Reawakening Retros: Good Habits versus Bad Routines

Sprint Retrospective
“We had a few good Retrospectives, but they stopped working;” “I don’t know what the point of this is anymore;” “Maybe this Retro thing was a good idea once, but we need to try something else.” “Can we just finish this so we can get back to work?”

These are the kinds of things we say when a repeating process like Team Retrospectives that used to work or maybe seemed to work once has stopped feeling useful. In a moment like that, the process itself (the Retro) feels like the problem, or at least it’s not helping—it’s taking us away from “getting our real work done.”

The Retro has shifted from being a good habit to a bad routine.

What’s going on here? Philosophy and psychology tell us that we can intuitively recognize when a process like a retro is working, even if we can’t always tell why it’s working. On the other hand when a process isn’t working, we’re sometimes tempted to throw the baby out with the bathwater, dump the process or at least minimize our investment in it in order to get back to “the real work.”

Human beings are complex creatures—it’s not just important that we do something but why we do it. When we lose touch with “why” we’re doing something like a Retro and focus only on the fact that we did it, we’ve reduced a process that’s supposed to make us smarter and more effective to a routine, a box to be checked.

Naturally none of us literally forgets what the Retro is for! But when the Retro becomes just a required routine, we begin to act as if we’ve forgotten its original purpose. Recovering and reawakening our original sense of purpose can be uncomfortable because it means interrupting what we’re doing, stopping, and asking “why?” questions: why are we doing this? Why are we feeling disengaged, frustrated, as if we’re wasting valuable time? Why was the retro supposed to be helpful in the first place?

Practical questions to help get a Retro back on track can include:

  •      What’s our most important objective in this meeting?
  •      What nagging issue haven’t we addressed yet?
  •      Why are we feeling disengaged? How has this meeting stopped feeling useful?

We may look to the ScrumMaster to be guardian of our Retro process, but in reality it’s up to each of us to raise our hand if things get stuck, risk a little discomfort, and ask the question: “Can we talk about why we’re doing this?”

Resources for further reflection:

Charles S. Peirce, founder of the philosophy of Pragmatism, wrote that when our “habits of mind” no longer seem to work, we feel doubt, which leads us to actively inquire by asking key questions.

William James, founder of American psychology, wrote that habit tends to “diminish the conscious attention with which our acts are performed,” meaning that we need to wake up periodically to why we’re doing what we’re doing, or else even good habits can become empty routines.

About the Author

Marc Applebaum combines a unique depth of experience in executive coaching and team-building with psychological research expertise. He has coached business founders, senior managers, and business teams for more than 15 years, enabling them to lead, communicate, and manage changes more confidently. He works in a hands-on way with leaders and teams to identify, confront, and work through obstacles to effectiveness and creativity. Marc has worked with a variety of startups and well-established businesses in the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley. Clients have included biotech, ecommerce, advertising, design, and health & wellness businesses. What unifies his clients is their desire to achieve greater personal and team effectiveness, improved clarity in decision-making, and a sense of greater sense of ease and confidence in the midst of constant activity.

Marc is a member of the faculty of Psychology and Interdisciplinary Inquiry at Saybrook University in San Francisco and is a published researcher, serving on the Editorial Board of several psychology journals. He is currently conducting a study interviewing Silicon Valley executives on their experiences of unexpected leadership challenges.