Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 13, Issue 36;   September 4, 2013: The Retrospective Funding Problem

The Retrospective Funding Problem

by

If your organization regularly conducts project retrospectives, you're among the very fortunate. Many organizations don't. But even among those that do, retrospectives are often underfunded, conducted by amateurs, or too short. Often, key people "couldn't make it." We can do better than this. What's stopping us?
Eastern Redcedar in crossection, with white sapwood on the outside edges, and red to deep reddish-brown heartwood

Eastern Redcedar in crossection, with white sapwood on the outside edges, and red to deep reddish-brown heartwood. To reach sunlight in a forest canopy, trees must build trunk and branch structure that can support their topmost leaves and branches. The inner portion of the tree trunk, called heartwood, fulfills this structural function. Because of occasional storms, the structure that's in place at any given time must be stronger than is required for day-to-day operations. In other words, the tree must invest in support structure at levels beyond what are required at the time it makes the investment. They accomplish this by an iterative process. Each year, the outermost layer of cells of the trunk produce wood and bark. The most recently formed wood layers, the sapwood, conduct nutrients. As the tree ages, new layers of sapwood form, and the older layers die and become heartwood. Thus, the tree generates heartwood as a direct consequence of growth. This ensures that it will have the structural integrity it needs to support itself.

In organizations, retrospectives provide the new knowledge needed to ensure a sound foundation for growth. But unlike the heartwood of trees, organizations can conduct day-to-day affairs without simultaneously generating that foundational knowledge. In other words, the knowledge needed for growth is not produced as an intrinsic result of day-to-day operations. It is produced as an extrinsic activity, rather than an intrinsic activity. And that's why it receives inadequate investment. To ensure adequate investment in retrospectives, they must be transformed into an activity that is an intrinsic part of daily operations. Photo courtesy United States Department of Agriculture.

Most people believe that to learn how to do things better, we have to look at how we do them now. That's the fundamental idea of project retrospectives. But there are three problems. First, we don't always conduct retrospectives. Second, when we do, we don't always do a good job. Finally, we don't consistently use what we discover when we do conduct retrospectives. We can reach a better understanding of the causes of these three problems by examining this question: who pays for retrospectives?

Typically, projects pay for their own retrospectives — or more specifically, the sponsors do. But the interest of sponsors in retrospectives is often lukewarm at best. Many sponsors feel that retrospectives add little to the deliverables they're paying for, and which have already been delivered. They do add to future deliverables of other projects, and sponsors might benefit from that someday — or they might not.

The organization as a whole is the real beneficiary of retrospectives, especially when the issues uncovered are systemic. But typically, organizations don't consciously fund retrospectives — the Chart of Accounts has no line item for them. Since organizations don't pay for retrospectives explicitly, they don't value them. I call this the Retrospective Funding Problem.

But the Retrospective Funding Problem has a deeper cause. The drive for conducting retrospectives usually comes from project teams. Since the organization isn't the driver of retrospectives, the organization is at best ambivalent about them: "You can hold a retrospective, if you want, but we won't pay extra for it. And no travel."

For virtual teams, the problem is even worse. When all elements of the virtual team are under the same financial ownership, there is at least some chance that we can apply to virtual teams any solution to the Retrospective Funding Problem for co-located teams. But even for virtual teams under one owner, divisions and other organizational structures insert a separation of financial accountability that creates obstacles for financial support.

For virtual The organization as a whole is the
real beneficiary of retrospectives,
especially when the issues
uncovered are systemic
teams of mixed financial ownership, we have an additional problem: confidentiality. What can actually be disclosed in the retrospective? If an issue arises from the processes of one participating enterprise partner, can team members who hail from that partner talk about it? This tangle reduces the ability to learn, limiting performance in future partnerships between the participating enterprises.

Addressing these problems is difficult, because the retrospective expenditure happens now, and the benefit arrives in future years — three to five years from now. Because the benefit delay coincides with the tenure of most managers, the benefits of retrospectives don't arrive during the tenures of the decision makers who support them.

Until the enterprise pays for retrospectives and truly understands their value, we'll probably just muddle along. Go to top Top  Next issue: So You Want the Bullying to End: II  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenIjddkNWyFYBTfsdbner@ChacAoVXmhazGKoKlyahoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

The inaccessible cubicles at Diamond SquareMake a Project Family Album
Like a traditional family album, a project family album has pictures of people, places, and events. It builds connections, helps tie the team together, and it can be as much fun to look through as it is to create.
A traffic sign warning of trouble aheadNine Positive Indicators of Negative Progress
Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress might be underway?
Damage to the Interstate 10 Twin Bridge across Lake PontchartrainManaging Risk Revision
Prudent risk management begins by accepting the possibility that unpleasant events might actually happen. But when organizations try to achieve goals that are a bit out of reach, they're often tempted to stretch resources by revising or denying risks. Here's a tactic for managing risk revision.
President Harry S. Truman, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, meeting at Wake Island, 14 October 1950Ground Level Sources of Scope Creep
We usually think of scope creep as having been induced by managerial decisions. And most often, it probably is. But most project team members — and others as well — can contribute to the problem.
A piece of chocolate cakeEgo Depletion and Priority Setting
Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting.

See also Project Management and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The end of the line for a railroad trackComing May 30: Chronic Peer Interrupters: I
When making contributions to meeting discussions, we're sometimes interrupted. Often, the interruption is beneficial and saves time. But some people constantly interrupt their peers or near peers, disrespectfully, in a pattern that compromises meeting outcomes. How can we deal with chronic peer interrupters? Available here and by RSS on May 30.
Mohandas K. Ghandi, in the 1930sAnd on June 6: Chronic Peer Interrupters: II
People use a variety of tactics when they're interrupted while making contributions in meetings. Some tactics work well, while others carry risks of their own. Here's Part II of a little survey of those tactics. Available here and by RSS on June 6.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenIMbEmPHRmVBJRmVfner@ChacAxvBIUnUMwouVZoeoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Case
This Technical Debt Management: Making the Business Caseprogram outlines the steps necessary for deploying a program for rational management of technical debt. For many organizations, adopting a program for rationally managing technical debt entails organizational change. And unlike some organizational changes, this one touches almost everyone in the organization, because technical debt isn't merely a technical problem. Technical debt manifests itself in technological assets, to be sure, but its causes are rarely isolated to the behavior and decisions of engineers. We can't resolve the problem of chronically excessive levels of technical debt by changing the behavior of engineers alone. Technical debt is the symptom, not the problem. In this program we outline the essential elements of an effective business case for adopting a rational technical debt management program. But this business case, unlike many business cases, cannot be captured in a document. We must make the case not only at the leadership level of the organization, but also at the level of the individual contributor. Everyone must understand. Everyone must contribute. We explore five issues that make technical debt so difficult to manage, and develop five guidelines for designing technical debt management strategies for the modern enterprise. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Race to the South Pole: The Power of Agile Development
On 14The Race to the Pole: An Application of Agile Development December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. Lessons abound. Among the more important lessons are those that demonstrate the power of the agile approach to project management and product development. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.