After 9/11 George W. Bush told the media he saw the first of the twin towers being hit by an airplane live on TV. The truth is the video of the first crash didn’t emerge until almost 12 hours later. Hillary Clinton recalls a visit to Bosnia in which she was under sniper fire getting off the airplane. It was actually a peaceful arrival as she was greeted by a little girl. Were these people lying to us for some purpose?
Although I know its possible they were lying, the more likely scenario is they are acting human. Daniel Simon called it The illusion of perfect memory in his book The invisible gorilla. There are many people out there who believe they have great memories, and can accurately recall details of an event weeks, months and years later. So lets run an experiment. Think back to a big event in your life where you believe it would be impossible to forget the details. It might be your wedding, a world event such as 9/11 or anything else big. Now find a person you interacted with heavily that day and here’s what you do:
- Tell the other person you’re running an experiment and need their help
- At this stage do not talk about the details of the day and be sure to tell your partner the same
- Now have the two of you work in silence and write down the details of that day as you remember them. Don’t look anything up or talk about it during this step.
- When complete … compare your notes
Notice any differences? Sometimes they may only be minor, but in other cases it can be very significant. When I did this with my wife we found significant differences in our memories of our interactions on Sept 11/2001.
In 1885 the German scientist Hermann Ebbinghaus brought forward a study into human memory, creating the forgetting curve. What the curve tells us (red line) is when you are told something once, you will loose half of the accuracy in your memory after only 1 day. The accuracy will continue to degrade until the accuracy is almost lost after 6 days. If you are told something more times the degradation isn’t as significant but it still happens.
Now think about your project experiences? When does your project team take the time to look at how things are going? Many traditional waterfall shops have a step at the end of the project to gather lessons learned. I’m not sure about where you work, but I rarely find lessons laying around allowing us to simply gather them up.
Aside from the desire to be gatherers, given us humans have faulty memories what are the odds you will get sufficient accuracy? If you have a large project, and it’s been going for an extended period the chances of getting meaningful information is low. Even if you could get accurate information, it’s too late to help your project and the next team may only partially read about your learnings.
Regardless of what work you do, or how you approach your work there is a better way! Conduct regular retrospectives with your team. There are many different ways to facilitate a retrospective. It doesn’t matter which of the approaches you use, just as long as you use one of them! In running them regularly you have the opportunity to influence your project on a more regular basis. Wouldn’t you rather correct something during the project rather than allowing it to continue?
It’s not hard to find people encouraging: “If you only adopt one Agile practice, make it retrospectives”. Do you think there’s a reason it’s so easy to find this advice?
A great post as always! It does demonstrate the intense need for ceremonies like the Retrospective and even the Daily Scrum or Standup. People often times are hesitant to document things that happen to them during the course of a day, but the Forgetting Curve clearly shows the need for that. Just as task switching causes people to recalibrate themselves as I call it, we also need to document on a daily basis. It would be interesting to see if the inclusion of those daily updates into the retrospective helps the team in the pursuit of continuous improvement.
Again, great article!
Thanks for the feedback. I agree it would be the most beneficial to have people journal things each day. It should increase the accuracy and value of retrospectives. Failing that I’m happy when retrospectives happen weekly regardless of other factors such as sprint lengths. The week-end seems to be a magical barrier to cross, of which the forgetting curve doesn’t account for.