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Can Spaced-Repetition help improve your Retrospectives?

Joel Louzado
Updated on ・5 min read

I think most people would agree that Retrospectives are a vital part of building a high-performing team and yet it's often (in my experience, at least) rushed so that the next Sprint can begin. If your team is already having healthy discussions during your Retrospectives then you're winning, but if the same kinds of errors happen Sprint-after-Sprint then maybe the Retro itself needs some improvement.

With this post, I'm hoping to show that with a relatively small change a team can get a huge amount of value from the time they spend in Retrospectives. You're probably already capturing issues and ideas, from there it's about optimizing how they're evaluated and turned them into habits with the least wastage. If the system can also highlight successes as they happen that would be amazing!

Minimum-Viable Retrospective

In my experience, a good Retrospective balances two categories of items:

  1. Previous Ideas, which will all be in various state of adoption, and
  2. New Issues which are coming up all the time and need to be analyzed

We want to give both categories the appropriate time, without having to discuss every item in every meeting. In other words, it's about managing the team's attention.

Spaced-Repetition is an Attention-Manager

A very popular technique for studying is to use Flash Cards in combination with Spaced-Repetition. The standard-version (also called the Leitner Method) can be implemented with physical boxes and cards as follows:

  • Take a number of boxes (about 7)
    • or one big box, with some separators. You get the idea.
  • as you're learning a new topic, make flash-cards for things you want to remember
  • put the new cards in the first box.

Next, when you sit down to study, review each box half as often as the previous one:

  • the first box gets reviewed every day,
  • second box gets reviewed every 2 days,
  • third box gets reviewed every 4 days,
  • and so on.

For each card, test yourself if you still remember it:

  • If you got it right, move the card to the next box
    • from the second box to the third, for example
  • if you got it wrong, move it all the way back to the first box.
    • sorry, I don't make the rules ¯_(ツ)_/¯

The reason the review-interval doubles each time is because with each subsequent reminder the brain retains the memory for longer before it starts to fade.

Graph of strenth-of-memory vs time, showing that recall-decay improves greatly after a single, well-timed revision

After 3 or 4 revisions your brain gets the message and realizes that it's something really important, and so it gets committed to memory.

Graph of strength-of-memory vs time showing successive revisions need decreasing frequency

An Organization is really a bunch of Individuals, so the collective memory is only as strong as that of the weakest link. We can use the same system of Spaced-Repetition to automatically trigger a "remembering" of an old improvement and help a team to turn it into a habit much more easily.

Applying Spaced-Repetition to a Retro

This could be implemented with the same boxes and cards we've just seen, but if you're already using a tool like Trello you can use that as well. If you would like a ready-made template you can click here to see an example.

Setup

Add the following columns:

  • CONFIG (where we'll set up our automation)
  • Pending Review
  • Review Weekly
  • Review Fortnightly
  • Review Monthly
  • Review Every 2 Months, etc

Add the Repeater Powerup and set up a Marker that automatically tells you which Columns are ready for review:

  • Each column needs one Marker, which could just be a card that says Review Me!!
  • Open the card, and click Repeat so that it gets repeated either weekly or fortnightly or whatever.

Refer the template if you want to see an example.

We're assuming here that your Retrospectives are run once a week. If not, adjust the automation and the columns accordingly and keep in mind that each subsequent column should get reviewed half as often as the previous one.

During the Sprint, team-members add items to the Pending Review column

First 25% of the Retrospective

When the Retrospective starts, collect any and all items that people want to discuss and put them in the Pending Review column. The items in the first column are probably the newest, so they'll probably take longer to discuss:

  • Let's say a card in Pending Review reads: "Lots of bugs are being released to Production".
  • The team decides it's time to introduce a Code Review Process.
  • Make a new card titled "Code-Review every PR before merging it" and move it to the bottom of the Every Week column.

Remainder of the Retrospective

For the remaining lists:

  • For each card, ask the question "Did we remember to do this in the last Sprint".
  • If YES, move the card one column to the Right.
    • For example, if the card was in the Every 4 Weeks Column move it to Every 8 Weeks.
  • If NO, move the card all the way back to the first column (Every Week)
    • if a card is repeatedly falling back to the first column, maybe move it to Pending Review so it can be discussed
    • maybe the solution needs to be tweaked so that it better solves the problem
  • Archive the Marker once all the cards in that column are done

Benefits

After a Sprint or two you should start to see some positive changes:

  • Issues are raised more contextually because there's a way to gather them continuously throughout the Sprint.
  • Meta-discussion during the Retrospective (especially about which Items to discuss should go down)
  • Issues that get sorted out quickly become a highly-visible source of accomplishment so that the team can also see that progress is being made.
  • Onboarding becomes simpler because the team's working-style is automatically getting documented as it evolves.
    • If anyone has a new idea they can also go back if anything similar has been tried before

Summary

If you're setting up a brand new team from scratch, I'd recommend Toyota Kata and Retrospective Antipatterns as starting points. The approach that's shared here is more to help existing teams that are feeling stuck to give their Processes & Thinking a bit of a shake-up.

So what do you think? My thoughts on this topic are still evolving so if you enjoyed it or would like to discuss, I'm at jlouzado on Twitter; that's probably the best way to reach me.

Thank you so much for reading, see you in the next one. :)

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