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Reinventing Retrospectives

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I’ve having trouble with my retrospectives. And I’m not the only one. Maybe we should reinvent them.

Mirror Some months ago I wrote that continuous reflection should take place with everything you do. Each action should end in a reflection, so that you continuously improve your life and work.

The suggestion was simple enough. Like the suggestion to eat healthy. To love your spouse. And read Shakespeare.

But, despite my best intentions, I sometimes realize I haven’t consciously reflected on any of my activities for several days. Sometimes even weeks go by before I remember to force myself to think and reflect on what I’m doing.

Yes, I want to reflect and improve, but somehow the effort is pushed aside by all kinds thoughts about other things. And then I understand the many teams that forget about their retrospectives. The intention is there, but the activity gets lots because our attention is grabbed by other tasks and interesting diversions. French fries are nice. The spouse wants to go shopping. And Robert Jordan wrote more than Shakespeare.

What to do?


I’ve thought about self-improvement before, and wrote about the four steps to self-development:

  1. Understanding importance vs. urgency;
  2. Working on time management skills;
  3. Not forgetting to do what’s important;
  4. Keeping intrinsic motivation high.

I realize that, in many cases, number 3 is the problematic one. We already know retrospectives are important; finding time to do them is not that hard; and we feel sufficiently motivated to develop ourselves.

But why do we always forget?

A higher level of thinking

Maybe it’s because reflection requires the brain to switch to another level of thinking. Our brains are not naturally wired to do that. It’s much easier to start with the next activity when the previous one is completed. To go with the flow. It’s like taking a turn with your car and driving down the next street. And then the next. And the next. And the next. Until you’ve arrived in Amsterdam.

But reflection is comparable to stopping your car, getting out, checking the tires, checking the oil level, and wondering for a moment if your destination is actually still worth going to (which you really should reflect on if you are heading to Amsterdam). The effort of such a small reflection is negligible on the average trip from one place to another. But for your brain a reflection is like booting another operating system. It requires the brain to stop doing whatever it’s doing and to lift itself up to a whole new level of thinking.

Most people aren’t good at that.

(Except in some places in Amsterdam, but that’s another matter.)

Reinventing retrospectives

Maybe we should find better ways to reflect on our life and work. Maybe we should find ways to integrate the learning into our regular activities, much like Kanban integrates continuous improvement into the regular flow of work by applying self-imposed constraints. Thinking about improvements should not be a separate step that requires a reboot of the brain. It should be part of the activity itself.

I want to think and reflect on this some more.

Let’s hope I don’t forget.

(image by Michael Gil)

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Published at DZone with permission of Jurgen Appelo .

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