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Poisoning Retrospectives With Hindsight Bias

Published 2/4/2019

We recommend structured retrospectives. Identify things that went well and things that didn't go so well during a project or given week. Today, we're going to talk about recognizing our own faults when we look back on a project and how to truly get to actional insight.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
You probably practice something like a retro. If you don't have this term in whatever process that you can use with your team, the retro concept is fairly simple. You look back at a certain period of time. Hopefully you do this on a regular basis, but you look back at a certain period of time. To identify the things that went well, the things that didn't go so well, then you do a little bit of analysis. Why didn't they go well? Can we draw some kind of conclusion from how things went and iterate, make some adjustments, and move forward? Typically these retrospectives actually do yield a lot of useful information. You come out on the other side with some kind of idea of what you could have done better. And also a moment to celebrate and reinforce the things that you're doing well. But if you're not careful, sometimes retro spectives can actually end poorly. They can lead you down a path that makes you believe that you have more clarity than you actually have, and you may make the wrong types of adjustments. That's what we're talking about in today's episode of Developer Tea. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, and you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on this show is to help driven developers connect to their career purpose and do better work so they can have a positive influence on the people around them. So if you're doing retrospectives, which by the way, to clarify before we jump into the episode, I do recommend retrospectives. I do recommend taking time to review how did things go this past week, or whatever period of time you choose, and structure them however you want to, but make the goal, identifying things that went well that you should continue, or that you should, for example, you should double down on, right? Maybe invest more in a particular direction. And things that didn't go so well, and things that you're willing to try to address those issues. But the reality is that if we do retrospectives and we believe that we can analyze things thoroughly, then this can lead to worse problems in the future. And we're going to talk about some of those problems in today's episode, and have a broader discussion about our ability to recognize our own faults. So it starts with this discussion about retros, because a very distinct bias comes into play when we talk about looking back. When we talk about looking back, there's a handful of things that our brain does to kind of make sense, make sense of what we remember, make sense of the history that actually happened the experiences that we had, but also to try to use that information to make sense of the future, to use that information to avoid pain of some sort in the future. And so when we look back, we often find ourselves trying to make sense out of information that we have available. Sometimes this making sense of that information will lead us to true actionable insight. This is times where we've identified some causal connection between a behavior and an outcome. But if you're like most people, in these retrospectives and really any other time in life, when you look back at the past, you have a newfound power. That power is that you know the future. If you're taking your head and you're trying to place it in the past, it's impossible to revisit that same exact mental scenario that you were in. You can't reframe the same context that you were in, in some ways you kind of poison the well. You know what the future is. And so you can draw more direct relationships to the new reality that you now know about and your behaviors from the past. This is called hindsight bias. And hindsight bias really plays into the ways that we try to kind of validate our reasoning. We can imagine that we are now bulletproof to these same errors because we can draw a line to exactly what caused them. But the truth is if we were to actually be able to rewind time and take our brains and put them back into the context where they were when we actually committed that error, then we wouldn't be able to identify what was happening. We wouldn't be able to see the clear lines that we see once we actually know that future state. So how do you avoid this kind of situation where you're falling victim to hindsight bias? But more generally, how can we be more aware of our own shortcomings? We're going to take a quick break to talk about today's sponsor. And then we're going to talk about how to avoid hindsight bias or at least find ways of dealing with it. Today's episode is sponsored by Linode. With Linode, you can instantly deploy and manage an SSD server in the Linode Cloud. You can get a server running in just a few seconds with your choice of Linux distribution, resources, and the node location. Speaking of node locations, Linode is launching new data centers specifically in India and Canada before 2020. Your plan starts with a gigabyte of RAM for only $5 a month. And since Linode is giving you $20 worth of credit just for being a developer T-listener, that's essentially four free months on Linode. Linode's features have continued to lead the industry. They have native SSD storage, so all of your disks are actually quite fast. They have a 40 gigabit internal network between your various nodes and they run on top of Intel E5 processors. You can do anything that you can do with Linux on Linode. For example, you can set up a virtual machine for full control or you can run a Docker container. Linode is a company that is built by developers for developers. And they're hiring head over to linode.com slash careers to find out more about careers at Linode. Go and check it out linode.com slash Developer Teause the code Developer Tea2019 that's Developer Tea 2019 at checkout. That's linode.com slash Developer Tea. We're going to talk in a moment about how you may avoid or at least fight against hindsight bias. But first, I want to take a moment and discuss a different kind of effect that evolution has had on our brains. We desire to have consistency in our beliefs and our thoughts and it's very difficult for us to remember a time when we thought or believed differently. If you've ever looked back at an old journal or maybe a year's old social media posts, then you know this to be sometimes painfully true. You can't imagine thinking so significantly different than you think today. There's a lot of basic reasons for why this actually happens. For example, when we have cognitive dissonance, our brain has to resolve that dissonance. We see it as somewhat of a threat to not really know which thing is true. So we seek some level of resolve. But when we have things that are changing, when we have beliefs that are shifting, especially deep held beliefs that we have constructed large parts of our life from, it's very difficult to let those go because it takes a lot of energy. We have a lot of rethinking to do to resolve that dissonance. This is kind of a large scale version of hindsight bias. We believe that our story makes sense, that we arrived at our current beliefs in a reasonable way, and that all of our beliefs led up to these beliefs and all of our wrongs previously were well-intentioned. But the truth is that we can change pretty significantly and sometimes not even realize how much we've changed. And so in order to fight something like hindsight bias, you need to have a way of reminding yourself when you thought differently. This is a way of tracking the moment that you realize that you are wrong. That simple reality that you were wrong about some piece of your reasoning is the thing that you can learn the most from in your retrospectives. The problem with retrospectives is this idea that you have an all-seeing eye. That illusion comes from the fact that everything that you are analyzing has played out. If you try to analyze forward with that same position, with that same kind of all-seeing eye, you're going to realize that it's a lot harder. You don't have all of the evidence to work from. And so I encourage you that you take time to document, document when you experience problems and your beliefs about those problems. It doesn't have to be extended. It doesn't have to take a lot of your time, a lot of your energy. Perhaps in the notes that you're going to use in the retro, you can document the same kind of daily thoughts that you're having about the problems that you're facing. You can trace how and where your mind went. What track did your beliefs follow? This is a much better way to perform a retro because instead of having this kind of all-powerful position where you can look back and explain exactly what happened, now you have to face the moment of your faults. Then you can deal with your faults directly. Better than trying to deal with something from the perspective of having all of the truth. You can deal with the human side of software development. You can start to recognize your blind spots and perhaps rely on others, rely on collaboration rather than this kind of superpower that you have of being able to see the future. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I hope it was both inspiring and challenging. Thank you again to Leno for sponsoring today's episode. Head over to Leno.com slash Developer Tea. To get started today, you get $20 worth of credit for using the code Developer Tea 2019. Developer Tea is the part of the spec network. If you are a designer developer and you haven't checked out spec, I encourage you to head over to spec.fm and look at the other podcasts and content that we have available for designers and developers who are looking to level up in their career. Today's episode was produced and edited by Sarah Jackson. Sarah makes this show sound good. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.