The Importance of Retrospection

Saturday, September 27th 2014, 1:32 pm

While reading the principles behind the Agile Manifesto, one might be tempted to think that the Retrospective is of secondary importance, it is the last principle listed after all. Indeed, in my experience, many teams think of it as an after-thought, something that is nice to have, but is not really important to the Agile process. Some other teams get excited about the idea behind the Retrospective and start to have regular retrospective meetings with great enthusiasm, only to give up on them after a few iterations because the team sees those meetings as ineffectual. What really is the retrospective? Why did the people behind Agile think of it as important and is it really a valid practice for Agile teams?

The term Retrospective itself does not appear in the principles behind the Agile Manifesto, however it is alluded to by the Manifesto's last principle:

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

This principle has been adopted by the Agile methodologies like Scrum, in the form of a meeting that is held at the end of every iteration of the process (Sprint). This meeting is what is known as the Retrospective.

There is no single way to conduct a Retrospective, one quick Google search will reveal dozens, if not hundreds of different ways to conduct it. However, one of the most commonly used is the one I call the three questions plan. In this plan, the Retrospective facilitator divides a board in three sections, with the first two sections labeled as: "what went well?" and "what could be improved?", the third section is labeled as "what actions can we take?". The team members then, place Post-its with their answers to the first two questions on the board, sparking discussion about the topics that the Post-its surface. The result of this discussion is several actions that address the problems found. These actions in turn are recorded via new Post-its that are placed in the "what actions can we take?" section. Finally, the team agrees on performing these actions during the next Sprint, hopefully improving the way the team works (Rouse, 2011).

A sample of the two questions plan

The two questions plan

I believe that, through experience, the people behind the Agile Manifesto came to notice that not only was every team different, but every project was different. The corollary being that whatever process a team used in a previous project, it would need to be adjusted for every new project. The Manifesto's writers provided, through the Retrospective, a way for the team to quickly respond to these differences.

As noted by Drury, Conboy and Power (2011) in the Retrospective "team members decide and prioritize improvements for future sprints which could impact the overall organization and its customer relationships". When seen in that light, the Retrospective is very important: it provides the mechanism by which the team adjusts to the problem at hand, directly affecting the way the team works and how it relates to others. If the Retrospective did not exist, the team would lack the capability to self-adjust. In essence, the Retrospective gives an Agile team agility.

References

  1. Drury, M., Conboy, K., and Power, K., (2011) "Decision Making in Agile Development: A Focus Group Study of Decisions and Obstacles," Agile Conference (AGILE), 2011, 39-47. doi: 10.1109/AGILE.2011.27
  2. Rouse, M. (2011) Agile retrospective. Retrieved September 27, 2014 from http://searchsoftwarequality.techtarget.com/definition/Agile-retrospective
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