When Retrospectives Go Wrong: All Talk and No Action

I’ve talked with a number of people who dislike retrospectives, and I feel a common reason they dislike them is that they feel that things don’t change. It’s all very well talking about problems, like what occurred and why, however when they come up with solutions, they still keep finding the same things coming up over and over again.

I, and several facilitators I’ve talked to, have many good reasons for holding retrospectives without being excessively focused on action items as it can be a useful place for different members of the team to better relate to each other’s problems and understand each other’s situations. On the other hand, you want to avoid creating situations where they feel they can’t work on their problems or they are not making progress.

Regardless of whether or not problems persist, I feel retrospectives still serve as a useful tool for highlighting these problems. Like Information Radiators, they are simply showing you where pain points lie. They don’t automatically make them go away.

The question I ask people about these situations is “What did the team do to make the problems go away?”, and “How did they approach fixing their own problems?”. I’ve seen a few retrospectives where the actions involve people outside of the retrospective, and committing them to changing external environments.

Some useful techniques for dealing with this include Bas’s Planning for Action, or by creating and ensuring that better action items are created. Perhaps they’re too big and they never get done, or perhaps action items are too general for them to be really executable. Creating action items that the team have no control over, and involve people not present in the retrospective are generally never realised. Focusing on smaller, more specific action items that the team actually has an ability to influence ensures that at least incremental progress is made and sometimes that’s enough.

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