Agile Retrospectives: Why They Matter

5 February 2014


The most fertile source of insight is hindsight. -- Morris Kline

Change

A concept that encompasses life in its entirety: People often say that the only constant in life is change. Yet, more often than not, we refuse to cognitively embrace it and crave the opposite. Nevertheless, change defines and drives the nature of life and keeps its existence relevant.

My earliest exposure to Agile focused on it as an agent that recognized and encouraged change. When I first learned about Agile as a process, I was quite inexperienced in the business world and hence I could not draw fair comparisons to assess its legitimacy or effectiveness. However, after making conscious attempts to understand its basic fundamentals (the Agile Manifesto) and practicing it over a few projects, I was sold on its agenda.

I've been coaching teams in the Agile space for more than a few years now, and the one aspect of the process that often seems to be undervalued is the retrospectives.

Retrospective (from Latin retrospectare, "look back") means to look back at past events. In the context of a business or IT project, quite simply defined, it is a meeting held by a team at the end of a project/process/iteration/cycle/sprint to discuss what was successful about the venture or time period covered by that retrospective, what could be improved, and how to incorporate the successes and improvements in future ventures. The reasons why such a discussion is valuable are manifold. To list a few: Timely feedback from team members on their current planning and execution methods could detect potential impediments and inefficiencies, thereby preempting focus on mitigation strategies or workarounds. Also, retrospectives give the team a chance to frequently inspect and adapt their behavior and reaction to the current state of the process and hence devise ways to improve coordination and collaboration.

The Agile Retrospective

In general, Agile prescribes a rapid value model for software delivery that provides shippable or potentially shippable increments frequently and consistently, by following a cadence of breaking down work items into smaller chunks that are regularly prioritized, relatively sized, and documented in a format (such as epics/user stories) that succinctly describes the user/customer's persona and the functionality and benefit. A major advantage of following such a model is the opportunity to constantly inspect and adapt plans and methods of execution to improve efficiency and quality. Hence the need for an effective retrospective.

The structure of a retrospective discussion is usually built around reflection on three basic questions:
  • What did we do well?
  • What did we do wrong?
  • What could be improved?
However, these questions are merely guides to open a conversation, and it is imperative to encourage team members to think outside the box whenever possible. The following is an approach that lends itself to such thinking.

The Maze of Uncertainty

maze-of-uncertainty.jpg
Strategy: Team collaboration and coordination (e.g., personality conflicts, team fungibility, capacity planning)
Goal: Interaction model with the extended team in the organization (e.g., escalation mechanisms, enterprise-wide transparency, executive/senior leadership buy-in)
Influence: Operating model with third party or external entities
Locale: Competitive market conditions, workforce attrition

Dissecting the Maze

Every project's journey begins at the outermost region of the maze above. The project starts with an idea to fill a certain demand -- or, at times, to discover a potential for demand in the future. Extensive variability in this region of the maze allows for very little command on the constantly evolving Locale. Hence it is important for organizations/teams to recognize this churn and manage end-user/customer expectations accordingly. "Respond to change over following a plan" (Agile Manifesto) is an integral principle in this environment, as it advocates making realistic plans and reviewing them regularly to incorporate an organization's reaction to change and recalibrate the future course of action.

Working with external entities and their different operating models can often prove challenging for organizations. Thus, "Customer collaboration over contract negotiation" (Agile Manifesto) proves to be an integral principle in the region of Influence, as it encourages organizations and individuals to involve the end-user/customer/external entities earlier in the process of strategy and implementation to avoid surprises down the road, minimize technical debt and sunk costs over time, and deliver on a consistent cadence.

Beyond this region is the circle of Goal that every organization strives to meet to enhance predictability and achieve a sustainable pace for product delivery. The focus in this area is to ensure that teams are equipped with the appropriate amount of generalized specialists needed to execute the work. They should be empowered to self-organize, self-direct, and have support from the organization's extended team through a dynamic that promotes prompt visibility and transparency to showcase progress and resolve impediments in a timely fashion. The principle "Working software over comprehensive documentation" (Agile Manifesto) helps boost such a dynamic in organizations, as it fosters a symbiotic relationship between the consumer and the manufacturer (or, rather, business users/customers and IT teams).

The innermost circle of the maze emphasizes aspects of a project that govern its tactical or, rather, operational behavior. "Individuals and interactions over process and tools" (Agile Manifesto) aptly describes the underlying theme of this area. An effective team is one that recognizes the need for Strategy with regard to its self-organization and team management to build a high-performing and motivated workforce that delivers a robust product under budget and on schedule.

Conclusion

The method described above is just one of many techniques that can be used to dissect the life of a project. The bottom line is that individuals and organizations should be encouraged to frequently retrospect on methods, behavior, and culture and to ponder creatively the various factors and variables that exist in their reality, which they must overcome or work around to build a better product for the customer. When in doubt, one must look to basics. However, one of the basics must always be "continuous innovation." As mathematician Morris Kline put it, "The most fertile source of insight is hindsight."

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Comments

Prabhu Missier, CSM, 2/5/2014 1:49:04 AM
Good refresher on retrospectives! However if Scrum is to be strictly followed then the retrospective is to be held as frequently as possible not exceeding one every Sprint. Teams should understand that it is not optional and a retrospective only at the end of the project may be too late

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