Fixing Bad Habits By Learning To Love Them: Agile Retrospectives

Have you ever slipped? Were you seeing positive progress with your Agile team at work only to watch them suddenly return to bad habits? It’s gonna happen. Even when you know the path to success, you and your team are going to backslide into the old behaviors that caused the initial grief. I can imagine it now–someone saying, “Hey! I thought we had a meeting where we agreed to stop doing those things!” Don’t let yourself or your peers make you feel bad for simply being human. I’m excited to share one of my favorite Buddhist stories about self-care which will help you to improve yourself in a healthy way.

Why we slide into old, bad behaviors

I hope you don’t think of process improvement in terms like, “we agreed” and “you said.” Because the truth is that everyone can sometimes fall back into what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “habit energy.”

“There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, “Where are you going?” and the first man replies, “I don’t know! Ask the horse!” This is also our story. We are riding a horse, we don’t know where we are going, and we can’t stop. The horse is our habit energy pulling us along, and we are powerless. […]

We have to learn the art of stopping”

The most important part to take from that story is that the horse is also part of your mind. You can’t pretend that you are the rider of the horse and that the negative aspects are part of something else. So once you realize that you are both parts, you can start to take self-care actions and to love yourself. There’s no reason to yell at or to beat the horse.

That’s why we try to build a community of trusted people that can help us grow and gently help us pick up good practices again. In some ways, your Agile team is part of your “sangha” (a Sanskrit word in Buddhism for “community of practice”). And you yourself have an opportunity to help that community grow in their understanding. You have a chance to help your teammates gain a healthier relationship to self-improvement and team building.

So when you or your teammates slide… forgive yourself and them. Take pride in the fact that you even took steps to improve in the first place. Now that you’ve acknowledged that you need to improve, the fix is simple: have a retrospective meeting.

So what is a “retrospective” meeting?

A retrospective meeting is a one hour safe space where you and your peers can speak openly about:

  • What they appreciated during the last couple of weeks
  • What they felt could have been improved
  • What they liked and would like to continue

If you’re moderating a retrospective (i.e. you are a scrum master or just a compassionate person), remember to:

  • Keep balance. Focus on keeping the team on a path of gratitude and appreciation. It’s absolutely important to call out things the team can do better, but if you don’t see enough positive comments, then be sure to add some. I tend to write down positive things throughout the sprint or software increment so I have some good stuff ready to go.
  • Preserve the safe space. If you think that a lot of “improvements” (i.e. negative/critical comments) are going to be mentioned, then do your best to keep managers out of the meeting in order to preserve that safe space. It’s hard to look inward if you’re feeling judgement from the outside. Let’s be honest, most of us are judging ourselves pretty harshly already. That’s why you want to keep a good balance of appreciating where your team is now and also finding ways to move into a brighter future.
  • Keep having the meeting. You don’t want to continue too far without learning. Most healthy teams have a retrospective meeting at the end of every sprint (which could be something like 2 weeks). Work is more important than completing tasks– we want our friends and peers to come to work happy. So it’s important to set this time aside to stay aware of their emotional health. Giving them the opportunity to vent or contribute to the improvements gives them an investment in the team’s future.

And after a few of these retrospective meetings, you’ll find that your team’s “habit energy” is improving– they will do the “bad stuff” less often. And while this may seem too new-age-y or too optimistic, this process of inner-looking is backed by recent scientific studies which show a strong correlation between meditation and neuroplasticity.

But of course, the greatest philosophical minds knew the power of self-improvement ages ago. As Aristotle said,

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellent is not an act, but a habit.”

So if you were to repeat an action, why not repeatedly practice self-care and forgiveness. Because focusing on your failures is going to keep you planted on that horse with the bad habit energy.

The value of repetition… you know, repeating the good stuff

It’s so important to take credit (have gratitude) for the progress you’ve made and to try to repeat the action you value. That’s what a retrospective meeting provides you with: a framework for clarifying and repeating success on your own terms. But what happens if you don’t have a retrospective? What happens if you silently repeat mistakes?

I was recently reminded of the danger of repeating a negative action and where that could lead to. I was teaching myself a song on the piano and I kept playing a wrong note. And I was focusing so hard fixing that note that my fixation was causing me to hit the wrong note even more. Piano teachers will often say,

“you’re only practicing your mistakes.”

Instead, I remember the aforementioned quote from Aristotle and slowed down the tempo of my playing to the point where it would be impossible to play the note incorrectly. As I regained confidence in my playing, I turned the tempo up on the metronome gradually. By the time I was back at the normal tempo, I was playing the melody perfectly.

Our coworkers need the same encouragement to slow down and focus on “the right notes.” Don’t let them rush through the good stuff that they did so they can focus on their failures. Instead, use the retrospective meeting as an opportunity to slow down and appreciate the excellent behaviors the exhibited (i.e. the good notes that they played). Then take the time to deeply listen to your coworkers about how they want to approach improving the problem areas. It’s not your job to tell them how to improve– instead allow them to self-correct and to seek their own solutions. And hey, if their solutions are not helpful, then you only had to try it for a little while and you’ll all be able to reflect on the change at the next retrospective meeting.

Helping your team to practice the repetition of looking inwardly will help immensely. Over time, your team will quiet the horse that drives our habit energy and will regain a sense of control and happiness. When the horse starts to act up again, remember to love it and care for it. That horse that drives you is also you… and you deserve care and attention.


So what techniques have helped your team to reflect on successes and failures?

Share your experiences with a comment