I disagree with the premise of my esteemed colleague’s thoughtful essay about renewing the focus on creating and handling action items from retrospectives.
Let me be clear about my specific disagreement. While I do agree with him on the value of action items, I believe that the lack of action items, and the lack of execution on them, is a symptom, rather than a cause, of a deeper and crucial problem. We should refocus our time and energy on solving that.
I believe that the lack of action items, and the lack of execution on them, is a symptom, rather than a cause, of a deeper and crucial problem.
Most people are good at determining when they’re doing something potentially dangerous—like writing a retort of a colleague’s essay on the company blog. In most cases, the retrospective is a dangerous activity; the outcome of suggesting improvements is often a net negative. If we make a suggestion without considering the political ramifications, or try taking on more than we can do in the already stressful circumstances, it might be too much for us or the team.
People are rational enough to either stop suggesting things in the first place or else carry out the actions in a way that minimizes the risk. Approaches may include putting items on an action list no one will carry out (pretty safe: “shows we’re team players”) or not creating an action item list at all. These behaviors are subtle, and thus we commonly focus on the immediately apparent problems, such as a lack of action items, or trying to make the meeting more entertaining.
To be clear, this is not just about psychological safety. Most teams lack control over their choices—neither timing nor budget nor tools nor process. They are expected to deliver too much with insufficient time, commonly operating at a frantic pace, cutting corners and adding technical debt. There are real concerns with committing to action items for which there is no time, or no empowerment to change.
There are real concerns with committing to action items for which there is no time, or no empowerment to change.
I agree with my colleague’s assessment about seeking out easy improvements. However, the continuous improvement / retrospective space is some of the toughest ground to tread in the agile concept, depending on a combination of empowerment, psychological safety, sufficient time to work, and so on. If we want to improve a retrospective, we must be fearless about focusing on the root problem.
I believe that the lack of action from retrospectives is an intentional and considered choice. From the participants’ perspective, the benefits of doing nothing are clear and paramount. The deep fix would seek to cause that calculus to change. It’s a hard job, but I do suggest that we focus on those opportunities that change the underlying risk-assessment calculus of the team.
If you are the coach or Scrum master, muster up your courage and be seen as going out on a risky limb for the team by taking the list to management and making a clear and forceful case. Make it clear to the team that you are going to argue hard, even to your own detriment. Don’t back down, be a major fighter for change.
Make it clear to the team that you are going to argue hard, even to your own detriment. Don’t back down, be a major fighter for change.
Provide a way for the team to anonymously brainstorm ideas in advance. A common problem is that after several years many people are invested in safety, are reluctant to try dangerous things for only a possibility of success, or are even so jaded that they will actively work to halt initiatives.
That said, it behooves us to be mindful of our environment, and when suggesting changes, to be cognizant of any negative impacts from the ripples. Careful timing and scoping of changes can provide a ramp-up to deeper beneficial changes. Here, I am merely saying that we should seek out the all-around win, which considers the effects to parties such as middle management. Wild changes tend to cause harm, but agile embraces making many small and mild changes that can be accommodated over time. Drinking a glass of water is a lot easier than a barrel.
Potentially, the team will start to recognize a visionary leader in their midst and begin to wake up. Unless that leader was fired for insubordination. (Ha ha. ha…)
“And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” —Niccolò Machiavelli
The team members have carried out a thoughtful and long-running risk-analysis, and the results are in. A change agent must do something to cause that calculation to change. Insisting they write out action items does not start to touch that.