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Using Agile Retrospectives for Organizational Change

Posted by Ben Linders on Jan 12, 2015 |

The book Retrospectives for Organizational Change: An Agile Approach by Jutta Eckstein explores how agile retrospectives can be applied to initiate and implement organizational change. It describes the concepts for using retrospectives to develop a shared future and shares experiences of applying retrospectives to support change in organizations.

A sample chapter from the book can be downloaded: Challenges in Organizational Change.

InfoQ interviewed Jutta about challenges in managing change and how retrospectives can be used to support change, how to reflect on what went well and do futurespectives, and the strengths of using retrospectives for organizational change.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book, what do you want to offer to the readers?

Jutta: This book is actually the core of my thesis of a Master study on Business Coaching and Change Management. So I wrote that book at first as the thesis and then thought that more people might want to benefit from retrospectives for organizational change. Some of the readers might be familiar with agile retrospectives, yet have never thought of using them for kick-starting something new. Other readers might be more familiar with classic change management tools and will be surprised how easy it is to use retrospectives for organizational change and therefore add them to their toolbox.

InfoQ: Can you elaborate on some of the challenges that organizations are facing that increase the need to become better in managing change?

Jutta: Most often change is regarded as a static change. This can be summarized as: “we are here right now but want to go over there”. So people often think a change is a move from point to another. Sometimes they acknowledge that it is not that easy and think of changes as being dynamic. This means we are aware of our actual position and we know where we would rather like to be. Yet, we are also aware that there is no direct route from the starting to the ending position. Thus we have to approach the ending position step-by-step. However, the changes organizations face nowadays are more likely to be complex. This means it is unclear where we want to be. Most often we believe we know where we want to be, yet tomorrow things have changed and we should approach a different goal. So there is no way for really managing the change, because neither the objective nor the path toward it is clear. Yet still, we often try to manage complex change by coming up with a plan, trying to adhering to it and wonder why the outcome isn’t as expected (because the environment has changed again and is asking us to go to another place).

InfoQ: What are the main differences in using retrospectives for organizational change compared to how they are generally used in agile?

Jutta: In agile, retrospectives are used for a team that works together and wants to learn from their joint past. For example it is a Scrum team wanting to learn from the last Sprint. Participants of a retrospective for organizational change are typically not members of the same team and do not share necessarily a joint past. Yet the retrospective for organizational change still allows them to bring different perspectives together, learn from one another’s past, and define experiments that allow dealing with complex change. Thus, a retrospective for organizational change is more about preparing for the future by enabling change than reflecting on the past.

InfoQ: What makes it so important to invite everyone who is involved when you do a retrospective?

Jutta: Inviting everyone who is involved in that change allows bringing all the different perspectives –regarding that change– together. If only a few perspectives will be present it is very likely that something important will be overlooked and that the groups that are not represented feel overruled. The latter often leads to boycotting experiments (or the whole change) even if it is for the better of the individuals.

InfoQ: You mentioned in your book that retrospectives should also reflect on what went well. Can you explain why, what's the benefit?

Jutta: Improving and getting better includes finding out what is helping us in making progress. If we forget or ignore what is helping us, it is very likely that we change things where it would be better to keep things stable. This is actually one very important element of a successful change anyway: being clear about what not to change. Especially nowadays where we are challenged by many simultaneous changes the knowledge about stability is reassuring (or rather essential). Moreover, knowing about what worked well (from different perspectives and contexts) helps to find out about organizational patterns in that specific organization. On the one hand it is similar to pattern mining in design, architecture, and programming and on the other hand it is about uncovering the organization’s DNA.

InfoQ: A futurespective is a variant of retrospectives that is suitable for organizational change. Can you describe how it works?

Jutta: A futurespective is especially helpful for a dynamic change. As mentioned earlier for a dynamic change the objective is clear. In a futurespective the participants imagine that this objective has been reached. And now a “retrospective” is facilitated after that objective has been reached fictionally. During that “retrospective” the participants define which elements of the (imagined) past helped reaching that objective and which made it harder to make progress.

Thus, a futurespective is a retrospective on an imagined future.

InfoQ: Can you give examples of the strengths that you have experienced while using retrospectives for organizational change?

Jutta: The key strengths of retrospectives for organizational change are a strong commitment, because the participants being involved in the change are as well defining the experiments that lead to the change. This creates moreover both ownership in the actions toward the change and a great understanding about the purpose of the change. All of these things together lead to fewer (in many cases even no) resistance to the change.

About the Book Author

Jutta Eckstein works as an independent coach, consultant, and trainer. She holds a M.A. in Business Coaching & Change Management, a Dipl.Eng. in Product-Engineering, and a B.A. in Education. She has helped many teams and organizations worldwide to make an Agile transition. She has a unique experience in applying Agile processes within medium-sized to large distributed mission-critical projects. She has published her experience in her books 'Agile Software Development in the Large', 'Agile Software Development with Distributed Teams', 'Retrospectives for Organizational Change', and together with Johanna Rothman 'Diving for Hidden Treasures: Finding the Real Value in your Project Portfolio'. She is a member of the AgileAlliance and a member of the program committee of many different European and American conferences in the area of agile development, object-orientation and patterns.

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