The Brain Science behind an Agile Retrospective

The Agile Project Manager retrospectiveLong time readers will know I’m a bit passionate about human behaviour and how the brain works. I love applying this passion to my work in projects, because project teams are special communities of amazing people. And when brought together in the right way with their talents recognised, they can create magic. The total value of the team is greater than the sum of their parts. In order for an Agile team to hum along in the best way, there are a number of ‘ceremonies’ that the team does together. These ceremonies are simply tools to assist. A great Agile Project Manager will use them in a way that gets the very best from the team.

Why a Retrospective?

A retrospective is a great opportunity to reflect on the previous Iteration or Sprint. This can be a time period of 2-4 weeks, or perhaps longer. The purpose of a retrospective is to gather learnings and apply them to the next Sprint. Because when we learn, we improve. It is also great to acknowledge the good things that have happened over the course of the time period, and make sure the team knows the value of their work. The best way to encourage participation is to use visual aids such as sticky notes or textas on butchers paper.

The Order of a Retrospective

Edward de Bono, in his book The Six Thinking Hats, says that there are a number of ways to think, and we can’t think in every way all at once. We must choose a focus, put our thinking into that, and move on. He insists that the first way we should think is with the White Hat, which focuses on just facts. This is why we open a retrospective with a reminder of what went on, the time period, and people involved. It’s also a great way to remind the team why they are here and how it will be run. Even the most experienced Agile teams will appreciate this introduction, as let’s face it, there’s a lot going on in our lives, it’s great to be reminded of facts so our focus is set.

Once understanding the facts and purpose of the session, the best way to start is to get everyone to think about what has not gone well (or the Black Hat). “Start with that? That’s a bit negative, don’t you think?” is sometimes the indignant reply. Well, the brain science here is, whether we like it or not, the unconscious mind is better at remembering the bad things. The good thing about this is that the ideas flow, and before you know it, your board is full of sticky notes. Once grouped, and the team is happy that their thoughts are represented and the themes are understood, we can move on to the ‘what went well’.

Moving on from negative to positive effectively collapses an anchor, encouraging the team to move AWAY from negative and TOWARD  a positive new future. Because the ideas have flown, the unconscious mind is now open to more things, so the positives will flow more freely than they would have if you had opened with the positive. This also means the team is primed and ready to talk about action planning and the things that need to be done to improve the next Sprint. These are known as the Green and Blue Hats respectively. Of course, all the way through, people are encouraged to think with their Red Hat on, which deals with emotions. If something made you feel a certain way, then share it. Perceptions are just as important as reality.

Action Planning

By working this way, the unconscious mind is guided easily and effortlessly to think, contribute and plan actions. A great retrospective does not take too long either. The Agile Project Manager will group input quickly and effectively, encouraging conversation when it serves the room, and taking other conversations off line for another time. By finishing with action planning, the team have purpose and focus, and are ready to continue to do great work.

Sidenote 1: Some teams like to do ‘what still confuses me’. It can be helpful early in a project and done after the ‘what has not gone well’. Usually what a good team will realise is that what confuses them is actually a ‘what has not gone well’. If you do not feel that enough has come out in ‘not gone well’, ‘what still confuses me’ can be useful.

Sidenote 2: If you don’t believe me and would like to give the ‘what has gone well’ a go first, by all means try. The first time I did this (admittedly I was very inexperienced), I was met with crickets…



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About Emma Sharrock

Emma is the author of The Agile Project Manager: Thrive in Change with Agile. An experienced change leader, Emma is passionate about working with people to facilitate successful change. Emma utilises Agile techniques, coupled with the Agile mindset to coach leaders and teams to achieve their business goals.