Reinventing Retrospectives

I’ve having trouble with my retrospectives. And I’m not the only one. Maybe we should reinvent them.

Some months ago I wrote that continuous reflection should take place with everything you do. Each action should end in a reflection, so that you continuously improve your life and work.

The suggestion was simple enough. Like the suggestion to eat healthy. To love your spouse. And read Shakespeare.

But, despite my best intentions, I sometimes realize I haven’t consciously reflected on any of my activities for several days. Sometimes even weeks go by before I remember to force myself to think and reflect on what I’m doing.

Yes, I want to reflect and improve, but somehow the effort is pushed aside by all kinds thoughts about other things. And then I understand the many teams that forget about their retrospectives. The intention is there, but the activity gets lots because our attention is grabbed by other tasks and interesting diversions. French fries are nice. The spouse wants to go shopping. And Robert Jordan wrote more than Shakespeare.

What to do?


I’ve thought about self-improvement before, and wrote about the four steps to self-development:

  1. Understanding importance vs. urgency;
  2. Working on time management skills;
  3. Not forgetting to do what’s important;
  4. Keeping intrinsic motivation high.

I realize that, in many cases, number 3 is the problematic one. We already know retrospectives are important; finding time to do them is not that hard; and we feel sufficiently motivated to develop ourselves.

But why do we always forget?

A higher level of thinking

Maybe it’s because reflection requires the brain to switch to another level of thinking. Our brains are not naturally wired to do that. It’s much easier to start with the next activity when the previous one is completed. To go with the flow. It’s like taking a turn with your car and driving down the next street. And then the next. And the next. And the next. Until you’ve arrived in Amsterdam.

But reflection is comparable to stopping your car, getting out, checking the tires, checking the oil level, and wondering for a moment if your destination is actually still worth going to (which you really should reflect on if you are heading to Amsterdam). The effort of such a small reflection is negligible on the average trip from one place to another. But for your brain a reflection is like booting another operating system. It requires the brain to stop doing whatever it’s doing and to lift itself up to a whole new level of thinking.

Most people aren’t good at that.

(Except in some places in Amsterdam, but that’s another matter.)

Reinventing retrospectives

Maybe we should find better ways to reflect on our life and work. Maybe we should find ways to integrate the learning into our regular activities, much like Kanban integrates continuous improvement into the regular flow of work by applying self-imposed constraints. Thinking about improvements should not be a separate step that requires a reboot of the brain. It should be part of the activity itself.

I want to think and reflect on this some more.

Let’s hope I don’t forget.

(image by Michael Gil)

Jurgen is an experienced author, trainer, and speaker. Why don’t you hire him to add some spice to your company event or seminar?

  • Win a Signed Copy of Management 3.0
  • Agile Management Course (beta): Prologue
Related Posts
free book
“How to Change the World”
  • Radu Davidescu

    Sticking with simple but hard to put in practice advices, mine is as follows:
    “Do less!”
    If you are an ambitious person that always striving for more and better, you are tempted to do more! Sometimes doing more, affects the quality, mostly in terms of lack retrospection and feedback tracking. How less should we do?! IMHO until we ain’t forget anymore to retrospect or to collect feedback.
    I’ve never keept agenda in more than 10 years of corporate activity. If your agenda it’s something that your brain cannot handle, maybe it’s not a wise thing to commit to that agenda after all.
    The trick is to leverage well the “Do less!” and transform from plain lazy to the great idea of:
    “Less is more!”

  • Poul Andreassen

    The article you have presented has riddled out intricate structure of retrospectives into a simple structure. I hope other also understand the effectiveness of this article as well!

  • Joel

    Great article, and blog which serves as awesome reading material whilst bored at work this final week!

  • Nathan Lai

    When everything is doing well, I always forget to retrospect. I become careless until the problem that hiding comes up to the surface. In my opinion, most of the problems can be prevent if I retrospect often. This article reminds me that I need to do retrospective at least once a day. I used to do the meditation before sleep for peace of mind and retrospective my whole day activities. Retrospective is important to enforce me to flashback to what I did and have lessons learned. There is always the room for development and the development is accumulating. I will restart my meditation from today.
    Thank you.

How to Change the World - free Workout - free