As a software engineer who spent nearly 20 years working in social services—including working in institutions such as the U.S. Peace Corps, Child Protective Services, Chicago public schools and for governmental agencies in probation and parole programs—before making the leap into Silicon Valley, I found what helped ease my transition were my team’s retrospective meetings and the individual support from veteran engineers.
This article is an attempt to draw from my clinical psychological background to make sense of the psychological theories of practice that I believe drive the success of any software development team’s reflective practices.
Agile Software Development
When I joined PagerDuty, I was immediately impressed by the implementation of Agile software development, the “you build it, you own it” philosophy, support of customer concerns and other diverse experiences necessary for companies and individual engineers to grow in today’s software market. However, I was particularly drawn to PagerDuty’s embrace of the Agile Manifesto’s last principle: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” At PagerDuty, we call these retrospective meetings.
Our retrospective meetings embodied social and psychological theories of best practices so well, I realized that such meetings could help engineers, particularly those who find social interactions challenging, become exemplary leaders with interpersonal soft skills.
Psychotherapeutic Theories of Practice
Since many people in the software industry are likely already familiar with retrospective meetings, let’s dive right into the psychological theories underlying reflective practices rather than how retrospectives are practically implemented. The main theories of practice that I will focus on are psychoanalysis, vulnerability, stages of change, restorative justice and systems theory.
At the root of all psychotherapeutic practice is some type of introspection that both the client and therapist together engage in understanding. Most notably, psychoanalysis attempts to discover and interpret past, unconscious or unknown thoughts, emotions, impulses and memories that currently impact the client’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors and entire life.
Similar to psychoanalysis, successful retrospective practices reflect on the past thoughts and behaviors of the individual and team to make all group members aware of the things that perhaps only certain individuals were cognizant of. In Sigmund Freud’s work, free association allows individuals to express whatever comes to mind, without censorship or even organization. Engineering teams can adapt this method by encouraging free and uncensored verbal and written communication by making only certain information public and keeping managers from attending meetings.
With the recent popularity of TED Talks, many have already been introduced to Dr. Brené Brown’s research on vulnerability. Dr. Brown discusses the power of connection in the human experience across all spectrums and how people with the strongest sense of connection believe that they are worthy of healthy human connection, which increases the courage to be authentic and vulnerable through risking rejection from others.
In software development, reflective practice has the potential to cultivate a group that embraces, respects and supports each member’s vulnerability. According to Dr. Brown’s theories, a team will become more bonded, productive and creative when reflective practice supports members working through feelings of vulnerability, such as the uncomfortable feelings that come along with being dismissed, disrespected, not considered or facing difficult challenges that impact technical output, job performance and productivity. In contrast, healthy retrospective practices embrace and accept uncertainty, group responsibility and failure.
Stages of Change
Piggybacking off of vulnerability theory, the theories of the stages of change required for individuals to adjust habitual behavior is relevant because retrospective meetings should provide an atmosphere to “tune and adjust behavior” as needed. This model is relevant to the many successes of 12-step support groups for individuals recovering from trauma and addiction. It also helped me understand why I witnessed so many people continually returning to maladaptive behaviors. The 12-step programs and other theories of change suggest that, to make positive changes, individuals need to accept and move out of denial and into understanding of their problematic and unmanageable behaviors.
As stated previously, healthy retrospectives will embrace uncertainty and failure, allowing individuals in supportive environments to face and accept the behaviors requiring adaptation. Denial can be a form of self-preservation, especially for individuals who believe they are powerless to make changes; however, denial will also lead many software engineering teams into further problematic behavior if retrospective groups do not have proper techniques for confronting maladaptive behaviors that need to be changed.
Restorative justice models of practice focus on both the offender and the victim (and sometimes their respective communities) to come to an agreement about the response to violations that will restore balance in all parties involved. For more on restorative justice theories, you can read this comprehensive review of research on restorative justice models in schools, published by The WestEd Justice & Prevention Research Center.
While (most) engineering teams have not dealt with criminal activity—which is one of the main use cases for restorative justice models—they can still exhibit some components of restorative justice theories when processing events that caused disturbances in team productivity or emotional well being. I worked with restorative justice models by being a facilitator for “Peace Circle” groups, which have outlines for planning actionable items that all members support and by holding everyone accountable to follow through on these items in upcoming retrospective meetings. By focusing on recurring events or events with the most impactful and widespread consequences, teams can prioritize inclusivity of all participants, which is also imperative for social justice models. Healthy retrospectives will come to a common understanding of the group’s goals and help those in disagreement come to a way to accept group norms.
Systems theory, often considered a cornerstone of social work, suggests that a person’s psychology and behavior often affect and are affected by the individual’s family, community, work and other societal systems. Being from Chicago, a city with a population consisting of roughly 30 percent African-American and 30 percent Hispanic people, I was taught how the white majority that I’m a part of implements societal and systemic factors that impact minority lives.
To help understand systems theory, consider Dr. Deborah Prothrow-Stith’s research on violence that parallels current black urban violence with Alexander Hamilton’s death in a duel. She discusses how all the factors that reformed white men’s dispute resolutions (such as wealth, legal counsel, alternative means to power and criminal justice interventions) were entirely unavailable to black youth. In fact, the net asset difference between white and black families has increased since the Civil War. Despite what most perceive as advancements in equality and civil rights, darker-skinned groups have relatively less wealth compared to their white counterparts.
These observations are important because they provide systemic context to individual behavior, which is primarily attributed to the autonomy of an individual. Many systems will continue unchanged if their norms are attributed to individual acts and the policies in place are not questioned. While individuals are often blamed for their behaviors, retrospective meetings acknowledge that teams influence individual behavior and that the entire team takes responsibility for the system and individual experiences. Successful retrospective meetings will provide a team the chance to change systems rather than placing the responsibility for systemic changes on any one individual.