Johannes Thönes

Software-Developer, ThoughtWorker, Permanent Journeyman, Ruby Enthusiast, Java and Devils Advocate.

Personal Retrospectives - an Introduction

A personal retrospective is a regularly practiced ritual, during which you take time and think about yourself.

In this article, I will describe what a project retrospective is as well as what is similar to and different from a personal retrospective. Furthermore, I outline why to do a personal retrospective and tell a tiny bit about why I write about it.

What is a Project Retrospective?

Time to Think

A project retrospective is a ritual of taking time to think about and reflect on what happend in a project. For a retrospective, a project team takes a certain amount of time, to talk about what happened during the project.

In a retrospective you will talk with your team mates about your own thoughts on and experiences of the projects. In addition to that, you learn how your colleagues experienced the project.

So why should you do project retrospectives? Because you want to learn from the experience. But don’t you do this anyway?

Linda Rising always brings up the nice example of her friend, who has been married and divorced three times. Did this lady really learn from her experience?

If you want to learn from your experience you have to acknowledge it. You have to draw conclusions from on what you did, the steps you took and how they affected the team and the project. This is why you do retrospectives.

An important aspect to note is, that retrospectives are not about blaming anyone, including yourself. They are not an evaluation on what was good and what was bad.

Norman Kerth has formulated a Retrospective Prime Directive which should be the spirit of any retrospective:

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.

Retrospective Key Questions

There are four key questions you try to answer in every retrospective:

(1) What did we do well, that if we don’t discuss we might forget?

For this question, your team will look at your success stories. What was really good in the team or the project? Why were you successful? Could you use the similar means to be successful in the future?

(2) What did we learn?

In this question, the team will look at the past from a more general point of view. What are the patterns you noticed as a team? What wisdom can you derive from the experience?

(3) What should we do differently next time?

With this question you look at the aspects, that went bad. Why did it not go well? What can we change to do better next time?

(4) What still puzzles us?

This question is more about the open topics in your team or project. It is worth noting those and making them transparent to everyone. What is worrying you? Are there circumstances, which make the work harder for the team which the team cannot control?

To answer this questions, there are a number of retrospective exercises which are practices derived from dysfunctional family therapies. I’ll refer to these exercises in later articles on personal retrospectives.

What is a Personal Retrospective?

In essence, the personal retrospective is the same as the project retrospective. It is a retrospective where the team is just you. You think about your life on your own. You can optionally have a retrospective where your significant other or a good friend facilitates the retrospective. However, I always do the personal retrospective by myself.

Personal retrospectives are an active framework for self-review. What works for me, might or might not work for you. You have to create your unique and individual retrospectives.

The biggest difference between project retrospectives and personal ones is that there are no communications within a group. In project retrospectives the discussion takes place orally with the help of whiteboards and index cards. If you do a personal retrospective, it is in your head.

I always do the personal retrospective always on paper. I write down my thoughts by hand - on paper. I feel writing them down helps me to clarify my line of thoughts. Afterwards, I write summaries and important aspects into my private wiki. But I keep the paper.

Personal retrospectives are a tool for me, to asses my whole life. I reflect on my work, my tech hobbies, my non-tech hobbies, my relationship to all kinds of people and everything else.

A personal retrospective should not be about creating an ambitious ToDo list. For me, it is sometimes more important to notice, that I need some rest or I really want talk to somebody again. These important insights for my life would go unnoticed, if I were not doing personal retrospectives.

So, how often do I do a personal retrospective?

  • I do a quarterly retrospective to reflect on the bigger items in my life. I then take four hours to think about myself. I want to notice what happened to me and my life for the last three month. In this time I check and massage the goals I have in my life as well as the means I use to achieve them. At the end, I  think about my retrospectives activities and restructure them.

  • I do a heartbeat retrospective every week. I always hold the retrospective on the evening before the working week starts (usually Sunday). I have a paper template were I answer the questions I want to answer for this week. The questions are about what happened in the passed week and about what I plan to do next week.

Why to do a Personal Retrospective?

So, why to do this personal retrospectives thing? Why do I spend four hours of life time to do it?

After having done it, I really feel that it would be too expensive not do it. There are so many details which would go unnoticed in my life, if I didn’t do personal retrospectives. I start to see patterns in my life which I think I would not see without taking the time to think. With retrospectives I see more clearly what happened to me and my life - and how I feel about it.

I use retrospectives to learn what happens to me and what I do affects my life. I use it to improve my working practice and my personal well being.

Doing personal retrospective helped me to gain a new level of self-awareness. Since I do retrospectives I learned a lot about my self, although this might as well be just an effect of getting older..

Why do I write about this?

I never had an external facilitated project retrospective with my team. And I certainly never faciliated a project retrospective. So I’m really not an expert on retrospectives.

I write this blog series because I want to share my experience with personal retrospectives. I started doing personal retrospectives at the beginning of 2009. Since then, I have developed my unique framework over the course of more than two years.

So I will just write down, what I think is valuable to know.

You have to note that I did no formal research on this. I will report techniques which worked for me. I can by no means comment on how and if they will work for you. You will have to experiment with what works for you. I will of course be happy to hear what you think and would really like to hear, what works for you.

In the end, I strongly believe that it can almost never harm yourself if you think and reflect on yourself.

Were can you learn more?

This post is the first part of my Personal Retrospectives Series.