Posted on July 30, 2016


This is part of an ongoing exploratory series on Educational Ideas

I have to start by giving credit to Pivotal Labs for this technique. They use it with great success on every project. I’m sure many other companies use similar techniques as well. I’d guess there are many ways you could approach this problem, but seeing this particular technique in use over many years had convinced me of its value.

In general I am obsessed with the art of communication, but not just in the sense of communicating an idea. Communication is crucial in relationships, in coordinating people within a company, etc. People can’t truly respect each other if they don’t understand each other’s perspective and communication is key to that understanding.

Retrospectives, at least in this form, offer a structured way to help people communicate with each other.

This video offers a brief demonstration: Retrospectives

The primary goal is to collect everyone’s observations about what is working, what isn’t working, and what people are concerned about. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been in a retrospective and have been surprised by the observations of people who sat right next to me. Everyone observes things differently.

More importantly, each observation represents something that is on the mind of the person describing it. Whether it is good or bad it can be very enlightening to hear what each person describes or does not describe. They may have concerns you were not aware of or may not be concerned at all about something you were worried about. This information is critical to any group of people working together successfully.

Within schools I think it could be enormously valuable. I appreciate that it was born from the business world (actually I don’t know where it originated but it is used in the business world) and that may be a yellow (if not red) flag for many educators, but I think there is real value here. Students or teachers rarely have opportunities to describe their observations of the school in a safe environment. They have opportunities to talk to friends in private about what they observe, but rarely is there a process in place to collect observations from students and teachers in an organized fashion across the school.

These observations, from students and teachers, could be enormously informative. Understanding what is both important to each group as well as what is not as important could really help a school improve in an effective manner.

Why It Won’t Work

Retrospectives are one of the best processes I’ve seen to help bridge the gap between risky feedback (“will my feedback be well received?”) and giving a group of people  visibility into everyone else’s circumstances, facilitating better interaction and coordination.

That said, it may not work. If it doesn’t, here are some possible reasons why:

  • People may think it is ridiculous. It can feel forced and contrived.  Like any exercise around communication people may not want to engage with it.
  • If people don’t believe the feedback will be respected then the retrospective won’t work. People wont be honest with their feedback if they don’t feel like it will be well received and believed.
  • People may think it is trivial and too time-consuming. It takes time to do (maybe 30 – 60 minutes once a week) if you want to really benefit from it. Doing it less frequently makes it increasingly difficult to respond to the feedback, but anything that happens once a week can feel excessive.

Why else might this fail? What am I missing?

The nice part about a retrospective is that it is easy to do,  so you can experiment with it for a few months and, if it’s not adding value, drop it. I think you’ll find during those few months, though, that having visibility into what everyone else is thinking can be quite valuable and can help ensure that problems do not get swept under the rug until it is too late.