Impromptu Retrospective

I’m surprised that I haven’t gotten this story down in print before. It’s something I’ve mentioned many times — including a few times on the podcast. It’s a great story about the power of retrospectives, and it’s a great story about the power of a blameless post-mortem.

I don’t recall all the specifics at this point. It was about 5 years ago. I’d just noticed that Arun had made some sort of mistake. That’s fine, people make mistakes. The thing that was different about his mistake was that I had made the same mistake about a week prior. And Amos had made the same mistake about a week before that.

Noticing a pattern of mistakes, Amos and I called an impromptu retrospective. We gathered all the developers into a conference room. We explained the problem that we were running into. At first, Arun was defensive. That’s understandable; he thought we were there to come down on him, to lay blame. But we made it clear that we weren’t focusing on him. We admitted that we had also made the same mistake recently. We weren’t there to lay blame; we were there to figure out how our team could stop making the mistake. It took Arun a few minutes to get over the defensiveness.

With the defensiveness out of the way, we could focus on the issue at hand. We were able to figure out the root cause of us all making the mistake. (I don’t know if we played the “5 whys” game, but I’m sure we effectively did something similar.) And with that, we were able to change our process, so that nobody else would make the same mistake again.

There are 2 important points to this story. First, you don’t have to wait until a scheduled retrospective to hold a retrospective. This one was impromptu, and it’s the best one we ever had. We saw a problem, addressed it, and found a solution in less than an hour. Had we waited until the end of the week, we would have forgotten some of the details, and wouldn’t have been as effective at solving the problem. Second, when addressing problems, take your ego out of the equation. If you’re in a position of authority, take the blame — but never place blame. Focus on what’s important — solving the problem.

And don’t forget the Retrospective Prime Directive:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.


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