Gratitude & a Growth Mindset in Agile Retrospectives

Retrospectives are, without a doubt, my favorite part of the agile workflow. There’s time to celebrate successes, there’s time to target specific areas for improvement, and there’s even time to make a plan to work toward that improvement. Holding a team retrospective can also be a great first step in introducing agile methods to your team.

I realized recently why I’ve always found agile retrospectives to be so invigorating: when executed properly, the agile retrospective is the perfect combination of gratitude and a growth mindset, which are two key contributors to happiness and fulfillment. 

If your team’s retrospectives have become boring, hostile, or otherwise uncomfortable, it usually helps to return to these fundamentals. 

Let’s explore each of these components in more detail. My hope is that by understanding these higher level benefits of the agile retrospective, you’ll developer a deeper appreciation for the practice and a stronger enthusiasm for contributing to your team’s retrospectives.

What’s a Retrospective?

I don’t want jargon to keep anyone from understanding this post, so let’s briefly define a retrospective.

One of the principles from the Agile Manifesto reads,

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.

Many teams accomplish this reflection during a retrospective meeting, typically held at the end of a work cycle (e.g. an iteration or sprint). In this meeting, members of the team discuss what went well during the iteration and also what could be improved for the next iteration. Then the team decides on process changes to implement in order to work toward some subset of those improvements. The details of the meeting structure vary from team to team, but the basic pattern is fairly consistent.

Gratitude

First, let’s look at the gratitude component of the retrospective. No matter which retrospective style a team uses, there’s usually a portion dedicated to acknowledging the successes over the past iteration. For example, a team member may share, “I like that standups were short and efficient this week.”

Here are examples of common formats, with the gratitude portion bolded:

If retrospectives are about getting better, becoming “more effective” as stated in the Agile Manifesto, why spend the time covering what went well?

There’s the practical benefit — when the team recognizes what went well, they can seek to reproduce it in the future.

But there are higher level benefits here, and those stem from gratitude.

Positive Emotions

The Greater Good Science Center of Berkeley writes that gratitude “boosts feelings of optimism, joy, pleasure, enthusiasm, and other positive emotions.”

By practicing gratitude in our retrospectives, we can help inspire these positive feelings, which ultimately lead us to be more effective in our work. As described by Yale University professor Sigal Barsade in The Academy of Management Perspectives,

“an individual’s tendency to experience positive emotions and moods is associated with increases in a variety of work performance measures, including more positive supervisory evaluations, higher income, enhanced negotiating ability, and performing discretionary acts for the benefit of the organization.”

Stronger Relationships

Expressing gratitude in retrospectives is a time to acknowledge the contributions of our teammates, which is great for cultivating a strong, supportive relationships on the team.

Robert Emmons, an imminent researcher on gratitude, writes:

“[Gratitude is] a relationship-strengthening emotion because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”

One comment in a retrospective might be, “I like that standup started on time every day.” This is really a recognition that team members made the effort to come on time.

Other “likes” might be for delivering on time or a speeding up the test suite. Recognizing the team’s contributions lets people know that their efforts matter.

I’ve noticed a charming pattern in many companies that if a new member, Jane, joins a team, during her first retrospective someone shares, “I’m happy that Jane is now on our team.” What a delightful way to welcome someone to the team!

Resilience

Gratitude during the retrospective might even include acknowledgment of a failure if it was handled well or if it led to learning. For example, “I like that our test automation caught the payments bug before it went out to production.” or “I’m happy we learned why React is not the best choice for this project.”

There’s something to be gained from every situation, no matter how challenging. As James Baraz writes in Awakening Joy,

“Any situation, even the most disappointing, may have a hidden gift we can be grateful for.”

Being grateful for even the challenges in our life helps us to become more resilient. We can better handle stress and continue functioning effectively in our roles.

Growth Mindset

The other side of the retrospective is the discussion of practices to improve for the next iteration. There’s something truly beautiful in the simple acknowledgement that we can change, which is the basis for this portion of the retrospective, and is consistent with a growth mindset.

A growth mindset allows you to accept the truth of the moment, while believing that you have the power to improve.

For example, one retrospective item might be, “I wish the test suite wasn’t so slow.” This is not an indictment of anyone who contributed tests, but rather an invitation for the team as a whole to improve. Depending on the underlying cause, the team might commit to spending time optimizing tests in any product areas touched in the next iteration or it might commit to providing training and resources to the team on best practices in test-writing.

Aside from the practical benefits of improving the team’s productivity over time, cultivating a growth mindset in your retrospective also provides higher level benefits, just like the gratitude portion.

Humility

Embracing a growth mindset requires each of us to admit that we are perpetually a work in progress.

The Prime Directive is the key to unleashing the power of the growth mindset for your team. It is often stated at the beginning of retrospectives or at least understood by the team and reads:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

 Everyone on the team must truly believe that everyone made their best effort, and that the purpose of the retrospective is to better direct those efforts in order to grow the team’s abilities over time.

Without the sentiment of the Prime Directive, individual egos would prevent people from admitting the opportunities for improvement.

The Prime Directive helps people feel emotionally safe, encouraging them to admit mistakes and reveal their vulnerability. It promotes humility and discourages defensiveness. With a growth mindset backed by the Prime Directive, you can be sure that no one is attacking you, so there’s nothing against which to defend.

Reduced Stress

Bad things sometimes happen during iterations. We miss a deadline. The site goes down. These events can certainly be stressors.

No matter what happens, though, the retrospective is a safe place to discuss mistakes and learn from them. By discussing the problems, we actually reduce our stress.

As Shawn Murphy writes in The Optimistic Workplace:

“A growth mindset will strengthen you when you face obstacles and enhance your excitement when you and your team achieve your goals, or when you fail from a mistake and learn quickly what to do differently next time.”

So perhaps surprisingly, confronting the stressful situations head on in the retrospective will actually reduce stress overall.

Confidence

A growth mindset gives you hope for a better future. This can be a great source of confidence, both in yourself and in the team. 

You don’t need to think, “I can’t finish anything on time. I’m dragging down the team. I’m just not a good programmer.” You can instead think, “Hmm…I had trouble finishing front-end tasks this iteration since I’m fairly new to JavaScript. Perhaps I can pair program with someone who’s stronger in JavaScript.” This might lead to a retrospective item, “I wish we did more pair programming.” On the other hand, you may just decide privately to invest more time in improving your skills. 

Either way, by embracing a growth mindset, you can derive confidence from knowing that you can get better.

In The Thinker’s Way, John Chaffee describes people who take this approach:

“Accomplished problem-solvers willingly acknowledge the problems in their lives and attack them with enthusiasm, instead of trying to deny, avoid, or ignore them.”

Becoming “accomplished problem solvers” will certainly enhance our confidence in tackling future problems.

Conclusion

Properly executed, retrospectives indicate that team members care enough for each other to commit to continuous improvement for everyone.

After cultivating the skills of gratitude and a growth mindset in the retrospective, the team can extend these strategies to their daily work. For example, instead of complaining about some messy area of the code, an engineer can express gratitude for the fact that the system works and commit herself to refactoring when next implementing a feature that touches that messy code.

I’ve derived so much benefit from retrospectives that I’ve even started doing retrospectives for myself. I perform regular retrospectives to assist me in making improvements in my own life, both professionally and personally. I’ll be presenting on the topic of personal retrospectives around the world, beginning at Tech Days Sweden in November. Let me know if you’re interested in bringing the talk to your company or event!

My hope is that by combining gratitude and a growth mindset in our retrospectives we all lead healthier, happier, more fulfilling lives both at home and at work.

Need help getting your retros back on track? Or trying them for the first time?

Compassionate Coding would love to help. We provide workshops and consulting to help teams and individuals practice more human-centered agile development. Click here to request a workshop. You can also sign up here to join our community of compassionate coders!