Note: this post is longer than expected and is mainly about introducing and summarising the ideas that led me to wonder if there is a way to use the skills developed by using retrospectives (reflection on action) as a way to experiment while an event is still occurring (reflection in action).

Thanks to the work done by Norm Kerth retrospectives - a ritual held at the end of a project to learn from the experience and to plan changes for the next effort - are spreading nowadays in many different contexts and certainly in every Agile project that is really Agile. In time different types of retrospectives have been developed like project, heartbeat, alignment and incident (more info in the article Agile Project Retrospectives by Tim Mackinnon).

The first week of April I've been lucky enough to attend the Retrospective Facilitator Gathering 2006 in Germany and as often happens with events of this type those 5 days have helped me in reorganising some scattered thoughts I have on the subject and after more than a month I'm able to (start) write them down.

First of all why do I value retrospectives? Many different reasons but mainly because they let's you:

  • learn from experience
  • bridge the gap between theory and practice
  • cope with ambiguity and change
  • develop a critical awareness

Reflecting is something that we all do and Piaget found that this is one of the advanced skills adolescents develop as they approach adulthood. In fact I like to think that when professionals/teams/organisations move towards their adulthood they start to develop, value and apply a reflective approach to improve and grow. Or, to put it in another way, if they don't do it they still haven't turn the tipping point of maturity.

Learn from experience

Reflecting on experience provides the basis for forming more abstract ideas which can then be applied and tested in further experience. It enables us recognise new opportunities and learn from them.

Bridge the gap between theory and practice

As everyone has experienced in his life studying something doesn't necessarily means being able to apply it. We need to know how to apply the knowledge to real problems. Reflecting help us to identify how best to apply in practice what we know in theory.

Cope with ambiguity and change

Reflecting is essential in recognising the uncertainty we face in the modern world where the demand for fast and reliable results often increases stress and workload. This is particularly true in an Agile environment in which we tend to work closely with our customers and often have to cope with new and unique problems never met before.

Develop a critical awareness

We usually reflect both on our own behaviour, the behaviour of others and on the social/organisational context. This leads us to develop self-awareness and to become aware of things we need to change. Reflecting is then a key point for improvement and is far from being an innocuous process because it challenges the status quo, the way things are done.

Donald Schön began his research on reflection to challenge the predominant technical rationality which suggests that problems can be solved following a set of rules learnt during education. The result is a huge stress because we are seen as experts only because 'we are presumed to know, and must claim to do so' regardless our own uncertainty.

In reality the problems we face are often composed by a unique set of circumstances and the result is that the uncertainties as well as our knowledge of the other people involved are both relevant to solving the problems. Feelings, intuitions and critical thinking therefore play an active role and cannot be reduced to a set of rules learnt during formal education.

When we critically analyse our work we do it through reflection and this is when, in my experience, the tension between assimilation and accomodation happen.

In fact we may reflect in action (during an activity) or on action (after the event has been completed). In his book The Reflective Practitioner Schön analises how reflection is used by professionals to tackle the problems they face in their work and concludes that when faced with a new problem they become 'researchers in the practice context' conducting real world experiments.

He calls this approach reflection in action because the behaviour is an experiment itself. The general pattern recalls the scientific enquiry in which the professional experiences feelings and maybe anxiety that something is wrong, something is new and unique, never encountered before. A critical reflection then happens and he is ready to challenge his assumptions. At the end he may reframe the situation and come up with a new hypothesis and test it out.

It is also possible to develop the reflection skill after an event and Schön calls this reflection on action. This process is usually facilitated by another person. Retrospectives are then reflection on action and I wonder how we can use them to develop the reflective skill up to the point in which we can move from reflection on action to reflection in action.