The contemplative gorilla: The value of retrospectives

Bang… Bang… Bang…
You know the nice thing about banging your head on the desk? It feels so great when you stop.
Bang… Bang… Bang…
The smell of banana proceeded the lumbering form that entered my office. “You’re gonna break the desk like that,” Hogarth said.
Just great, honestly I hadn’t done anything wrong this time. Why was he here? “Go away, Hogarth. Let me be miserable in peace.”
Hogarth slid a ripe banana onto the desk, preventing me from hitting my head further. Unless I wanted to make banana puree. “Come on,” he said, “you should take it as a compliment. The team blew away all previous performance records for delivery. The pointy haired bosses are breaking up the team to try and spread the love. You did an awesome job, be happy about it.” He pointed at my computer screen, “besides, you’ve got the project retrospective to go to. You don’t want to be morose in that.”
“Retrospective!” I snapped. “What’s the point of a retrospective? The teams’ being broken up. I’ll have all new engineers for version 2.”
“Huh…” Hogarth grunted. “Are we reviewing the product that was just built, or are we reviewing the project?”
“The project” I snapped. “We don’t need to review the product, we had 100% pass on acceptance tests and validated with management and the customer that they got exactly what they wanted.”
“That’s what I thought.” Hogarth said. “Let me ask you this. If your Kendo teacher only taught you lessons that wouldn’t damage the blade, would that effect your learning?”
“Wha? Of course it would. He teaches me things so I’ll be a better swordsman, the sword is the tool to learn with.”
“And so is the product…”
Agile Retrospectives: The keys to them are they are by the team, for the team and take action from them right away. No filing it away in a dusty file cabinet.
I had an interesting conversation on #PMChat . While discussing bringing projects back from red, we got into learning from mistakes.  The question was:
“Q4. In his post @backfromred discusses the concepts of a ‘learning culture’ for project success. What does that mean to you? #PMChat
Rob Kelly (@rkelly976) tweeted:
 ” Actually conducting a lessons learned session, archiving them, AND using them later .”
Sidebar: So if you only just tuned into the Hogarth channel, let me just remind folks of my position. I think that agile values and principles can be applied in any company and at any layer to make better teams, better products and better companies. 
So it is untestable that I responded to Rob with:
“Don’t archive them. Pick at least two things and start doing them right away. “
Ron Rosenhead (@ronrosenhead) also replied to Rob with
“BUT: research suggests that people do not read lessons learned …#pmchat relying ons something that does not work”
And I jumped back with:
“Which is why you action them right out of the meeting. That’s the #agile model for retrospectives. Don’t file.
Whew, enough tennis,  let’s get to a point!
Agile retrospectives have a major component to them that so many other Lesson’s Learned models lack. That is immediate accountability and action. When you come out of a retrospective, you should have a clear decision on changes to make changes and have the “Who, Does What, By When” documented. If you don’t make a decision and don’t turn it into action items, then you get what Ron laments, a filed document that no one reads.
Now Rob came back with a great question.  I had a glib answer for at the time, but one that really got me thinking. He asked: “What about heavy contractor/turnstyle orgs?”
He raised a great point. There are many industries that roll most of the team every release. If the company is failing, some of the team might be let go. If the project was a success, some of the team is promoted. So what happens to the team? What happens to the collective knowledge?
What’s the point in doing an immediate results retrospective if there is no one left to enjoy it?
As fate would have it, I have just been reading Agile Retrospectives, by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. I read the last chapter today, after the PMChat, and found these words of wisdom.
“Even when the team doesn’t stay together, people take that learning with them to benefit other teams and other projects.”
Agile spends a lot of time looking at the team and sometimes we can easily forget that teams are made up of individual people. These people have their own career paths and arcs that will take them on varying courses over time. And that’s okay. Remember, this is the 21st century. This is the century I think will see project managers becoming the new “people manager.” In an era when few companies look after their employees careers, it falls to individuals like the project manager to help coach and guide the people on their teams. This goes to one of my core principles, that if you focus on the team, the product will follow.
If our focus is on the team, then we should exult when they are tapped for new projects, new promotions, new jobs. Manager Tools maintains that one of the best measure of a manager’s success is that they get their people promoted.
Instead of focusing on how the project will be impacted, recognize the value the team will get from that final retrospective. What lessons will they learn and take with them? How will this benefit the company, the industry, the world? Better teams are made up of better people. And a better world is made up of better people.
You do the math…
And if that wasn’t a compelling enough reason, think about the benefit to the company as a whole. From the same paragraph of Agile Retrospectives.
“Release and project retrospectives uncover organizational factors, policies and procedures that get in the way of the team – and these require coordination across areas to solve.”
Taking it back to being all about “Me.” If you have to go off and two version 2.0 of the project, the best team in the world isn’t going to matter if the supply chain looks more like a supply thread.
No matter what happens after the project, a retrospective will help all those involved to be better on the next team and the next project they are on. Better teams, make better projects.
You do the math…
Joel Bancroft-Connors
The Gorilla Talker
Want me to talk to your gorilla? Send me an email
You can follow me on twitter, @JBC_PMP

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