What did you learn from 2017? Make 2018 Better Through Retrospection


 Happy New Year!


Welcome to the New Year. But how to start it well? We know about resolutions and their laughable limitations. Year ends/beginnings are a time for retrospection, so why not try retrospectives?

Retrospectives are a core practice in my work as an Agile coach, but I use this technique with my family and strongly recommend it. Retrospection isn’t simply looking back at your Facebook feed, lamenting over tweets you (or the President) made.  Retrospectives are designated time to have have a conversation in a structured way that optimizes learning and propels us forward.

Fortunately, there are tools and structures that exist already and can be easily adapted to teams, families or individuals. Check out Retromat, a site that randomizes the five-part retrospection structure that Agile legends Esther Derby and Diana Larsen created and are codified in their book Agile Retrospectives.

Here are the five stages of a great retrospective:

  1. Set the Stage
  2. Gather Data
  3. Generate Insights
  4. Decide What To Do
  5. Close the Retrospective


If you click on the Retromat website, beware that many of the suggestions on there are specific to software development, but the five stages are completely independent. Let’s go through each –

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I. Setting the Stage

Retrospectives on an entire year are very challenging. You have to get up the energy to recount an enormous amount of data, some of which can be emotional. Overall you’re trying to get yourself and your “team” ready to dig into what made the year work or not work. With a busy family that includes teenagers, the big thing here is to make sure they’re in – set a time well in advance of the day. Timebox it or they’ll get fatigued. Allow others to participate –  boyfriends, girlfriends – if they want (it is their life).

The artifact that you create is up to you. Some have their folks so a drawing – a storm, rain, clouds, or sunshine, and they simply mark their mood as before we start. Another way to do it – as the participants get ready, ask them – “What do you need from this retrospective?”. Resist the urge to judge when they answer. Whatever they say, just reply thank you.

II. Gather Data

This is a tough step when looking across an entire year. I’ve tried to do these monthly (too much?) and quarterly (sometimes forget) but if you did those it’s easier to leverage that material. If not, don’t fret!  Here’s what to do – the day before or even a few hours before, start digging through your social media, whichever platform, and start looking back. These tools are HORRIBLE to do this with, as you have to scroll forever, but it’s worth it.  Facebook’s Timeline feature is a handy tool as well.

Prior to the retro formally starting, take an 8×11 piece of paper and divide it into 12 boxes (or 6 on each side if you write large). Then for each month start jotting down the big events you see in your feed. Do this again with your calendar (paper or electronic) and then with your photostream. The number of photos you take over a year may surprise you. Select a two or three photos from each month, and get them ready to display to the group when the retro starts.

Those who are fond of music can do this with their playlists – music marks time with emotion, and can bring back powerful memories.

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III. Generate Insights

I usually take a break if we’ve done the data gathering on the same day. Get the group some coffee or food and let the data sit in your mind.  Maybe even take a walk. You want your subconscious working on the data you’ve dredged up over the year, now that it’s all sitting in your mind.









When you get back, you want to use big paper, maybe even easel paper, and make this a group event, especially if data gathering was individually done. You lived your life this year together, as a family, and as such we want to extract insights from our family. A family has the ability to see things in a different way than we might see things ourselves, and yet they’ll be close enough to us, to tell the truth (hopefully). True feedback is enormously important for learning, providing that the participants feel psychologically safe.

Artifacts can be written down on the Big Paper, on 8×11, or both, and can go from a simple list to a wonderful mind map.

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IV.  Decide What do

In agile we do these every two weeks (every iteration) so that we can do things differently in the very next time period. Software development is expensive, so its smart business does learn and learn quickly.

For families, and for the year retro, we’ll be thinking higher-level items. What themes did we discover in step 3? What connections were made?

Since we don’t meet like this often, my target is to come out of this stage with a list of goals, principles or pursuits for each participant, generated by them and aired to their family. This forms commitment, helps tighten them up, and in the case, they’re shared goals, we’re all clear on them. Usually, its items that we felt needed to be continued, or started, from last year.  For example, I’ve been writing a book for some years now, and often that gets a continue, with add-ons like “find an agent” or “find an editor”.  In agile we’d call these items themes or epics, but in non-software contexts, it’s fine to call them goals.

V. Close the Retrospective

Now, if you’ve done this all in one day, you’ might have had your teens for more than 2 hours, so you’re pushing your luck. Better end this quick – I like using the Fist of Five technique, which is simply having the fam hold up their hands with either five fingers (we loved this!) to no fingers (please let me go).  If you get the lower scale, probe a bit – make sure they know that they’re not judging you, but the process that included them.  If they wanted to do something different, perhaps it’s not too late.

As a parent, signaling to your older children that its time they start taking the steering wheel a bit in their own lives is a necessary step in the cycle of family life. Change comes whether we want it to or not, so you might as well move!

I’d like to thank all the new members of this community. HappyWisdom.com has seen more than 50% growth this year in our mailing list community, for which I’m very grateful. Be assured that I endeavor to bring ever-better, useful content to you in 2018 and beyond.

Happy New Year!

– Joe

P.S. If you want to learn more about retrospectives, check out this excellent link.

What is a Retrospective?


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