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Don’t look back in anger

Continuous improvement is a core agile principle. The retrospective is an important event in all agile methods and an ideal time for teams to identify improvements. Yet too often, retrospectives are ineffective and sometimes uncomfortable.

I have worked with teams who are reluctant to hold retrospectives, and when they did run them, they didn’t get terribly useful results.

I wondered at first if it was due to the facilitation? Retrospectives are another element of agile that seem simple, but can be notoriously difficult to do well. But it’s more than that; it’s the attitude to the retrospective itself that is at fault.

Too many people treat retrospectives negatively. They view them as a post mortem on the previous Sprint; a critical analysis identifying the things they did wrong. Even when there are positives to celebrate, the discomfort comes from the perception that they should have done something differently; and with that discomfort comes a natural reaction to justify why they didn’t. Teams start to blame one another or, more commonly, others for the way things went. 

This leads to teams talking themselves into a state of helplessness; “How were we to know that…?”, “But they did…”, “We didn’t think that would happen…”. This then makes it harder to identify meaningful improvement goals. After all, if it wasn’t our fault, then surely there isn’t much we can change?

This behaviour is a result of considering the Retrospective solely as an analysis of the past; a critical analysis focused on what should have happened; beating ourselves up about the things that went wrong. However, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the point of a Retrospective. 

Retrospectives are not about the past; they are about the future.

Clearly, they involve the past, but they are not about analysing what we should have done differently; they are are about what we may do differently in the future. 

They are an acknowledgement that here in the present, we know more than we did when the past was happening, and we can use that new knowledge to decide what we might to in a similar situation in the future. After all, who knows what we would have done last Sprint if we had known at the start what we know at the end? 

Once you start to consider them not as a judgement on the past, but as a device to understand the new knowledge we have, then they begin to unlock their power as a vector for improvement.

When we stop looking back in anger at our faults and flaws we give ourselves an opportunity to consider Retrospectives as wholly positive events. Opportunities to identify and lock in our new knowledge, and decide how we can use it to make ourselves better. 

Who wouldn’t want to do that?