Boring retrospectives – part 5 : Reverse Timeline

My next exercise in the series ‘Boring Retrospectives’ is the reverse timeline.

It is a modification to the classic ‘Gathering Data’ exercise called ‘Timeline‘.

This is an activity used to reconstruct what happened during the previous iteration.  I also use it during a project retrospective, where it is even harder to recall the stuff that happened during a project.

During the exercise, we take the time to list all events in a chronological order, so we can use it during the next step in a retrospective which is ‘Generate insights’.

Because a reconstruction of the lifetime of an iteration (or project) is subject to our own interpretation, I applied a technique which prevents us from oversimplifying or twisting the facts.

It is a technique that is often used by police detectives when interrogating suspects.  They ask a suspect to reconstruct his story or alibi in reverse.  Apparently it is impossible to make up things when telling a story in reverse.  I’m not saying that people tend to lie during a retrospective, but we do tend to tell a story based on our own interpretations of the truth.

It can protect us from the narrative fallacy, described by Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan:

The fallacy is associated with our vulnerability to over-interpretation and our predilection for compact stories over raw truths.  It severely distorts our mental representation of the world; it is particularly acute when it comes to the rare event.  The narrative fallacy addresses our limited ability to look at sequences of facts without weaving an explanation to them, or, equivalently, forcing a logical link upon them. Explanations bind facts together.  They make them all the more easily remembered.  Where this propensity can go wrong is when it increases our impression of understanding.

In my own words (linked to my knowledge :-)), this means that in order to be able to remember all the facts of a project or iteration, we inevitably try to interpret them and simplify them.  We link them our view of the world, whether or not this is correct.

If we reconstruct our timeline in reverse, it will be much harder to do.

Don’t get scared by the idea. In my experience it feels more natural and is easier to start with the events that are still fresh in your memory.

So give it a try.  In the worst case, you still have one retrospective that wasn’t boring!

About Nick Oostvogels

Hi, I'm an independent management consultant. My biggest strengths are located in the fields of teamwork, motivation, leadership and continuous improvement. In the IT industry you find a lot of these values in the agile movement, in which I often act as a project leader, product owner or coach. My interests go a lot further, into other industries where we find these values in lean production. Besides that, I try to broaden my horizon as much as possible, always looking for better ways of doing business.


  1. Hi Nick,

    About your statement “We link them our view of the world, whether or not this is correct.” – I think this is part of the estimating and forecasting biases, which are very common in project management.

    Now a quick thing to add about the black swan, I have published this article, black swan risks in program management a while ago. I know that it is targeted at traditional program management, but I’m sure you’ll find it useful (the author is one of the best on PM Hut) if you get the chance to read it!

  2. Pingback: Empire and Allies Hack

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