New ways of working with old ways of thinking

old way in one direction, new way in the other
Robert Way
Mon 23 Sep

If you have worked in Government, you have heard of (or worked on) an agile project. Agile is a big part of the new ways of working movement. One of the key agile rituals you have likely participated in is a retrospective. 

A retrospective (retro), is an activity that is run at the end of a set period of time, following delivery of something (software, report, policy).In a retro, the team is asked to reflect on what worked well, what could be improved, or what it will commit to doing in the next stretch of work. 

The ‘Agile Alliance’ suggests that one of the earliest recorded retros was 2001, but that there were also likely earlier iterations. They say the purpose of a retro is to: ‘explicitly reflect on the most significant events to have occurred since the previous such meeting, and take decision aiming at remediation or improvement.’

Interestingly, this definition focuses on reflection. Other examples of the questions teams might reflect on are:

-       What did we like; 

-       What did we learn;

-       What did we lack; and

-       What did we long for.

I recently lead a retrospective following the completion of two small projects where there were little to no requirements, minimal guidance and unclear processes to follow. The project ran over time and caused plenty of frustration. In the face of these issues, every team member did their best to get the job done well. 

Knowing this, it was my hope that I could help people focus on taking personal responsibility for what they could control. I hoped to support the developers, researchers, testers and business representatives learn this new way of working (participating in a retro). 

But for them to approach it with old ways of thinking front of mind. 

To achieve this, we started by considering the following three quotes from the originators of the retrospective. 

Marcus Aurelius – Roman Emperor(161 - 180 CE)

“If anyone can refute me, show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective – I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I ‘m after, and the truth never harmed anyone.”

“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.”

 Epictetus – Philosopher(50 - 135 AD)

“If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, they were ignorant of my other faults, else he would have not mentioned these alone.”

Aurelius and Epictetus were both practitioners of a school of philosophy called Stoicism. Stoics were masters of daily retrospectives, where they would critically evaluate how well they showed up each day. 

Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65), another Stoic, would journal in the evening. Examining his entire day, going over what he had done and said, hiding nothing from himself. Marcus Aurelius is said to have journaled in the morning, setting the intention for the day, preparing himself to show up right for his duties as Emperor. 

To complete an evening retrospective, the Stoics would ask questions similar to these:

-       How did I stray away from serenity?

-       How was I unfriendly, uncaring and unsocial to others?

-       What did I fail in?

-       What bad habits did I curb?

-       How am I better today, than I was yesterday?

-       We’re my actions just?

-       What can I do to improve?

This type of detailed, challenging self reflectionhelps to keep them accountable to their goals. Remain focused on improving. Identify lessons from the day and gives the author new ways of working the following day. 

Which is my hope for you. In the face of all the different new ways of working we are being asked to do, that you will choose to benefit from insights the Stoics have to share. That you might choose to complete your own personal retrospective at the end of the day. Taking note of your successes, failings and opportunities to be better tomorrow.


Robert Way, Senior Executive at Chalfont Consulting 

He is an experienced consultant who has worked for the last twelve years’ developing his ability to help individuals and businesses succeed. His experience includes delivery management, business analysis, user research, business architecture, business strategy, training delivery, agile coaching and mentoring.