The Retrospectives Tribe

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And here’s your friendly neighborhood Agile Archivist, wishing you a Happy New Year! I’ve recently been working with a new project, which has kept me away from blogging and more generally from keeping up with the Agile community at large.

A calendar year has just ended, and a new one begun; this is generally considered an appropriate occasion for a retrospective. However, this will not be a “2012 retrospective post”! Not that there isn’t ample material – in 2012 the Agile Alliance rolled out the Guide to Agile Practices, the Conference Archive, and this very blog, for instance. But I’m more interested in the story of how Retrospectives, as a practice, came to occupy such a central place in Agile.The phrase “project retrospectives” seems to have been in use as early as 1993 in the context of software process improvement efforts (Davies & Dumont 1993), roughly as a synonym for the much more common “project review” or “post mortem”.

As a distinct practice, project retrospectives emphasized informal but facilitated and structured meetings, personal safety and a focus on the positive. They were in use at various companies such as Bell Labs / Lucent during the 1990s, and were first described systematically in Norm Kerth’s book (Kerth 2001), but were not at that time specifically connected with the Agile community, although regular reflection was identified as a key Agile practice by Alistair Cockburn during the 1990s (see the Guide’s entry for a more detailed history).

As early as 2002 the Retrospective tribe had started an annual meeting, and from 2003 held discussions on its own mailing list.

Various people started actively bridging the Agile and Retrospective communities around that time; for instance, Rachel Davies and several others were regularly speaking about Retrospectives at Agile conferences such as XP Day; others such as Linda Rising, Diana Larsen and Esther Derby started working out how Kerth-style retrospectives, designed as offsite events lasting 2-3 days and occurring at intervals of several months, could be adapted to fit the more rapid rhythm of iterative projects; these “interim retrospectives” eventually became the “iteration retrospectives” described in Diana Larsen and Esther Derby’s 2006 book (Derby & Larsen 2006). The book cemented the link between the Scrum mantra of “Inspect and Adapt” and the practice of iteration retrospectives.

Throughout this period and up to the present, the Retrospective tribe maintained its identity. A tribe must often take on a guardian role as its ideas spread, defending their “pure” form against watering down, as people start using them with less care and initial learning than the core tribe members; or defending them from being labeled “irrelevant” or “useless”.

For instance, it isn’t unusual to see a newly formed Scrum team reduce the Sprint retrospective to its bare essentials: gathering the team members in a room and going around answering the questions “What went well? What could be improved? What should we do differently next Sprint?”. As Esther Derby argues, skimping on the necessary time for preparation and careful execution can lead to a sad situation: “Too often, retrospectives are boring, painful, a waste of time.”

From another direction, Retrospectives have been questioned in the Lean and kanban community as possibly “wasteful” – even in this abbreviated format; batching up issues for discussion in a dedicated meeting is seen as being at odds with the continuous flow that is the objective of these approaches. Maturity manifests, from this point of view, as “spontaneous” problem-solving activities rather than a planned and structured group event. One of the better-known presentations on the continuous improvement framework “Toyota Kata” bills it as “an alternative to retrospectives”, and lists some failure modes of retros.

Many members of the Agile community are interested in various forms of meeting facilitation, and in process improvement, but so far the Retrospective tribe has resisted these threats and retained custody over its particular intersection of ideas: informal but facilitated meetings focused on learning from past performance for future improvement, guaranteeing personal safety for all participants.


Davies, N., Dumont, M., SEI-based Process Improvement Efforts at Digital, Digital Technical Journal (1993)

Kerth, N., Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews, Dorset House (2001)

Derby, E., Larsen, D.: Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. Pragmatic Bookshelf (2006)


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