Norman on Agile Retrospectives

At my work (I'm a software engineer) we follow a methodology called agile. The basic idea is to split up our work into small goals and complete them in short time spans, then create new goals with what we learned. There are many aspects (entire books) but the one that I want to talk about is the retrospective.


Every week, we meet as a team in what we call a retrospective. This is a time where we reflect on what we did, and come up with ideas for improvement. This is exactly what Norman in his book, Things That Make Us Smart talks about in chapter two. He states, "two kinds of cognition: experiential and reflective. He argues that without both of these forms of thought, we cannot be productive and successful. The retrospective meeting is a perfect example of reflective thought.

The reflective mode is that of comparison and contrast, of thought, of decision making.

Don Norman Page 16

A common approach to retrospection, pioneered by the agile community is using a three step process. Of all the things we do, come up with one practice for each of the following:

  1. Start doing
  2. Stop doing
  3. Continue doing

Taken from the famous Mountain Goat Software's guide to agile practices.

This gives team members a framework to think about the past, how it has affected them, and how they can change it. It also gives an opportunity to think about what went well, and ways to improve, not because there's a problem, but because there was a success.

We banned talking from nine to noon.

Most retrospective meetings focus on the first two. It's much easier to think of ways to change what is bad than to build on what is good. This has led to our team changing what and how we write code dramatically. Our most recent decision: We banned talking from nine to noon. This gave us the morning to work hard on what we need to get accomplished during our most productive hours, leaving the afternoon for more menial tasks and meetings.