Getting the most out of your Retrospectives

So yeah, you’re Agile, you’ve got two week Sprints, your requirements are Tight, and you religiously do retrospectives.
Great.
Seriously, great. Most people actually don’t do any of the above, so you’re already way ahead of the pack.

The thing is, even with the best of intentions, retrospectives end up being about the current sprint, the task at hand, or, hey, even the user stories that you were working against.
What they are not about is about underlying assumptions, the mental framework that you have in place that led to the current set of requirements, user stories, and so forth. To put it differently, we are all trapped within the bounds of the our current thinking processes, and rarely step outside our comfort zone.

And therein lies the rub — working within our existing frameworks will, at best, lead to incremental change. For the truly significant improvements you really, really need to examine (and adjust!) your priors.
And there, my friends is where “double-loop learning” comes in.

Double-loop learning entails the modification of goals or decision-making rules in the light of experience. The first loop uses the goals or decision-making rules, the second loop enables their modification, hence “double-loop”. Double-loop learning recognises that the way a problem is defined and solved can be a source of the problem

The key here is that in double-loop learning, we update the mental model on which the decisions depend. You might make the same decision, but the reason you make the decision is now based on new information, and this will change the decisions you will make in the future!

Peter Morville put it best when he said “to edit planned actions based on feedback is normal, but revising assumptions, goals, values, methods, or metrics may effect change more profound. A team able to expand the frame may hack their habits, beliefs, and environment to be better prepared to succeed and learn.

Mind you, this isn’t easy — “We may lack courage to be honest, and often people can’t handle the truth. Our filters are as powerful as they are idiosyncratic, which means we’re all blind men touching a tortoise, or is it a tree or an elephant? It hurts to reconcile different perceptions of reality, so all too often we simply shut up and shut down.” (•)

So yeah, don’t do this at every retrospective, but be sure to do it every once in a while (start at once a month, and figure it out as you go along!)

(•) “Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals” by Peter Morville

(This article also appears on my blog)