I recently wrote a blog post suggesting that one way to ensure nothing happens as the result of a retrospective is to neglect to capture action items. My colleague and friend Byron Katz offered up a response that suggested a lack of retrospective action is not the problem to be solved, rather it is a symptom of larger problems that won’t be fixed in a retrospective. 

I certainly recognize Byron’s concern that teams lacking the discipline to do something as simple as record and track action items in a retrospective are sometimes responding to much deeper organizational problems that leave them unwilling to even try to change. However, I find this position to be overly cynical.

If an organization is as dysfunctional as the one Byron describes in his post, he is certainly correct: no amount of action items are going to save the team or save the change agent’s job. Everyone may as well just move on, agile coaches included. 

In my experience, however, the situation is not usually that dire. Teams tend to live somewhere in between nirvana and the absolute clown show that Byron describes. More often than not, they are supported by the organization and are trying to do the right thing, but they aren’t having the success they want. 

I have worked with many teams that have the psychological safety and positive morale necessary to affect real change and watched them conduct productive retrospectives with great discussions and ideas for improvement. And yet, nothing changed. The reason, more often than not? No one actually took the time to write down the actions required to implement the improvements, prioritize them, and put them on the backlog to achieve.

It seems so simple on its face that one may conclude that the lack of action items must be due to something more nefarious. I find that in most cases, though, the reason isn’t a team is so beaten down by a toxic organization that they have given up all hope. It’s often one of less dire causes, such as:

  • Personalities that like to talk but lack the discipline to take notes
  • The team itself has some sort of internal dysfunction unrelated to the organization—a personality conflict between key team members, for example
  • Agile teams are busy, and everyone thinks someone else is going to handle it
  • The items seemed like such great and obvious ideas it just never occurred to anyone to write them down

Whatever it is, when I start having teams define concrete and executable action items, more of them get done and more visible improvements are made.

All that being said, even in Byron’s example where the organization is so broken that the scrum master must go out on a limb and risk his or her job to fight for the team’s ability to make even incremental improvements, without clear action items coming out of a retrospective, how will the scrum master know what is important to fight for? And how will the team know what the scrum master is doing to fight for them?

I appreciate Byron’s concern, as should we all, for the most dysfunctional of organizations, but I stand by the premise that no matter the level of dysfunction on a team or within an organization, action items are a simple, necessary, and effective way to give the team a fighting chance to make change happen. Are they the end-all and be-all? Certainly not. But I do know that one way to ensure that nothing changes is to have retrospectives that are all talk and no action.

Are your teams having productive retrospectives? Are you realizing the benefits of agile? If not, an agile coach can help. Learn more about our coaching capabilities and how we can help your organization improve.

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