Monday, December 8, 2014

"We don't want to waste time on retrospectives."

As I've been running retrospectives, I've noticed something interesting around how much time we spend on them.

I've been on teams that decided to run retrospectives every 3 weeks. They picked a list of oversized changes, which didn't get implemented, so people stopped seeing the retros as valuable. If there was a scheduling conflict, a retro would get skipped, which just made the problem worse.

On my current team, we do retrospectives every week. The first one took 90 minutes, and triggered a lot of comments complaining about how long it took. I knew that if I wanted to get people to actually show up to weekly retros, I would have to limit the size to the more socially acceptable 60 minutes.

One tool I used was to ask each person to arrive with exactly one item (rant or rave) that they want to give attention to. That helped a lot with the time spent, without hurting value too much (although after a few iterations, we got more efficient from practice and people asked to go back to multiple items.)

I actually think we're optimizing the wrong way, though: if 90 minutes / week isn't worth it, then instead of reducing the cost, I'd rather increase the value. I prefer effectiveness over efficiency. There's a lot of latent potential upside here, focusing on efficiency optimizes for the status quo. I'd like to accelerate our improvements by having retros even more often (daily?!?!), but I am sure that idea would meet heavy resistance (and undermine my credibility.)

I've noticed an odd phenomenon that suggests that optimizing for time is not the right choice: at the end of each formal retrospective, when the meeting is officially done, about 1/2 the group sticks around and continues to discuss how we work. This sometimes goes on for another 90 minutes. Something similar happens at lunch. So clearly, there is a real need for more of this introspection. I just think that the formality of the scheduled retro is something people can't tolerate for more than 60 minutes / week.

It's strange that I hear the comments about "wasting too much time on retros", while people's actual actions show that they really are interested in devoting their time in this space.

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