Three Column Retrospectives Are Killing Your Teams

It was about three years before I saw a retrospective that didn’t have the basic three-column setup. You know, the one where you have +, -, Change. Maybe yours is start, stop, continue.

That was seven years ago, and I’d say 95% of the time that three-column retrospective is what everyone is doing.

And they aren’t better for it.

Poor Decisioning

That layout typically has people fill out things that didn’t go well, then things that did, and finally list the improvements they want. If the facilitator is half good, they’ll cull that list of actions down to just a few.

The hiccup here is that listing bad things and good things doesn’t exactly make an ironclad approach to making decisions. That is a pro and con list. Those are so ineffective they are a gag in most TV shows.

Here, list bad things in your life and then good things. Now make a list of improvements. Did everything sort out?

Of course not. Making actual improvement is a lot harder, and the improvements that come from this activity are obvious, empty, and unapproachable, like people saying they want to eat healthily and exercise.

Assumptions Abound

But buried behind the actions is a more dangerous issue: they are made with the assumption that things will actually get better.

Sometimes this isn’t a problem, but most of the changes teams come up with are just their feelings about what would be best without any real evidence to support it. Everyone just assumes it will be an improvement.

If you could snap your finger and make those things happen, you’d find a lot of things stayed the same, some actually got worse, and maybe a few got better. The spread of results is because the assumptions behind the changes weren’t valid.

A good action has evidence and data to support the change as being a positive one. The three-column retro can’t do it.

Missing Insight

My biggest problem with the three-column setup is that it is missing a critical step. The missing step is when the team develops an insight about themselves, their work, or their company.

Insight is a fancy word for having an “Ah-ha” moment.

When teams do that retrospective without insight, they can only list disconnected actions and ideas. Insight is what lets the team see the deeper connections behind why things are the way they are. Without it, it’s a shot in the dark.

When a team has insight into their work, team, or company, their resulting actions will likely alter the machinations behind what is going on. The actions they take will have a connection to the world they live in.

Equipped with insight, teams don’t list a change like “Fix tech debt,” which is aspirational and pointless. They will instead come up with something specific that targets the problem because they see the connection. They may come up with something like, “Run a linter before committing.” This discrete step would have been born out of an insight connecting the generation of tech debt to the way they currently work.

Without insight, the actions the team creates are disconnected and unachievable.

Generate More Insight

So the challenge to those running retrospectives is to focus on facilitating the team by looking at what they’ve discussed and created to begin to make connections between them.

There are numerous ways to begin to do this. One easy way is to ask the group to group the items they’ve created into themes. By doing this, they are acknowledging connections between things.

Another way is to do a verbal debrief based on ORID. This will have them internalize the items and make connections.

Another could be to do a variation on TRIZ and ask them how they could turn the dial to 10 on the bad or good things. To turn the dial, they must understand some causality between items to amplify them.

Getting the group to develop a deeper insight will lead to better actions they might accomplish. There is more to it than that, but if you’ve been doing those three-column retros, it’s time to stop.