From the Princess Bride

Leadership is a critical requirement to attain any significant goal.  The transmission mechanism from leadership to action (and back again) can be distilled into a finite set of actions.  These actions represent a cycle.  Good leaders hit every step in this cycle.  Good leaders: (more…)

The team owns the results of a retrospective!

The team owns the results of a retrospective!

Early in the adoption of Agile of someone will often ask, “What is the difference between an Agile retrospective and the classic postmortem?” Three mindset differences stand out in particular:  action, permission and ownership.

Tim Lister made one of the most important comments I have ever heard on the idea of “lessons learned”. Tim said, in essence – if the end-of-project lessons learned were really important, then we would begin every project with an obligatory reading of lessons learned. I have never seen that ritual performed. Agile retrospectives occur at point of usefulness, rather than at the end of the project. They are about changing how the project is being done now rather than about how a project might be done later. The bias in the Agile retrospective is for taking action today rather than action tomorrow.

The second major mindset difference is a focus on the meeting the needs of the Agile team, rather than addressing the needs of the standard process. Agile retrospectives focus on how work is being done today which involves scrutinizing team skills, capacity and processes. The retrospective is about finding changes that will allow the team to deliver more value than the last sprint. The team is in charge of identifying and making changes. The team doesn’t need to ask for permission to make changes. In a classic postmortem, because the focus is on the standard process, the team can only make recommendations.  Why the focus on the standard process? Because classically at the end of a project teams are disbanded and reformed, therefore findings that involve how individuals work together do not make sense.

This final mindset difference may sound a bit repetitive, but it is not. An Agile retrospective is a team tool, whereas the classic postmortem is done for the organization (e.g Engineering Process Group or management). Postmortem attendees can include anyone involved in the project or supporting the process. Classic postmortems collect information about the project for later use. Whether metrics, process improvement recommendations or lessons learned, the information is collected for posterity. The deliverable of a postmortem is a formal report that may well become shelfware. Participation in an Agile retrospective generally only includes core team members – the Scrum Master, the development team and the Product Owner.   The only deliverable generally created is notes that are taken needed to plan actions for the next sprint or about obstacles that the Scrum Master will focus on removing. Any documentation that is created is for the team and not for consumption elsewhere.

The differences between Agile retrospectives and postmortems boil down differences in mindset.  Agile retrospectives have a bias for action.  Agile retrospectives are about making changes in how work is being done.  The team does not need permission to make the changes demanded by an Agile retrospective. Finally Agile retrospectives are done to help the team, rather than a means of validating and maintaining a standard process.

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Retrospectives: A Social Event

3-23 2013 action

The world we live in is noisy and getting noisier. Every day new information channels are being created. Determining which bit of noise is important has become as critical a skill as any in the modern world. Tom Davenport suggested a model in his book Attention Economy for how data transitions from noise to action. Davenport opined that attention leads to awareness, which is a prerequisite to action. Since our capacity for action is limited, having a filtering process so that you only take action when it is needed is another important skill.

If you need to get someone’s attention, then being loud and outrageous makes sense. More noise  means you have to be nosier! It is a vicious cycle. The ability to gather and filter the information from the noise is being taken to new levels, according to the Nova Podcast: Engineering Senses.  People are now engineering themselves by adding sensors to gather even more data from the world around them. One person had magnets surgically implanted so they could “sense” magnetic fields. Unfortunately, even though we might have better data gathering mechanism we still need to time and space to focus before we can take action. Each step acts as both a funnel and a filter. We will always be confronted with a funnel in which our ability to pay attention and then to be aware and then final to take action is a logistics exercise in which our capacity to think about a topic is the scarce resource. Descartes said “ I think, therefore I am” perhaps today he might have said “I filter, therefore I am.”

Competing For Attention

Attention is both the scarcest and most sought after resource. Whether a university bulletin board, television ad or board room the competition for attention is fierce. All of this competition for attention generates an enormous amount of noise and the natural tendency is to yell louder (causing more noise).

Being aware the environment is a noisy competition for attention mean that you have to understand the linkage noise and action. To succeed we need to create an environment where awareness can be channeled so those we are targeting will have a chance at being aware that our message exists. Tom Davenport suggests a model that begins with awareness, which is then filtered by attention to generate specifics from which action can be taken in his book The Attention Economy. This simple model helps us understand that getting someone to take action has prerequisites.

Attention is needed to provide input into the change equation and then to synthesize that input into information. Normal interaction between everyone affected by the change will create some tension because of the difference in day-to-day goals which are needed to generate a specific focus or attention. Tension and clashing, however, are two very different scenarios. Developing an understanding and tolerance for each of the voices matters because each role speaks for a different audience; each role may have separate organizational goals and because unless you recognize these differences you will create conflict. The increase in the environmental noise caused when goals conflict will slow action by clouding awareness and potentially distracting attention from what is important – delivering value.

It is nearly impossible to avoid noise but not impossible to direct awareness and then help focus attention on your message. Remember that you can’t shortcut the equation awareness, attention and action just by yelling louder.