The Retrospective is Now

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This article has been removed. An edited version appears in the book, The People’s Scrum, published by Dymaxicon, May 2013.
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Read original comments…

In her 1958 book “The Art of Making Dances” the dancer and choreographer Doris Humphrey offered the advice: “Never leave the ending until the end”. Since first hearing that advice in the late 1970’s I have found it to be appropriate in all creative endeavors I have undertaken. It essentially asks that we have a sense of the whole before filling in the detail. It is a very Agile-compatible concept. If she had been addressing a business audience Ms Humphrey may have recommended that we know why we are doing something before we undertake to do it. In other words, what value are we seeking… what story are we telling?

Traditional software development tended to leave the ending to the end, which is why we often joke about teams being 90% done 90% of the time, and why the shit inevitably hits the fan when we try to integrate all the disparate pieces.

Taking Doris Humphrey’s original insight, we can apply it to a different aspect of software development, an Agile aspect in fact. The retrospective. Reframed the statement might read: never leave the retrospecting until the retrospective.

In my previous post I decried the so-called Prime Directive, claiming it was condescending and superficial, and its use created the wrong kind of environment for real change to occur. The introduction of the Prime Directive seems to assume no work has been done on the journey to the retrospective, that all feedback, criticism, concern, all differences and disputes are bottled up and saved for a single meeting at the end of a sprint. If that is the way a team is taught to work, then I can see the need for such a directive. We could parallel this with a traditional approach to testing, where QA specialists try to test quality into a piece of software after it has been built.

If a team is given the opportunity to reflect each day, is guided towards a collaborative and trusting way of being, learns to confront the tough moments with courage and respect then the quality of interaction and collaboration is woven in to the fabric of the team, not patched on at some later date. With such teams the retrospective requires no directives, admonishments or rules of conduct.

In fact, without the necessity to take the lid off Pandora’s Box every two or three weeks the retrospective becomes something much more interesting and powerful. It becomes a moment of stillness and reflection, a time to breathe out, to say thank you. A time to be, and not do. Such a retrospective results in the team members feeling closer to one another as human beings. It is a deepening of the tribal spirit, the common consciousness, that intangible element inherent in all groups striving for a common purpose.

Seek small adjustments as and when needed, and you won’t have to worry about the big changes. They will take care of themselves. And maybe you will experience a shifting of self, from which place the real organizational change will emerge.

10 responses to “The Retrospective is Now

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  2. Great post! I think that the best way to do retrospectives are in a natural way trying to improve everyday, step by step, like a everyday kaizen.

  3. It’s just a case of start with a rule and then weakening it. The retro a la agile project management is just a way to get started, a good way, too.

    I agree with Humphrey, about not leaving the end to the end, but did you really mean this: ‘Since first hearing that advice in the late 1970′s I have found it to be appropriate in all creative endeavors I have undertaken. It essentially asks that we have a sense of the whole before filling in the detail’?

    Examples of no end in mind: Iterative product design, software design, etc. Writing were we ‘free write’ to discover, playwrights dialogue to discover and poets start in one place and never know where they are going, this sense of none-closure is why I think they are all fucking barmy. Did you ever play command and conquer? The old PC version? The land would ‘reveal’ itself as you explore more. When I finish a work of fiction, it is never anything like what I started with. Not leaving the end to the end is not the same as having that end in mind when you start.

    I’d like to hear your views on creativity. We all work differently. But, I think the longer you can live without closure, i.e. your tolerance for dissonance, reflects how creative you can be. Being mental helps.

    Jamie.

  4. Hi Jamie,
    “Not leaving the end to the end is not the same as having that end in mind when you start.” I agree with that. I talk here of having a sense of the whole, which is what I think Humphrey’s was talking about. All the examples you give benefit from a holistic, or spiderwebbing approach rather than a linear one. The “end” (whatever that is) is somehow always present.

    And yes, I really did mean that I have found the advice applicable in any creative endeavor. Even in areas like theatre improvisation or “free writing” we are seeking resolution. If we don’t stay aware for that we just ramble on indefinitely and then just fizzle out through boredom (or tiredness!)

    Never leave the ending until the end. There is a depth to this advice perhaps not immediately apparent.

  5. There’s a paradox. You have to be aware of the potential for a whole to form and at the same time let it go. You’ll be happy to hear I don’t really agree, the end isn’t always present, but the potential for failure always is. In a rush for closure I think we shut down creative avenues.

    And, when I free write, I certainly do not look for any resolution. But, I guess that just means we are different.

    But, spot on, there is some depth in the advice, but as with all platitudes, that depth lies in the reader, not the writer. (When the student is ready the teachers appears, and all that.)

    • > In a rush for closure I think we shut down creative avenues.
      This is true, but again this is not what I (or Doris Humphrey) is suggesting. In fact it is the very opposite. The rush for closure comes exactly because we leave the ending to the end. When the idea of creating something of value — and understanding what the value is we are seeking (even when that changes, as it will) allows us to take a more measured, explorative approach.

      But this is not what my blog post is about, but only an introduction to the main theme which is one of creating an environment of reflection and honesty so that retrospectives are not “come to Jesus” meetings, but a natural part of the ebb and flow of the creative process.

      The discussion thread you have begun here is worthy of a new post. I’ll look out for it on your blog😉

  6. Pingback: Weekly Reads – 1/22/2011

  7. Great post. The discussion between Jamie and Tobias above is sidetracking at bit though. You seem to be focused on aspects of a creative process, and in that context your discussion is exciting and relevant.
    In context of retrospectives however, I believe that the process to discuss is not so much a creative one (linear or nonlinear) but a social one dealing with the evolvement of the team. Something along the lines of the “Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing” model by Tuckman.
    Thinking retrospectives as immediate and continuously ongoing is very powerful when coaching a team through the stages of this model. And I think that is precisely what Tobias is stating in this post. Brilliant!

  8. Thanks Mogens. And you are right, it is less a creative problem than a social one. Still, without creativity in our thinking we won’t get far. The two things are intrinsically intertwined here.

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