The evolution of retrospecting

Many teams who use Agile practices run regular retrospectives (when was your last retrospective?!). However, these ceremonious gatherings often become stale pushing teams to look for alternative formats to fill their 2hr meeting. If you find your retrospectives are becoming stale then maybe this is a sign that you need to evolve away from your current approach. Teams vary in their needs but generally speaking, I’ve observed the following levels of maturity in terms of continuous improvement:

Level 0 – “What do you mean improve the way we work?”, “This is the way we’ve always done things around here”, “We’re really good at what we do so no need to improve”.

Level 1 – Lessons learned at the end of a project. This is very common across teams who don’t use Agile or Lean practices. The problem with learning lessons at the end of a project is that it’s a bit too late to adapt or course correct at the end of the project. Also, how many times are the lessons from previous project really taken into account for new projects??

Level 2 – Agile retrospective, a ceremony usually held at the end of every sprint, iterations, or time box. Many formats for running this session are available through some great books already published so I won’t dwell on these in this post. A very common challenge for teams is taking action on the improvements identified. Usually, the next retrospective comes around way before they got to implement change.

Level 3 – Decoupled retrospective, still ceremonious (as in everyone gets in a room for a session) but decoupled from the sprint boundary so free to run them more frequently.

Level 4 –  Real-time retrospecting. Continuous improvement lines the very fabric of the team activities every day.

Level 5 – Who knows??

Moving towards Real-time retrospectives

One way I’ve found of moving towards real-time retrospectives is to erect a card wall dedicated to it. The location of this card wall is critical as it needs to be as close to your delivery card wall as possible so that when you’ve finished your usual daily stand up you can quickly move to the real-time retro card wall.


In the card wall above we have three simple columns:

Options for Improvement – this is our ideas section for things we feel we could improve. We apply some concepts from Real Options in that options can expire so we regularly groom this backlog of ideas and kill anything where we’ve run out of time.

Improving – anyone can pull in an option to start improving but we limit this column to one or two items at a time. We find this provides us with a more realistic chance of getting an improvement made.

Done – self explanatory but we find this motivates us over time as we can see what we’ve achieved.

Now I’m sure there’s loads of things we could do to improve even this card wall such as treating all improvements as experiments (hypothesis driven retrospectives??!) and splitting the done column into success and learning but I’ll leave that to others. We’ve found that just by making our continuous improvement visible, easily accessible, and frequently engage with it, we get more improvements made.


1 Comment on "The evolution of retrospecting"

  1. jonathanfulton | May 2, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Reply

    At Level 4, do you think real time retrospecting should be done as well as still doing regular retrospective ceremonies?

    Making the time for the ceremony gives space to encourage diverging ideas and the opportunity for exercises to get the whole team involved. I’ve also found coaching opportunities to help the team through forming/storming/norming, or tackle one of the 5 dysfunctions of a team tend to present themselves in the conversations had during a full retro.

    My experience with real time retrospecting is that it’s a great way to deal with simple improvements, but if the issues are complex, the team can get stuck in ‘meta-chat’ and can’t move forward, which can sap focus. I tend to consider that a sign that they need to sit down and have a ‘proper retro’ to explore the issues.

    In the fastest improving team i have worked with, we used a mixture of techniques. We had real time retrospecting everyday, a quick fire health check exercise of 25 mins at the end of every week, and every 4th week a well planned 90 minute retrospective ceremony held offsite. (i.e in the pub!).

    Be interested in your thoughts. Jon.

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