Those of you who read Software Project Management regularly know for sure that I have sort of experimentation attitude. I like to try different things, see how they work and, if they sort of do, share my experience here with you. I’m particularly happy with a bunch of such concepts, one of them being ad-hoc retrospectives.
This story is more than a year old, but recently Bernd and Ilja from it-agile reminded me about it with their comments under the post.
A short version of the idea is that, instead of doing regular retrospectives bi-weekly, monthly, or whatever your cadence for retrospective is, you do a very short and focused ad-hoc discussion on a single problem raised by any team member. The outcome should be similar to what you get from a regular retro – an action point, or a bunch of them, aimed at solving the issue. In my case the whole mechanism proved to work very effectively. If this teaser sounds interesting I strongly encourage you to read the full story.
Both Bernt and Ilja pointed that I shouldn’t call it a retro. As Ilja puts it:
Retrospectives are more than just meetings where you solve problems you are already aware of, anyway.
Well, I guess we are in full agreement on this one. The only difference is I actually believe that even with ad-hoc retrospectives we are (usually) solving problems that we aren’t yet aware of. At least we aren’t when we launch the retro. Pretty often we start with just a symptom. Someone spots something that they think is worth discussing. So here we are – at ad-hoc retro.
First, we don’t have to agree that this is a real problem and often, initially, we don’t. Thus a discussion. Even though we actually are focused on this single starting point, we dig deeper trying to find some common denominator for our views.
Second, as I’ve already told you, we usually start with just a symptom. Quite often we are yet to discover, and address, a root problem.
Finally, we try to come up with some action points to fix a root cause we agree on.
Now, I happen to facilitate a bunch of regular retros recently and all of them seem to follow similar pattern, no matter the team or the organization. We start with a handful of things we like or don’t like, try to cluster them somehow, look for root causes and address them. However, it all starts with observations people make.
It’s not some kind of magic that tells us what we are doing wrong. It’s not an outsider who comes and blesses us with an epiphany. It’s not a scientific process which makes us come up with the right solution. It’s the team that finds it out by themselves.
In both cases: regular and ad-hoc retros the outcome is similar, the process is similar and even the same people do the job. The main difference is granularity. While during a regular retro we try to cover things which happened during a specific time-box, on ad-hoc retrospective we start with just a single idea. An idea we would write down on the on a sticky note at the very beginning of the next regular retro anyway. In other words we would bring it up as well, no matter the process.
I just wanted to add that another difference is, that during typical retros, not every problem is acted on. We usually try to focus just on a bunch of most important things at the moment. However, on a second thought it works the same with ad-hoc retrospectives. Sometimes after a brief discussion we just decide to leave a thing alone for the time being. We either don’t share views of a person who proposed the issue or don’t see any action points that we could agree on or whatever else. So similarly to regular retrospectives the outcome can be “do nothing” too.
If nothing so far convinced you that both concepts are surprisingly similar I have a question about a purpose of retrospectives. It is improvement, isn’t it? We want to do better in future that we’ve just done. If so, we can perfectly do this job using both approaches. Of course, depending on a team’s maturity I would go with one or another, but that’s a totally different story.
Of course we can bring it down to some orthodox discussion over definitions, but don’t count in. I’m more into solving problems than arguing over definitions. It just feels more useful.