Agile Retrospectives: Ceremony or Sensation?

You put your left leg in, your left leg out. In, out, in, out, you shake it all about. You do the Hokey Cokey and you….. and then two weeks later you have another retrospective.

Just like the Hokey Cokey, many cynics view retrospectives as a bit of a ritual joke dance. Stand ups, retrospectives and kanban boards — “we must be doing it right”, those agile cynics sarcastically grumble.

Yet other people I’ve worked with are completely besotted with retrospectives. Their feet start to twitch as the minutes tick down to retrospective o’clock and they’re like excited little children dosed to the eyeballs on exploding candy and fizzy drinks.

So retrospectives… ceremony or sensation?

Are your retrospectives a cringeworthy, and mind-numbing ritual or an exciting opportunity to become a better team?

I Used To Hate Retrospectives

For the first few years of my career as a software developer, my body was pumped full of passion. I loved clean code, I loved learning about new technologies and I absolutely loved telling people they were wrong.

I was passionate about retrospectives, too. But I passionately hated them. Why should I tell people how I feel? If I want to keep my feelings to myself and not tell my team-mates or anyone else, that’s completely my own business.

Every retrospective I would bring this passionate dissatisfaction, taking many opportunities to mutter sarcastic digs and amplify the negativity expressed by other team members. I was toxic to our retrospectives — I was the angry developer.

With me being disruptive our retrospectives were predictably counter-productive, ceremonial and mostly a waste of time.

I don’t think my scenario was a freak irregularity though. I’ve also facilitated retrospectives for other teams, and there is often a distinctly flat atmosphere. Even without angry developers, some people just turn up to retrospectives and go through the motions.

So retrospectives can undoubtedly be pointless ceremony, but can they ever be useful?

Retrospectives Are A Tech Lead’s Best Friend

Fast forward half a decade from being the angry developer, and I find myself with the responsibility of leading a team of developers. It doesn’t take long for me to realise that being responsible for the output of others and nurturing junior members of staff is immensely difficult. I can absorb technical information and learn skills easily, but getting better at people skills is the biggest challenge of my life (which is motivating, don’t get me wrong)

People and their emotions are what makes life so incredibly hard and yet so immeasurably enjoyable.

The funniest part of being a leader, though, is the irony that retrospectives have become one of the best tools I know for understanding what’s stopping my team-mates being happy or productive. And it’s also a way for me to share what’s on my mind, without having to dictate or act authoritatively.

I very much believe in servant leadership and I hate the idea of simply telling people what to do. And that’s why I’ve grown to be lovingly fond of retrospectives.

Things get said in retrospectives that would otherwise just sit in people’s heads and grow into larger problems. With regular retrospectives, people have a channel to let these negative thoughts be known to the rest of the team, so they can be tackled collectively.

I very much emphasise the word team, and I fully believe you really do have to care about your team-mates and want to help them to be productive and happy for retrospectives to be effective.

Another pattern that strengthens my belief in the effectiveness of retrospectives is when I talk to developer friends and ex-colleagues. Often they’ll complain about the illogical and broken things in the company they are currently working for. And I’ll ask them, “are you doing retrospectives”, and they usually say “no”.

When I talk to ex-colleagues whose team do practice retrospectives, they generally have a lot less to bitch about. I’m sure retrospectives aren’t the only reason, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if retrospectives were either a key factor of greater happiness or an indicator of some other factor that leads to greater happiness (a cohesive team for example).

Ceremony or Sensation? The Verdict

Retrospectives are undoubtedly a sensation in my opinion and one of the core practices I would always look to employ when leading or being part of a development team.

But retrospectives are fragile to the mindsets of their attendees. If your team doesn’t buy into retrospectives, and people are just showing their face because they have to, or worse poisoning the environment, your retrospectives will probably flounder.

I’m eternally grateful that I was able to grow out of being the angry developer and start to benefit from retrospectives. Especially as a leader.

It was uncomfortable for me to share my thoughts during retrospectives at first. I was always a bit of a loner throughout my life. But when I started to care about the problems of others and started wanting to help them, I realised that they were probably thinking the same about me…. And retrospectives suddenly got a lot easier and more useful.

So what are you waiting for? Time to arrange your next retrospective!

Photo credits: Language Day via photopin (license)