team. Knowing causes helps the organization to address them, and establish the conditions for teams to continuously improve.

Unknown said...

Did "72% of Agile teams state they are doing retrospectives" in 2013? The 8th Annual State of Agile Survey was officially released today and give you the most recent insight into retrospectives. It has a slick, new online format with easy access to the archived reports. you can find it here at

Let me know if you have anu questions!

Unknown said...

I like your blog post and agree with you.

My team has reached that point that we are a strong team and don't run retorspective after each sprint, we having them more sporadically which works fine. It works well with technical stuff like the product, enviroment and some processes.

When it comes to discussions about people and changing behavior, I believe it's hard to spontaneously discuss it. Maybe it's a Swedish thing :-)

Another thing that comes up more during retrospectives is the good things. What we did well and how we can adobt that behavior to something that we don't do so well. It's easy to just focus on what we are doing not so well.

Jim Bird said...

I finally had a chance to read the new new VersonOne Agile survey (2013). The percentage of Agile teams doing retrospectives has increased to 74%

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