Applying Agile to Life: Taking Retrospectives outside the Workplace

A lot of what agile teams do can be used effectively outside software development teams, and even outside the typical business organization. For instance, retrospectives and the practice of talking about what went well, what you should keep doing, and what can be improved can be applied anywhere—even to families. Read on to learn how to bring continuous improvement into your daily life.

I regularly tell people that I view agility as a mindset rather than frameworks, practices, ceremonies, or roles. Consequently, I believe that a lot of what agile teams do can be used effectively outside software development, and even outside the typical business organization.

My company’s agile practices group facilitates retrospectives not just with development teams, but also with the people team, UX research, customer delivery and implementation, and recruiting, just to name a few departments.

With that in mind, I recently had an idea to try something new. Over the New Year's Eve weekend, my wife, daughter, and I spent a few days with my parents and my brother’s family (wife, son, and daughter). On day one, I asked my family members what they thought about having a retrospective at the end of our time together. Because most of them didn't know what a retrospective was, I briefly explained the concept, purpose, and execution. Everyone was on board with trying it out.

The idea had come to me after hosting family members at my house for a weekend earlier in the year. As someone who is always thinking about continuous improvement, I had noticed a few things that could have made the weekend better for us all. My wife and I had a quick retrospective and shared ideas about what we liked and what could have been done differently, like me helping more with the dishes. It made me realize how beneficial a retrospective could be outside my work context, which convinced me to try it out at the next opportunity.

On the last day of New Year’s Eve weekend, I gathered everyone together in the family room. The group of eight ranged in age from seven to sixty-four. I started by asking who had taken part in a retrospective before. My brother, who is a fellow agile coach, and my wife had, but it was interesting to find out that my eleven-year-old nephew had participated in one at school, too. I then explained at a high level the purpose of retrospectives—how we would collect the data, the discussions we would have to dig deeper into topics, and what we would try to achieve as an output.

Next, I created two columns on cabinet doors by placing stickies up high with the words “What went well?” on one and “What could be improved?” on the other. Earlier in the day I had populated some stickies with my thoughts about the weekend, so I put them on the cabinet as examples to ensure everyone had a shared understanding of what to do. I gave some brief context to each of my stickies, asked if anyone had questions, and then put ten minutes on the timer to allow people to capture their ideas on their stickies.

After time was up, everyone added their stickies to the cabinet doors and gave a brief explanation of their thoughts. Occasionally someone would ask for clarification. As the stickies were placed on the cabinets, we grouped similar themes so we could easily tell what were hot topics to dive into.

Sticky notes on cabinet doors for the family retrospective

We had some great discussions. At times it was funny and other times it got a bit emotional. There were some valuable insights and recommendations. People volunteered to take on actions and captured them on sticky notes so they could remember to follow up.

There were some great improvements we suggested:

  • We found that some people want to get out of the house more, so a couple of us took on action items to investigate activities for next year (museums, shopping, go to a movie, etc.)
  • My nephew said he didn’t want to go to an Italian restaurant again for New Year’s Eve dinner because we’ve done that two years in a row. He also said that the long table at dinner wasn’t great for communication because it was hard for people at the ends to talk to one another. So next year we’ll be eating at a round table not in an Italian restaurant
  • Some were not interested in the same old board games, so one person took the action to review the game cabinet, and others will bring games from their houses
  • Multiple people thought it was too cold outside, so we are considering going to Mexico next year!
  • My niece even said the toilet paper feels like sandpaper and they need to have softer toilet paper. Someone else who lives in the house agreed! Despite living in the same house and using the same toilet paper, they had never discussed it

When I originally proposed the idea, I wasn’t sure what to expect; it seemed like it might be a bit silly. But everyone was engaged and had fun with the retrospective, and we came away with some great action items for improving our times together— and our next gathering will be better because of it.

This real-world example just demonstrates the universal power of retrospectives. How have you incorporated agility into your life outside the workplace?


User Comments

Clifford Berg's picture

LOL. A friend of mine maintained a Kanban board on his refrigerator, listing relationship improvement tasks that he and his wife planned to do. They ended up divorced ;-)

I personally believe in quality discussion. Not sure one needs to use sticky notes that one can't read from a distance anyway, or use some formal technique like retrospective - isn't that making the home into work? There are so many so-called Agile practices that are equated with Agile, yet the Agile Manifesto mentions none of them. See one of Dave Thomas's videos on that, or my blog post "Agile is Broken" -

May 25, 2018 - 7:31am
Ben Kopel's picture

Thanks for your comments, Clifford. I don't view agility or continuous improvement as a work thing - I view them both as part of a mindset. I'm happy to think of ways to improve anything and the people who participated in the retrospective enjoyed it. I do understand it's not for everyone, so I respect your view. Thanks for reading and please continue to comment.

May 28, 2018 - 9:51pm

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