alacrity in action
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Last week I was at one of my favourite Agile events of the year – the ACE! Conference in Kraków. It always attracts interesting speakers and this year was no different. But talks are only a small part of such event for the real value is often is the conversations that follow.

During a few talks this time I happened to have been sitting near Bob, in two of the talks speakers shared their ideas about retrospectives.

Monika talked about “Gamified Retrospectives” and Mark talked about “Retrospectives, the most boring meetings ever”. Both are very passionate and excellent speakers. Their talks were enjoyable, made important observations and shared interesting ideas about novel ways of improving retrospectives. However both Bob and I felt that they were focused on doing the wrong thing righter. Bob, it turned out, has already had some more thoughts on the topic in his “Retrospectives – Wronger and Righterblog post. We followed it up with a few conversations with others who were slightly concerned about our attitude. After all retrospectives are a cornerstone of many Agile teams. The main argument of the discussions was that retrospectives should reflect on a hypothesis stated before the work has started and too often they don’t.

Another aspect that I would like to draw your attention to is that retrospectives are prone to suffer from the Hawthorne effect. Read the full Wikipedia article but the essence is that

subjects improve or modify an aspect of their behaviour being experimentally measured simply in response to the fact that they know they are being studied

In other words retrospectives may be improving the way we work simply because we run them and not because they result in meaningful improvements to the way our system of work is organised.

You might ask, whether it’s that relevant. After all the team is achieving visible improvements anyway so do we need to care why? Well, we should, we should indeed and the two talks starkly brought this to my attention. They both gave many interesting and innovative ideas about how we could make our retrospectives more engaging, more motivating, different. (And, no, this summary doesn’t do justice to the two talks). So I asked myself: Why do we need to re-invent retrospectives, why do we constantly strive to turn the dial up to eleven? Perhaps that’s because the standard way of running them no longer works.

Our retrospectives are not sustainable.

The workers are being observed and they improve but as they get more used to this observation, improvements fade away so we need to keep changing the observation and experimentation to keep fuelling the Hawthorne effect and this loop eventually runs out.

Instead, let’s focus back on the loop that was always there at the heart of retrospective – the PDCA cycle. By all means, make your retrospectives fun, engaging, challenging, use the great ideas shared by Monika and Mark but make sure that you used them for validation of your hypotheses and to seek to create meaningful, objective changes to the way your work works.


  1. Hi Marcin, nice wrap-up of ace retrospectives topic and some other insights!
    One more idea to make retrospectives sustainable is to rotate facilitator for each meeting/event, so its not just organized by scrum master or team lead but by all team members. It will increase engagement even more (apart from using diff ideas like ones suggested by Monika and Mark)


  2. I’m confused. I don’t see a link between the “Hawthorne effect” and the fact that you need to have a “hypothesis” before the work starts.

    + I also think that a retrospective can be at the start of a PDCA cycle.

  3. Pingback: Andy's Mind » In defense of retrospectives

  4. It’s interesting to me that you don’t think that ‘our retrospectives are not sustainable’; sadly, (now that I understand the point we were discussing earlier a little better,) it’s the very reason that retrospectives continue to be run in the manner that they are, that they are sustainable. In my experience, retrospectives are something that are (just about) tolerated by the current orthodoxy and the fact that they never really challenge the status quo is the very reason they are sustainable.

    A greater amount of work needs to be done to introduce change by experimentation, I think, but to do that I also feel that a greater amount of work needs to be done to the way in which we communicate intent – all too often we can either scare people by using language such as experiment (even though I think that’s a better term than others such as ‘change’ itself) and thus don’t allow them an opportunity to contribute, or on other occasions tend too far the other way and send signals that suggest we’re just ‘having a go at something’, whereas our real intent is to learn.

    Thanks, Dan.

  5. Tomasz, Yves, Dan – Thank you for your comments.

    Yves – The link between the scientific method and the Hawthorne effect, in my mind, is that we are substituting the real improvements that could be obtained by making our assumptions and tests explicit up-front for a perceived improvements associated with just the fact of running retrospectives.

    I agree that a retrospective can be positioned at the start of the PDCA cycle but the whole cycle needs to be properly closed. I don’t think that by just agreeing on actions, then checking that they were carried out we are really completing the cycle. You really need to observe something, pose a hypothesis (whatever we want to call it), implement changes and validate the outcome. I don’t see that in the common “gather data, generate insights, decide actions” approach.


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