Iteration Retros – The Airing of Grievances

One of the better team practices in software development is to hold retrospectives after every development cycle (iteration, sprint, release, etc.). Iteration retros give the team an opportunity to review the user-stories (requirements) that were completed and discuss ways of improving the next development cycle so the same mistakes aren’t repeated.

The usual format is to review the iteration and then have the team discuss what went right, what went wrong, and what we could do better. When iterations go well, the meetings are relatively low-key, complimentary, and productive. However, when iterations go poorly — or are downright disastrous — the retros turn into more like Frank Costanza’s infamous “Airing of Grievances” on Festivus: “I’ve got a LOT of problems with you people, and now you’re gonna hear about it!!”

frank-costanzaAt first, we used to just chime in whenever we wanted during the retro, but that often got out of hand because the more outspoken members of the team would drown the quieter ones out (like me). Now we pass around the microphone — a magic-marker — so that everyone gets a chance to give their perspective and opinion with minimal interruption. While the retros have improved, it might help for some of our team members to take the cap off the marker before their grievances are aired (including myself)!

Some of the typical questions in these retros are: “What went well?” “What didn’t?” “What absolutely sucked?” “How did it blow up and why?” “What can we do better?” “How can we work better as a team?” The purpose of these questions isn’t to criticize or lay blame, but to learn from our mistakes and make the next iteration better — and improve the team.

Along with improving communication, another change to the retros over the last year was a dramatic reduction in the length of the meeting. Our iterations used to last 5-6 weeks and the retro took between 6-8 hours, since we would also plan the next iteration after the retro. While it was nice to get a break from the normal routine, meetings that last that long don’t make for a very fun (or productive) day. A year ago, we changed over to two-week iterations and now the retros have been chopped down to 3-hours, including planning the next one.

In several of those meetings (particularly when they lasted 6-8 hours), it made me consider about how rarely I’ve had similar meetings with my own family, the most important “team” in my life! If retros are good practice for iterations, releases, and other big projects at work, shouldn’t they be just as important for our marriages and families (if not more so)?

In an Agile development environment, we are trained to embrace change and adapt rapidly to changing variables and requirements. Everything is always shifting, changing, and being reprioritized — just like in our families. For whatever reason, we tend to be slower to embrace change in our personal lives than in our professional ones, even though the various demands of marriage and parenting are constantly shifting and changing too, and stress-levels are often running just as high as they do at work — or higher!

How often do we take a timeout to check-in with everyone on our “home team” and let them really speak their minds (even the toddlers)? Sure, there’s weekends and vacations and fun times togther, but there was rarely a time specifically set aside for reflection as a family for the sole purpose of improving the team and growing together. How often do we admit to blowing it in front of our loved ones and really ask for forgiveness? How many families and marriages could be saved by holding such retros on a regular basis? Who knows? Maybe mine could have been…

While family devotions can be awkward and difficult (if not downright impossible), maybe having regular family “retros” every two weeks wouldn’t be as tough, though they may need to be dressed up a bit or repackaged to mitigate the “wailing and gnashing of teeth” from the teenagers. Such family retros would give everyone an opportunity to confess their screw-ups and really foster communication with one another in a productive way, in a time that’s been specifically set aside for doing so instead of the typical spur-of-the-moment ones.

James 5:16 says, “Confess your trespasses to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Confessing our sins to others is never easy, particularly parents to their kids, but it’s a great opportunity to model asking for forgiveness and forgiving those who are closest to us. Kids remember just about everything (except the dishes, trash, etc.), especially when we fathers confess that we blew it and need their forgiveness. Forgiveness must be modeled, not simply assumed or taken for granted. Grace, faith, and love must be modeled over and over to cultivate a home based upon those three fundamental elements.

Maybe hold a family night-out a local pizza-joint that you don’t usually go to and make that the retro “meeting” place. Maybe every two weeks, the entire family takes time out from the crazy schedule, gathers around a table, and gets to constructively air their grievances for a little while, and then discusses how to make things better.

Maybe reviewing the highs and lows of the last two weeks would work wonders in our homes. Maybe asking those tough-but-necessary questions would really help us grow closer, questions such as: “What bugs you?” “How can we improve living together?” “How can we respond better in a particular situation?” “How can we do better with money?” “How can we do better with chores, errands, and other stuff?” “How can we become better parents, friends, and partners?” “What is one way we can make our family stronger, closer, more forgiving, and more loving?” “What is our plan for improvement over the next two weeks?”


Frank Costanza would’ve loved those bi-weekly family retros. (George and his mother, probably not so much!) Maybe if he had been able to speak his mind more than once a year right before Christmas, he wouldn’t have lost it and screamed “Serenity NOW!!” so often! And we ALL know where “Serenity Now!” leads to: “Insanity Later!”

“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one.” — Colossians 4:6


About Chris Hambleton

Chris resides in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where he is employed as a software developer and consultant. He has authored more than a dozen books, as well as developed several websites, software applications, and written software-related articles. His other interests include traveling, hiking, running, studying the Bible, reading American history and politics, and literally devouring good fiction books.
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2 Responses to Iteration Retros – The Airing of Grievances

  1. Thanks, Rich! You ARE the man behind the google curtain… 🙂


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