Post-mortems are for dead projects – what to do with the living?

“He’s dead, Jim” – the famous quote from “Bones” McCoy in the original Star Trek may be one of the shortest post-mortems one can think of, but it’s not necessarily what you want in an Agile retrospective. What you might want instead is the attitude of Star Trek: the Next Generation‘s captain Picard – “Make it so”.

From post-mortem to retrospective

But then again: the history of retrospectives is a history of misunderstandings…
One – plausible – version I have heard goes like this:
When the idea of project retrospectives came up in the context of early space missions, the idea was in fact to learn for the next iteration. But “the next iteration” would have been the next iteration of a rocket design, and the previous iteration would now have been reduced to a lump of metal shreds after it’s successful test flight. Under these conditions it must have seemed quite fitting to borrow the term post-mortem – after all there wasn’t much left moving at the “landing site”. Developing safe ways of landing was not quite as high on the list of priorities as getting off the ground in the first place.
Gradually the scope of post-mortems expanded and soon the term was used to describe the process for all kinds of projects and was even adopted as a general term in commercial software development.
In 2001 Norman L. Kerth wrote a book titled Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews in which he made a strong case against the use of the, then accepted, term post-mortem. Before Esther Derby Diana Larsen‘s Book Agile Retrospectives came out, this was the definitive guide on retrospectives for me (now both books share that place) and I always tried to follow his emphasis of the fact that we don’t do retrospectives for the past but for the future.

So let’s use the term “Retrospective”?

At least there is a somewhat common understanding of the term.
When Tom and I laid out the structure for the Hands-on lean and Agile practices course we decided to go with the term “retrospective” – partially because that term is more widely recognized and people would have a clearer picture of what we talk about in that part, and partially because “retrospective” is the term commonly used in descriptions of the mechanics of such a review which makes it a good search candidate when looking for additional information.

How about “operations reviews”?

Nowadays I’m contemplating to suggest naming this section of the course “operations review” – a term used in the lean and Kanban literature. Although there are many very tight definitions of that term pointing out that an operations review is not at all comparable to a retrospective, these “clear” definitions are contradictory and some (a lot) actually suggest a certain similarity between operations review and (healthy) retrospectives.

Now what’s it with this nitpicking with words?

Is it really important how we call this activity in our daily work? If we start with the intention in mind – looking forward, wanting to influence the future – won’t the rest follow?
Well, modern brain science has it’s own take on this.
As humans, our expectations and actions are influenced by the language used. In one very well known experiment people where told that they where tested on word-understanding while in reality their physical behavior was the subject of the experiment. One group had to work through a series of words with connotation of old age while the other group worked with words implying agility and youth. Sure enough the “old word” group was measurably slower on their way out from the testing facility. Even though this specific experiment on `priming´ has been disputed lately, the effects of priming also are one of the things the whole advertisement industry thrives upon. One last argument I would like to quote for this influence of words are the Implicit Association Tests from the harvard university. In these tests unconscious beliefs can be discovered by measuring the time it takes to identified words after the brain has been ‘primed’ with simple but powerful concepts like ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
I don’t know about you, but if I have the chance to ‘prime’ the whole team conducting the activity, I would rather like prime them with a concept that directs our attention to the future than setting them up for looking at a project that’s still running with the mindset of a retro-spective, “looking back from a distance”. Although much closer to “being in the present” than the mindset of a post-mortem, it still sets us apart from the things we want to influence. For my ears an “operations review” sounds much more like a thing I would undertake to influence what I’m doing right now.
I’m open for suggestions, but whenever possible I propose that we use words like “operations review” instead of “retrospective” or “post mortem” – at least until we find an even better way to put it.

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