How To Do Better Retrospectives?


I hate Retrospectives. It’s an expensive and time-wasting meeting. I don’t see real problems being aired and addressed. Rather, I see a lot of self-promotion and a pinch of git-blames going around.

Here’s how I sit through a Retrospective:
I usually spend a few minutes cherry-picking a story in your head. Preferably striking a balanced between a positive note and a collectively-known problem facing the team. And then once that’s done, I just stare into blank space, wait my turn, say my story, and then return to that same spot on the wall.

I think the right place for these styles of conversation are in therapy, church cell group, self-help workshops, etc. The nature of work is just different.

The workplace is a political, judgmental and professional. As much as we pretend that we are a ‘team’ or a ‘family’, once a manager pays a salary for deliverables, a power dynamic is created. By default, this creates the circumstances where politics is needed to compare relative worth, judgement is needed to determine performance and professionalism is needed to justify the salary. The nature of work is just different. Once you layer judgement, politics and professionalism, censorship becomes inevitable and that makes Retrospectives useless.

Retrospectives will tend towards this garden variation of topics: A pedestal to humble-brag. An award ceremony (thank you so and so for this sprint’s effort). Lip service. Airing collectively-known and surface-level problems. A veiled blame game. A blatant blame game.

The exception to these topics would be when a staff or manager is overly earnest to share because he/she is oblivious to the dynamics at play.

I hate Retrospectives too? What can I do instead?

If you are a manager that feels this way. Good. You may consider stopping Retrospectives and do the hard work of listening to and engaging with your employees. Employees will have things that block their progress and affect their motivation. Knowing enough to address these issues is part of your responsibility to the team and the company. This often requires earning the trust of your team members and that is difficult.

The reality is that team members will air their grievances, share their learnings and celebrate their successes in their own way, at their own time. It could happen on a private slack channel, over a beer, or during lunch. Those are the closest to when Retrospectives questions are addressed. You may be in some of those conversations, but by default, you will never (and should not aspire to be) in all of them.

If you are a team member that feels this way, I empathize with your predicament. You can join the silent protest by going to my random Retrospective response generator at link (not done). Let’s stand together in silent protest by offering more generic and house-brand-white-bread responses to let the world know about the modern software development hell that is the Retrospective.

“Hello. My name is human. And sometimes things go well and some times things go not so well. Can I go now?”