We all know retrospectives. Love em, hate em, it doesn’t really matter since they’re not going anywhere. But, why are they called that way, and what makes them so important?
retrospection the action of looking back on or reviewing past events or situations, especially those in one’s own life.
The important word here is reviewing, but it doesn’t really reflect the meaning we give our retrospective meetings yet, does it? There’s one very important part missing: continuous improvement. The whole idea of the retrospection is to review past actions in order to improve upon them. But there are no value judgments. The actions reviewed are neither good nor bad, they just are. And that brings me to what’s perhaps the most important part of a Retrospective:
Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand. Ben Linder - Project Retrospectives
Some call this the Prime Directive and for me, this is what truly gives value to a retrospective. Everything before this is just fancy talk for venting and finger-pointing. But as soon as this is introduced, we change the focus from actions to people. Actions in this context don’t have any intrinsic value but coupled with a person’s ability to improve upon them and they become gigantic.
If we assume that everything was done as best as we possibly could at that point, then any improvement that happens from there will be one of pushing our limits a bit further. And this is powerful. Suddenly we’re not just fixing mistakes. We’re actively getting better in a way that will allow us to commit less and, perhaps more importantly, different mistakes in the future.
Retrospection must also part from the acceptance that we live in an imperfect reality. But imperfection brings with it something else: the capability to improve. A retrospective is at it’s most valuable when no part of the team believes the current process is perfect. This is the reason why mistakes are fine and almost necessary. A team that doesn’t commit mistakes is a team that’s not very good at identifying them.
It’s ok to be imperfect. It means we can always improve. And oh what a boring world it would be if we couldn’t.