Retrospection on the Retrospective

A seemingly universal axiom for processes is that there is no universal process. They can vary as much as the people who practice them. Which is great when you remember that process exists to help people improve, and not the other way around.

So when the ForwardJS crew yet again invited this non-developer to speak at their bi-annual Javascript event, I thought of my trusted, respected colleague, DMose. One of the founders of the Mozilla Project, Dan has taken thoughtful and intentional steps to continually improve how he and his engineering teams work.

During my 4.5 years at Mozilla, I’ve grown to greatly appreciate Dan’s careful consideration of the process and human elements to his technical work. As we touched on some of these elements, we identified the Retrospective as a practice that can deliver many of these principles for teams.

Which, as with most processes (see above), has been tweaked, adapted, forked to meet the needs of the individuals using it. For Dan and his team, the Retrospective contains 4 questions, reviewed by the team at the end of each week:

    What did we do well?
    What did we learn?
    What could we have done better?
    What puzzles us?

The takeaways….

One Big Benefit
The Retrospective questions – in the above order – have done something critical for Dan’s team: they’ve built trust. More than any learning or process change, the development of trust among the team is what makes it effective. It allows for failure and its valuable counterpart, risk; and ensures that the costs of such risks are translated into valuable learnings for the future.

Another important guiding principle to create this trust is to not “shoot the messenger”: if someone shares something they think didn’t go well, it’s important that the team hears that person out and distances them from their feedback on the team’s performance.

Small things matter
Does the question order matter? Indeed. Because the questions start with a focus on things done well, the process begins with confidence. And by framing them in the collective “we”, and positioning failures as learnings or things to solve, the questions depersonalize negative impacts, instead reframing them as opportunities to get better.

From trust to change
Our session was quite lively (we took this to be a good thing), and one of our audience members cited the Retrospective as a key way they introduce changes to their org. Because the scope of the restrospective is often small (importantly, the work featured is positioned as “small experiments”, which allows folks to be healthily detached from the outcome), they allow for changes to be adopted while minimizing the fear and uncertainty that typically accompany change.

It’s this ability to introduce change in small increments that makes the Retrospective so empowering. Any team can adopt it.

We’re curious to hear of your own experience with retrospectives.

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