Retrospective: Action planning or learning?
It was a good training day. Full class of people joined me to learn about Agile Retrospectives. We did lot of exercises and I tried to deliver a message about importance of learning.
After the training Jack, local Quality Manager, comes to me. He had a burning problem with project retrospectives. Their projects are huge: 500+ people, three sites, two continents. They are doing kind of Agile development and as a consequence they decided to do project retrospectives every three months. However, those are not going well, says Jack: fewer and fewer people are coming to retrospectives and agreed actions are not done.
During the discussion I remind Jack about one thing: Retrospectives are about learning and understanding the past. Unless there is learning, there should not be action planning. This made Jack really uncomfortable. “Yes“, he says, “but management wants action lists from retrospective. Otherwise retros look like waste of time!“. We spent quite some time to talk about this. Finally Jack remembered another thing from my training and said: “Well, I could propose our management to have an experiment .. have one retrospective where we focus on understanding the past and not do any action plans!“.
I think this happens a lot. Retrospectives are turned into action planning meetings. When agreed actions are not done, people get frustrated and skip the session altogether. Then less and less people attend, amount of information decreases, quality of decisions decreases and vicious cycle is ready.
Worse even, some organizations measure success of retrospectives by number of actions that were agreed. If this happens, the actions are diluted even further. Either retrospective participants are creating “piece-of-cake” actions that they know will be done, or they start cooking the results. Or both.
Retrospectives are about learning, no matter if they are iteration retrospectives every two weeks or huge “lessons learned”-workshops at the end of project. Learning about own past is a skills that requires practise and discipline. We all are familiar with action planning and we do it easily. If action planning is eluding your learning, then it may be wise to agree that one retro is only learning. Just to see how powerful it is when people start to understand the problems better.
About Jack .. I do not know yet if he had courage to propose experimental retrospective to his boss. I try to get back to him and see if my advise helped him and the project team.