The Benefits and Challenges of Agile Development Rituals

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Teams adopting agile often start out enthusiastic to follow all the steps of the process. As time goes on, however, they often skip some steps. Sometimes things seem to be going so well, a team might skip the retrospective. More often, things are going poorly, and teams want to cut out steps that don’t immediately contribute to working software. I have written earlier about the role that rituals play in building trust on agile teams; indeed, retrospectives and rituals are an important part of the agile process.

Some recent stories in the news explain the value of routines and rituals—and why we sometimes don’t follow helpful rituals. The Boston Globe reported on plans to develop a checklist for doctors to use when discussing end-of-life issues with patients in order to ensure that doctors and patients are communicating about essential subjects. Having a standard checklist to work off of can help ensure you do things right in stressful situations. Checklists also allow you to focus on the hard, creative part of a problem by requiring you to remember routine steps.

Following a ritual can improve the quality of an experience, as NPR’s Shankar Vedantam explores in a story in which rituals influenced people’s eating experiences. From this story we learn that adding rituals into your process can improve the process.

It takes time for habits and rituals to be automatic, even when they have a clear benefit. Consider, as NPR’s Planet Money did, the challenges of maintaining safe drinking water in the developing world. Even when there is a simple solution, such as adding easily available chlorine, people can find reasons not to do it.

Sometimes, even when we have a habit or a ritual, we let it drop because of fatigue. Jen Hatmaker explains, in a very entertaining way, how hard it is to keep up with schoolwork review rituals as the year ends.

Agile practices come with rituals and habits that facilitate collaboration and free the team to focus on creative work. Rituals, such as retrospectives, that don’t directly contribute to working software now, can help the team be more effective. Retrospectives are an essential part of the feedback loop that makes agile work. If your retrospectives start seeming too routine, don’t just stop doing them. Learn more about various retrospective techniques.

A good place to start is the book Agile Retrospectives or, if you want a deeper understanding, check out Norm Kerth’s book Project Retrospectives. Your team will be more effective if it takes the time to reflect and improve.

Did your team stop doing retrospectives? Why? And do you feel that you're still improving without them?

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Steve Berczuk

Steve Berczuk is a Principal Engineer and ScrumMaster at Fitbit in Boston, MA. He is the author of Software Configuration Management Patterns: Effective Teamwork, Practical Integration, and has an M.S. in operations research from Stanford University and an S.B. in Electrical Engineering from MIT.