Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles [R]Evolutionize Your Retrospectives with Active Sensemaking

[R]Evolutionize Your Retrospectives with Active Sensemaking

Key Takeaways

  • Retrospectives can be enhanced significantly by shifting the perspective from an event to a collaborative process of "retrospecting."
  • Personal sensemaking in retrospectives adds complexity to collective sensemaking, requiring quality facilitation, collaboration, and recognition of human limitations, biases, and unique experiences to effectively navigate ambiguities and achieve high-quality outcomes.
  • Common retrospective problems like premature conclusions, information overload, time constraints, and ineffective team conversations can undermine success, highlighting the importance of quality, well-organized information and productive discussions for capturing insights and implementing improvements.
  • Active Sensemaking enhances decision-making, collaboration, adaptability, learning, and efficiency by separating contextual information gathering from retrospective analysis, providing comprehensive insights, scalability, inclusivity, and diverse perspectives for diverse organizations.
  • Active Sensemaking improves retrospectives by resolving collective challenges, generating rich and diverse information, fostering better team focus and collaboration, recognizing outliers, and offering strategic and holistic org-wide insights and improvements.

High-quality retrospecting involves embracing unique individual experiences, acknowledging human limitations and biases, and sharing context-rich anecdotes through storytelling within and beyond team boundaries. This approach facilitates effective communication, enables pattern recognition, and taps into collective wisdom for continuous growth.

Active Sensemaking is a powerful mixed method that enhances retrospectives by energizing teams and protecting them from drawing premature or misplaced conclusions. This article explores how Active Sensemaking can prevent tension or apathy and foster a more productive and harmonious team environment.

Approaching the Golden Promise of Agile

Agile retrospectives are crucial for agile success, enhancing work efficiency, outcomes, and culture. They offer teams a chance to self-examine and plan improvements for the next sprint. However, some retrospectives may lose focus on their purpose. Notable resources exist to improve retrospectives, but teams can still overlook key principles for optimizing their value.

Shift the perspective from an event to collaboration: Retrospecting

Retrospective work shifts focus from sprint tasks to crucial questions and potential solutions. Transforming the retrospective into a verb - "retrospecting" - helps keep the team on track. Team members collaboratively discover improvements, bringing curiosity, openness, and unique perspectives. Retrospecting depends on revealing the unknown and learning what is significant, as opportunities often lie in the undiscovered or not fully realized aspects.

Retrospecting elicits sensemaking

Natural, individual Sensemaking is the process of understanding daily experiences, including addressing discontinuities in our volatile, uncertain, dynamic, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world. It's a natural human activity in work and personal lives.

Enhancing agile retrospectives involves acknowledging everyone's continuous sensemaking. Retrospecting examines how individuals made sense of the last sprint's events.

Retrospecting is Sensemaking with People

In the context of transformation strategies the most significant potential lies within the collective wisdom of people. Personal sensemaking enters retrospectives, often subconsciously, making collective sensemaking multidimensional and complex. Navigating ambiguities and incomplete perspectives can lead to premature or delayed judgments. Effective collective sensemaking relies on quality facilitation and collaboration. Recognizing these characteristics of human complex systems is essential for achieving high-quality retrospecting:

  • Each person is unique. Each individual brings their own personal experiences, values, aspirations, and abilities.
  • Human limitations. Each individual has limited experience, knowledge, understanding, and the ability to recognize fully what happened in any situation.
  • Curiosity and wIllingness to learn. Acknowledging these limitations in each other can enable people to depend upon each other to learn together. Recognizing our human limitations and knowledge hopefully leads to curiosity and a willingness to learn about others’ experiences and understanding.
  • Individuals and groups form biases. Natural cognitive processes lead us to create "rules of thumb," routines, habits, and preferences, which can result in stereotypes, assumptions, and prejudices. These are often unconscious and unconsidered. Biases, whether intentional or not, can distort communication and relationships. Curiosity and humility help mitigate the negative effects of biases.
  • Sensemaking starts with experiences. Experiences serve as the foundation for human sensemaking, with each experience linked to context and meaning. Sharing experiences allows others to understand the context and the individual's perspective. Experiences continually shape sensemaking and future actions.
  • Experiences are conveyed through anecdotes. Humans communicate experiences through storytelling, as we are hardwired to tell and respond to anecdotes for understanding. Instead of quantifying emotions, we share short anecdotes, conveying experiences with context and meaning, allowing listeners to empathize and comprehend.

The power of anecdotes

A retrospective anecdote can go something like this.

Marsha: Last Tuesday morning I got stuck making sense of Item 27A. The wording was confusing and seemed out of context with the task. I reached out to Tom (project lead) to get his help. We talked through what I thought Item 27A was stating. He agreed that it was confusing. So he reached out to Sean who wrote the Item. You should hear from Tom and Sean about what they discovered. It turns out that some details were completely wrong. I had to stop working on this Item until it gets resolved. This made me wonder if there are other errors that we already incorporated into the plan and code. That made me feel anxious about the quality of our work and our progress.

Good anecdotes effectively communicate experiences and important matters, fostering connection and affirmation. Groups use storytelling to navigate and achieve tasks, integrating data and facts into their narratives.

  • People make sense of complex situations by finding patterns. People often identify patterns in their environment, which lead to insights for decisions and actions. Examples include children adopting parents' expressions or experts identifying business process anomalies. Patterns can be long-lasting or change over time, reflecting forces influencing individual and collective actions. Patterns morph variably over different time frames. Patterns often reflect forces that influence what people do individually and collectively. The COVID pandemic, or AI for instance, prompted pattern changes with lasting repercussions.
  • The people’s complex interactions generate patterns. During a sprint, everyone takes actions, many simultaneously, while external factors also impact outcomes. These actions accumulate into secondary effects, which people interpret and act upon, creating patterns. No one can follow or predict these in real-time, but through reflection, patterns can be recognized and influenced. Agile improvements involve noticing and adjusting patterns. For example, a pattern of premature celebrations may be dampened by learning not to confuse correlation with causation. A useful illustration of this is a well-facilitated blocker clustering exercise.
  • The Wisdom of the Crowd. In a sprint, each team member's experiences are relevant for identifying what worked and didn't. During retrospection, analyzing experiences helps recognize patterns affecting the sprint. As insights emerge, people can amplify constructive patterns, often through experimentation or experience. For example, in the context of exchanges between people you may celebrate, reward the idea or behavior or recognize the constructive pattern. Missing key information may result in overlooked insights. When a team effectively makes collective sense of various experiences, they can achieve breakthroughs.

Problems and Opportunities while Retrospecting

Using these human sensemaking principles, we can significantly enhance sprint retrospectives.

The essential work of retrospecting

An  agile retrospective is an opportunity to examine and define a plan for improvement to be enacted during the next sprint by the team.

  • The retrospective is a chance for the team to step away from regular tasks and collaboratively inspect and adapt.
  • Inspecting as a team involves exploring and understanding the team's performance during, between, and after sprints, both individually and collectively sensemaking of what happened, how it happened, and what that means for team behaviors.
  • Adapting team function entails discovering and adjusting actions, methods, objectives, and orientations, etc. that need to change or be introduced.

Some Common Retrospective Problems That Undermine Success

Let’s looks at some common retrospective questions:

  • How are we doing together? What went well? (You’ll want to keep doing these things and we should celebrate that.)
  • What could be improved? (What went OK, but could be better?)
  • What went badly? (You want to stop doing these things, if possible, or concentrate on doing them better.)

Premature or out-of-context conclusions from these questions are common and can create tensions leading to unintended outcomes like apathy, chaos, incoherence, or failure to meet expectations.

Examining and analyzing these common issues reveals useful insights, such as:

  1. Addressing "What" questions requires consensus on information collection and evaluation. Key considerations include: weeding out irrelevant data, establishing criteria for filtering, converging on contextual decision-making frameworks, assessing relevance, resolving conflicts, contextualizing information, addressing levels of precision needed, recognizing criteria for potential signals in clumps of experiences, and considering possible criteria for omissions, weak signals, etc. Teams must avoid hasty convergence on meaning and actions, ensuring adequate context is provided.
  2. The manner in which a team processes information is crucial. A retrospective team can be overwhelmed by excessive information, leading to a natural desire to reduce tension. Processing too much information takes away time for reflection and improvement development. However, the team still needs quality and useful information to work effectively.
  3. Using limited retrospective time effectively is a challenge. The team must think about, ask, answer, understand, synthesize, draw insights from, filter, understand the impact of, and focus on the right priorities, all while assuming they have the correct context. Time pressure may lead to cutting out seemingly irrelevant information, resulting in a feel-good conclusion without addressing underlying issues.
  4. The challenge of effectively reflecting together on the team's performance requires productive team conversations. Information should be relevant and organized and sensible to facilitate good discussions. Overwhelming amounts of poorly organized information can hinder progress. By using pattern-spotting skills, team members can identify minority voices or information that triggers valuable insights. Making this a regular practice enables the team to uncover significant issues, capture insights, and implement valuable improvements.
  5. Quality, well-organized information is essential for capturing insights and potential improvements. Low-quality information or poor discussions can lead to bad decisions. The team must balance time constraints with capturing insights and devising improvements. Patterns that don't matter can create new problems. Determining the right amount and relevance of data is crucial, but deciding who makes these choices and by what criteria is a challenge.

Conducting Analysis and Identifying Insights for Improvements

Making collective sense of information for improvement insights is a challenging collaborative process, often involving individuals analyzing and sensemaking simultaneously. While simple challenges can be quickly addressed, complex issues require more effort. Techniques like clustering, dot voting, and theming, facilitated by a coach or scrum master, can help navigate complex situations. These situations emerge from multiple interactions and patterns, requiring teams to connect the dots across confusing information.

Resolving Inherent Challenges for Successful Retrospectives

Pressures can Easily Lead to Inferior Retrospecting

These recurring problems can be summarized into three priorities that are essential for a successful retrospective:

  1. Having a quality feedback retrospective despite.
  2. Providing sufficient context information from sensemaking to identify key areas  for improvement.
  3. Facilitating engagement effectively makes sense and crafts continuous improvements.

We propose that agile teams do not have to choose between competing factors. They can regularly conduct quality retrospectives.  

Is there a way to overcome common retrospective challenges? Yes, there is!

Active Sensemaking

What is Active Sensemaking?

Active Sensemaking is a versatile approach to tackle human complexity in situations where there are no straightforward answers or solutions to fix "problems". In fact, the problems themselves may be unknown. The contexts are defined by interactions, ambiguity, uncertainty, and volatility where outcomes cannot be predicted. This complexity is innate to any group of people, including agile teams. Team members instinctively identify patterns in their surroundings and progressively add meaning to those patterns to gain insights, which become the foundation for collective comprehension, wisdom, decisions, and so on.

We, as human beings, comprehend the world through narratives, stories, and anecdotes, which are crucial to us, regardless of cultural differences. This is where the mixed-method approach comes in. First, the team members are requested to share an anecdote about an experience via one or more anecdote question prompts. They are then asked a small number of quantitative follow-up questions (such as Triangles, Sliders, MCQs, Matrices). These questions are intentionally ambiguous, allowing team members to provide context and meaning to the narrative they just submitted, with no "right" or "wrong" answers.

Here is how it is used and how the practice helps resolve retrospecting challenges. While it is not a linear process, it provides the needed scaffolding for retrospectives. While there is no one size fits all, facilitating Active Sensemaking often leverage techniques like Simple Rules from the Human Systems Dynamics Institute or Liberating Structures.

  1. In Active Sensemaking, a questionnaire focuses on a general issue, such as a sprint, and participants share anecdotes or anecdotes via carefully designed, rather open-ended  prompts. They then answer a few quantitative follow-up questions, which are intentionally ambiguous to allow for self-interpretation. Responses include narrative text and visual or textual selections, all submitted digitally. This process reduces expert bias and supports broad participation, with no "right" or "wrong" answers.
    • Self-signification: Participants then assign meaning to their own narratives, mitigating expert bias and social coercion. The small number of questions use graphic shapes representing a spectrum of possible meanings that individuals select as well as more traditional multiple choice questions, demographic questions that individuals select, all based on their anecdote. Questions can look like the following.
    • Multiple anecdotes: Encouraging multiple experiences strengthens the dataset, with each anecdote being relevant.
    • Timely submissions: Recording experiences soon after they occur enhances accuracy and reduces memory loss.
    • Active Sensemaking questions are designed to be ambiguous and open-ended. There are no "right" or "wrong" answers and thus no way to "game" the instrument.
    • Unrestricted participation: Introverts and extroverts contribute equally, promoting diverse perspectives. The principle of reducing expert bias and social coercion through "self-signification" is a key tenet of Active Sensemaking.
    • Context-rich insights: By anchoring events and experiences, guessing is minimized, resulting in more accurate decisions.
    • Inclusivity: Active Sensemaking overcomes limitations of traditional surveys, ensuring all voices are heard and understood. Surveys restrict what can be answered and presume the scope of possible answers. Furthermore, surveys generate average results, negating context with meaning, and negating individual voices. (How many times have you completed surveys and left feeling like you would not be heard or understood?) This way every voice counts.  
    • Outlier recognition: Unlike surveys, Active Sensemaking incorporates outliers, offering valuable weak-signal insights.
  2. Responses are shared so that all anecdotes are accessible to be analyzed together.
    • A rich collection of anecdotes covers a wider range of situations and perspectives so that common as well as hidden issues become evident. The more submissions team members offer, the more grounded data is available to discover patterns and opportunities.
    • It is always possible to explore between identified patterns and the experiences underlying those patterns. Some Active Sensemaking studies led to even more insights as people spent more time exploring the data.
    • The automated collection of anecdotes enables everyone to access and explore the anecdotes and information before and during a retrospective. Everyone can see all the anecdotes within the sprint. This collection becomes a rich record of what people identified from their experiences.
    • The quantitative follow-up questions generate digital data, like signatures. The digital signatures enable the manageable discovery of patterns across the anecdotes, without overwhelming people’s mental capacities. People cannot read 100 anecdotes and keep track of all they read. The digitization of meanings enables manageable, stepwise analysis. All anecdotes remain accessible.
  3. Retrospective analysis is initiated by focusing on meaning and contextual data, using analytical tools. During this process, the team identifies clusters of anecdotes that are deemed more relevant from the entire collection, while still maintaining access to rich data rather than focusing on individual anecdotes. Additionally, the team can identify other clusters for future discussions.
    One exemplary case of traditional Active Sensemaking is Emily Drown, who uses the age-old method of pen and paper to capture anecdotes.
  4. The team’s attention is drawn to certain clusters with interesting similar signatures (meaning and context). Studying the anecdotes in these clusters reveals greater detail. Team members with relevant experience will recognize what is significant. The team generates one or more insights through facilitated dialogue and with techniques like clustering, dot voting, landscaping (Impact/Effort Matrix for example), etc.
    • Rich data conversations can reveal unrecognized insights, including significant patterns from anecdotes or weak signals. Traditional surveys may overlook these valuable early indicators. Active Sensemaking, which connects quantitative data to qualitative anecdotes, can uncover crucial answers to unanticipated questions. For example, a ScrumDo client using Scrumban and OKRs found that Active Sensemaking enhanced their Key Results discussions by providing both objective and subjective perspectives, clarifying their position and informing next steps.
    • Active Sensemaking allows for diverse data views and visual analysis to identify patterns. By exploring different perspectives and asking various questions, insights can be gained. One client used this approach to better understand their team's subjective views on achieving Key Results. Utilizing STEM responses and a retrospective app, they revealed unstated assumptions, which improved ScrumDo's user story mapping. Active Sensemaking enabled efficient and effective harnessing of collective wisdom, comparable to high-end Agile coaching.
  5. Insights can show that something is working against or for what matters to the team. And these insights can be translated into possible actions to amplify one pattern or dampen another.
    • Agile retrospectives in dynamic Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) situations help identify significant patterns amid complex information. Active Sensemaking offers valuable insights, as seen with clients, where it refined Objective and Key Result definitions in User Stories in a ScrumDo Portfolio. This approach ensured OKRs were not just copy-paste methods but focused on genuine customer and employee experiences, potentially benefiting larger projects or organizations by uncovering impactful patterns.
  6. Only certain kinds of problems can be solved simply. Many human system problems are too complex to solve. Instead, complex problems are influenced and changed over time as people try different actions and watch for confirmation of improvements. Here improvements are the indirect results of new actions.
    • With Active Sensemaking and effective dialogue, teams can evaluate how interactions impact shared goals. Human interaction patterns may arise from value differences, miscommunications, policy consequences, or conflicting rules. External changes also influence local situations. By adjusting thinking, communication, and actions, individuals can facilitate profound changes over time.

The animation below demonstrates a specific instance of Active Sensemaking using an App. If you have a small, closely-knit team, Active Sensemaking with paper and pen could bring greater engagement, as the tactile elements of writing out stories can be beneficial. However, pattern identification from historical views of anecdotes could prove more challenging

In this example a user’s activity is seen:
A. Initiating Active Sensemaking facilitation through an anecdote clustering exercise.
B. Filtering the team’s anecdotes and understanding them using a Landscape frame
C. Exploring the anecdotal evidence within the context of the anonymous story teller’s interpretive frame.

A key strategic advantage of Active Sensemaking is its ability to separate contextual information gathering from retrospective analysis, allowing teams to collect valuable in-situ experiences and devote more time to evaluating information and developing relevant improvements. Active Sensemaking provides numerous other significant benefits as well.

  1. Enhanced decision-making: Active Sensemaking combines qualitative and quantitative data for a comprehensive understanding of situations, enabling teams to make well-informed, context-based decisions.
  2. Improved collaboration: Encouraging open dialogue, Active Sensemaking fosters transparency, trust, and understanding of diverse perspectives, promoting better communication and collaboration.
  3. Agility and adaptability: Active Sensemaking helps teams identify trends, assess change impacts, and devise effective strategies, ensuring organizations can quickly adapt to evolving environments.
  4. Continuous learning: This methodology supports ongoing learning and development by enabling teams to effectively evaluate performance, identify improvement areas, and implement targeted strategies.
  5. Increased Efficiency: Active Sensemaking can increase efficiency by separating the process of information gathering from retrospecting. This allows more time for focused analysis and actionable improvements. Although it may seem like this process takes up more time within a Sprint, the benefits outweigh the costs. By doing so, your Retrospectives can produce significant improvements that surpass the usual consensus-based premature decisions. With Active Sensemaking, you can achieve seriously amazing results.
  6. Comprehensive insights: By synthesizing information from diverse sources, Active Sensemaking provides teams with a multi-dimensional view of performance, challenges, and growth opportunities.
  7. Scalability: Adaptable to various sizes, industries, and regions, the methodology ensures broad applicability across a wide range of contexts.

Methodologically speaking, Active Sensemaking is closely aligned with complexity thinking, which sees human systems (ranging from small teams to entire organizations to whole societies) as "complex adaptive systems" (CASs). CASs are complex because each system and its parts are interconnected and interdependent. Further, CASs are characterized by being in a state of continuous change, in which the multitudes (literally infinite) lines of cause and effect are impossible to discern except retrospectively. So, a CAS is ultimately unpredictable. Active Sensemaking emerged from this theoretical framework as a method to understand and make sense of complex systems and situations. Most human endeavors exist in complex adaptive situations.

Active Sensemaking Resolves Many Collective Sensemaking Challenges

Active Sensemaking essentially takes natural sensemaking principles and makes them practical, efficient, and scalable.

Amplifying the value of agile sprint retrospectives has become increasingly achievable. By seamlessly combining qualitative and quantitative data from individuals, this powerful solution addresses retrospective challenges while significantly enhancing the relevance and applicability of information, ensuring it remains deeply rooted in context and meaning. Active Sensemaking begins with experiences, which lay the groundwork for determining meaning. Active Sensemaking initiatives have spanned harnessing the collective wisdom of frontline managers engaging with customers daily, to gathering in-situ experiences from for strategic transformation and transition initiatives.

In my experience, one thing stands out: people are more likely to embrace change that stems from the insights and anecdotes they personally own and they personally interpret. This wisdom is intrinsically embedded in their anecdotes, rich in context and nuance. The influence of Active Sensemaking is clearly visible across a diverse range of applications and organizations. This applies to both small and large entities, as well as those with a long history of implementing agile methods and those just beginning to adopt agile approaches- The consistent dynamic observed is that people truly value the wisdom they create.

Conclusion: Active Sensemaking Amplifies the Value of Retrospectives

Active Sensemaking provides substantial improvements for the three main priorities that teams often struggle to manage for high-quality retrospectives:

  1. Better utility of time. Using Active Sensemaking increases the value of retrospectives in the utility of time spent on during the retrospective, by intentionally capturing the individual sensemaking which happens anyway whether you ask for it or not. This intentional in-situ capture of anecdotes  focuses the team on crafting better improvements.
  2. Higher quality information. With practice, the team can quickly identify what is surfacing, target the more significant themes, and proceed to craft improvements. No one needs to be overwhelmed or distracted by processing anecdotes because the quantitative meaning and context data enable people to first identify clusters and possible patterns. The anecdotes in the clusters reveal details that make a difference.
  3. Higher quality interaction. Active Sensemaking can help improve how people interact with one another during retrospectives. The work is collective discovery and each member has something significant to contribute. Agile coaches can focus the team on how they communicate and interact in their conversations and not get caught in the weeds.

Other Opportunities beyond Sprint Retrospecting

Conducting longer time-frame retrospectives across multiple sprint cycles enables teams to uncover patterns and trends often missed in single retrospectives. Active Sensemaking helps organizations identify disconnects, erroneous assumptions, and innovations, leading to broader improvements, increased profits, and enhanced client benefits.

I extend my sincere gratitude to Barrett Horne, Stephen Bosacker, Desiree Raymond and Ben Linders for their invaluable editorial assistance. Additionally, I am grateful to my esteemed clients who have partnered with me in numerous thought experiments and collaborated in the co-creation of various projects.

About the Author

Rate this Article