Tag Archives: retrospectives

Whabout retropectives & defeating the shame monster?

I just wrote a long (2 part) post about retrospectives and blame. I didn’t post it here, because, well… it wasn’t really a question, at the time. I didn’t feel like I was coming from a “please help me understand” place. This is where I know my stuff.

But anyway, you should read them. I don’t even know how to begin to summarize, so I wont. It’s
Retropectives, blame and the Prime Directive, Part 1
Retropectives, blame and the Prime Directive, Part 2

The good news is that at the end a question came up! Which gives me an excuse to post them here. ^__^

Here’s the question: Whabout shame?

So to coaches who are into accepting what is, not blaming, looking at root causes and meeting people with honesty, empathy and fondness (see part 2, above), what do you do about the shame people bring to the situation? What if you want to ask with HEF :) “what might be going on for you when you show up at 9:20 when our meeting’s at 9?” and you’re met with defensiveness and obfuscation?

I’m not talking about the occasional outlier, who’s extra defensive about everything. I’m talking about the whole range of folks, from that, to people who are pretty laid back (and/or practiced in meditation, because they’re not at all laid back—that would be me). All of us have a hard time with criticism, to some extent. Some are more aware, and some are less. How do we get past that shame on an individual basis, so we can talk about what is happening with an eye to improving things?

(I want to hear what you have to say regardless, but I imagine my question will make more sense, and your answer be more relevant to that question, if you read the original posts first.)

Geeps speaks…

Hmmmmm. This, I think, is why we pay you the big bucks, bringing up complications like these.

Shame is a tremendous force in most people’s lives. It seems to urge a body towards excellence, but what it really does is tell a body to feel bad. Ooops.

In our way of excellence, shame is an enemy. Shame is the thing that prevents people from trying.

What do retrospectives look like?

In The Art of Agile Development, Shore and Warden describe a way of holding retrospectives.

They start with Norm Kerth’s Prime Directive (which is enough to make me love Agile, all by itself). Then, they plan out 30 minutes of brainstorming, ending with sticking cards up on a board. After that is ten minutes of a game called “mute mapping”. Folks put the cards together that they think go together, but no one can speak. (I wonder if there are mimed fights over cards, and how funny they’d look.)

Still in that second ten minutes, they progress to grouping the cards into categories, and then voting (by physically approaching the board again) on which categories are the best candidates for improvement.

Once the voting is done, they select the winning category, and put aside all the other cards. (Future retrospectives can deal with those.) During this 20 minutes, some time is put into root cause analysis, and brainstorming ideas for improving things. The group then forms a consensus or votes to determine the one idea they’ll implement during the next iteration.


Being a student, I’ve only been part of one Agile retrospective. For that one, we sat in a circle. We were all pretty happy to be doing what we were doing (teaching & learning Agile-type Java programming in a prison), so we got the happies out of the way. Then we talked about what we might want to shift. People suggested changing things, other people said they liked it the way it was. Vice versa. It was all very laid back. Of course, we were retrospecting a one-day session, in preparation for the next one-day session. Hardly a Serious Agile Project.

So I’m wondering.

What are retrospectives like? Is the Prime Directive really taken seriously? (Oh, please say yes!) Do people do a sort of party-game thing with post-its and magnets and stuff, like in the book? Or are “real” retrospectives more like the one we had in prison? I’m curious!

GeePawHill sez…

Retrospectives take all kinds of form. I sometimes go as simply as writing down goods and bads, identifying the samenesses, and pick one or two that *I* want them to talk about.

Other times, I do things much more as Shore and Warden describe.

Strange as it may seem to say, tho, I have never attended or given a retrospective where we did not mention explicitly that the session was to be bound by the prime directive.

And yes, that does make retrospectives totally cool right from the get-go. I think they are at least a step towards the incredible methodology my friend Steve Doubleday once told me. In Steve’s method, there are only two rules: 1) don’t waste time, and 2) accept the whole person. (Notice that’s not the same as “accept everyone”.)

To me the prime directive reaches toward radical acceptance.