Third Wave Retrospectives: The Past, Present, and Future of Agile's Most Important Event

David Horowitz, Retrium CEO and Co-Founder

Thursday, February 11, 2021


Retrospectives – the art of inspecting and adapting – are core to agility. After all, if you were to define “agile” in just two words, you’d be hard pressed to find better words than “continuous improvement”, and the retrospective is the meeting that catalyzes this improvement process.

But retrospectives are not as simple as they first seem. To understand why, we have to go back in time.

Retrospectives pre-date agile. They initially took the form of “project post-mortems”, run infrequently and generally without impact. Then Scrum adopted retrospectives and encouraged them to be run at the end of every Sprint. But there was very little guidance as to how to run them effectively. Many teams skipped the retrospective because they treated it like a checklist item. This is what I call First Wave Retrospectives – that is, retrospectives run either on an infrequent or irregular basis, or ones that are run ineffectively due to a lack of facilitation.

The First Wave Retrospectives era ended in 2006 with the publication of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great, by Diana Larsen and Esther Derby. In their book, Diana and Esther recommend a five phased approach to retrospective facilitation. They encouraged the use of a variety of techniques and activities to help teams run their retrospectives more effectively. And in general, as teams adopt this approach, they find that the engagement in — and usefulness of –their retrospectives increased. This is what I call Second Wave Retrospectives – that is, retrospectives run regularly and with facilitation.

But both First and Second Wave Retrospectives suffer from one key flaw: they are largely focused inwards.

That’s where Third Wave Retrospectives come in. Third Wave Retrospectives are different from First and Second Wave Retros in that they look beyond the team to the program, portfolio, organization, or even the broader market. They focus not only on what the team can solve on its own, but also on what issues the team can’t solve without help from others. And Third Wave Retros ask teams to not only think about micro-optimizations, but also to consider the business itself, in an attempt to help companies achieve not only technical agility but business agility, too.

The Third Wave Retrospectives era is in its infancy. Very few teams run Third Wave Retros and very little literature exists to help them get there.

This talk is a baby step in that direction.