When I hear that retrospectives aren’t adding value, aside from exploring the techniques used, I get really curious about the team context and the patterns that exist outside of the retrospective. Even if facilitated beautifully, are retrospectives always worth the time invested?
Both the structure and value of retrospectives are informed by the structure of the team and approach of leadership. I really like the Organisational Archetypes framework from Agile 42’s Organic Agility: it proposes a high level way to visualise team patterns, leadership approaches and resulting team resilience. In this post I’ll explain the framework and the possible implications for retrospectives
In each image below, the leader is the black shape. It’s important to note that no pattern is better than another, but rather better adapted for different problem spaces and contexts.
1) Expert archetype
The leader is the functional or technical expert. They define what needs to be done and how.
In the group there is specialisation, compliance and little collaboration, since relationships are directly with the expert/leader.
I often see this pattern in teams/projects where people are not fully allocated (ie. they spend 30% of their time on the ‘team’) or just after a crisis.
Implication for retrospectives: I really wonder if retrospectives are useful in this context. I suspect that reflecting and learning is most useful as a solo activity done by the expert, as they are the only individual with the full picture. If anything, retrospectives may introduce patterns that conflict with the team’s reality.
2) Coordinator archetype
The leader is responsible for the group working together effectively, and rather than controlling, moves to a conducting/coordinating style. They remain centrally positioned within the group.
The leader encourages collaboration but retains most responsibility for communication and decision making.
To reach stability: Conflict facilitation (Conflict may emerge due to the increase in collaboration)
Implication for retrospectives: If the intention is to remain in this pattern, I suspect that retrospectives can provide only limited value and whether this value is worth the time invested is open to debate. Specifically:
- Given that the leader retains the coordination function, team members don’t necessarily require the self organisation, ownership and systemic understanding which retrospectives bring.
- Democratic decision making frameworks within the retrospective may conflict with the centralised pattern of decision making in the team.
3) Peer archetype
The leader’s position is that of a member within group. Shared decision making and peer-to-peer feedback emerge. Communication happens without passing through the leader and collaboration and synergy are high.
The leader takes on the stance of enabler, creating a shared purpose and modelling desired behaviours.
To reach stability: Collaborative decision making (In the absence of a central decision maker, the group needs to learn how to make decisions collaboratively).
Implication for retrospectives: I think this is really where we begin to see the potential of retrospectives and reap high rewards on time invested. As the group navigates this distribution of responsibility, collaborative decision making and shared ownership, retrospectives can provide an incredibly valuable mechanism for learning, experimenting and strengthening.
4) Coach archetype
The leader is positioned outside the team, playing a coaching role both for individual and team development, as well as encouraging and inspiring continuous improvement. The team becomes self-sustainable.
Operative work is carried out independently by the team within boundaries set by the leader’s strategic direction.
To reach stability: Constructive feedback (people appreciate that things won’t work all the time and feedback is critical to a healthy, functioning system).
Implication for retrospectives: As with the previous archetype, this is a really great place for retrospectives! This patterns places a high value on feedback, continuous improvement, and self organisation. Without a retrospectives or some rhythm of learning, maintaining sustainable self organisation and improvement is difficult.
5) Strategist archetype
The leader is a strategist and has the surplus to do it, because they have no need to exert control over teams.
The team contributes to strategy design as well as execution, with an awareness of the bigger picture, such as marketplace position and value creation. The leader acts as a conduit, maintaining the connection between organisational strategy and the team’s feedback.
To reach stability: Understanding of market dynamics and strategy
Implication for retrospectives: To maintain this level of performance, alignment and impact – the team will need to move beyond habitual thinking, building deeper and more advanced understandings of their work and the work of others. Retrospectives can be incredibly powerful tools for accessing this.
It appears to me, that as the need for self organisation, collaboration and innovation increases, so too does the potential value of retrospectives.