Agile Retrospectives: Breaking Sisyphus Rock

Mário Melo
4 min readAug 8, 2018


Who the hell is Sisyphus and why does he matter?

Ok, I admit the mixing greek mythology with agile ceremonies isn't that usual. So, let me first introduce our hero (or not): Sisyphus.

(If you already know him, you can totally skip this part.)

In greek mythology, Sisyphus was the smartest man on earth. Smart, but not wise one might say. He was smart enough to trick 3 gods: Zeus, Thanatos and Hades. Basically he snitched the god of gods, outsmarted the death itself and cheated the god of the underworld. By the way, he also pissed off Ares along the way. I'm not going into the details, but it's a pretty cool myth and you can find out more on here.

Thing is, although Sisyphus was smart enough to trick the gods he was also dumb enough to think that this could be a good idea. When he finally died, a whole fan club was anxiously waiting for him to arrive at the underworld. And the greek gods are kind of human, you know?They're flawed and do a lot of mistakes all the time. Do you know what else is a human desire that these gods also have in their hearts? Vengeance.

Ok, so they were decided to make an example out of Sisyphus. He was going to receive the worst punishment ever. That, coming from guys that tied a guy on a branch tree so an eagle could eat his liver every f**** day for the rest of the eternity didn't sound good. What could be even worse?

The rock and the hill

After thinking about the subject for a little time, the greek gods came to a simple conclusion: the worst punishment you can ever give to a human is forcing them to do some purposeless task over and over again.

And so they did.

Sisyphus was condemned to push a rock over a huge hill for the rest of the eternity. But there's a catch: besides being purposeless, the task would never end. Every time Sisyphus would came close to top of the hill the rock would roll down and he had to start it all over again.

Greek gods are heartless a**holes

Back to Reality

Okay, fun story. Maybe not for Sisyphus, but you got the point. Now you're probably asking me: what the hell does it have to do with agile?

A lot. Sometimes companies hire the smartest guys on earth and give them rocks to push over a hill. And sometimes, they even make them do it over and over again.

It's sounds kind of sadistic, isn't it? I'll pay you a salary so I can apply the worst punishment ever to you every day.

That's why we do Agile Retrospectives, right?

Well, it's one of the reasons, yes. But what if the retrospective itself became a purposeless meeting where we complain about the same things every sprint?

The whole point about retrospectives is improving. And to do that, we walk through the four stages of competence.

  • Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

We don't know how to do something. And as we don't know, we don't think about it.

  • Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

We know we should be doing something, and we feel bad for not doing it.

  • Stage 3: Conscious Compentence

We learned something new, but it's not natural yet. We need to keep reminding ourselves about it.

  • Stage 4: Unconscious Competence

We're so f**** good at it that we don't even have to think about it anymore. It's like keeping our balance while riding a bike.

The problem with Retrospective Boards

Now, most retrospective techniques focus mainly on the two intermediate states of competence. It's kind of obvious why they do that: these stages are the conscious ones.

What happens when we finally became good enough at a given task so we can use our autopilot mode? If it's a post-it, we tear it apart. If it's on some kind of online system or worksheet, we check it so we don't see it again.

My point is: we just improved our process! Or our team capabilities! Or even our relationship with both the team and the customers!

Do you know what's a perfect match for improvements? Celebration.

Meet Kevin, the Coach Bacon

A smiling pink pig. What's not to love?

Kevin was born in our office to solve this problem. Every time we improve a process or learn a new skill in my company we feed coach bacon with a post-it or index card. He craves for our unconscious competences.

Every 3 months we order pizzas and beers to celebrate over the things we learned. On this day, we take the post-its and index cards from the coach bacon and read them out loud while eating, drinking and having fun. Only then we tear they apart.

Kevin makes the retrospectives more meaningful and it also works like a health check: if nothing evolved and nobody learned anything in the past 3 months, something must change.

But the most important thing Kevin brings to our company is the habit to celebrate our own improvements in a natural way.

By the way… See how the words "natural" and "improvements" fit together in the same sentence back there? ;-)


Any purposeless work hurt people. A lot. Avoid them at all costs. If you're doing something and you can't understand why, try to figure it out or stop doing it at once. Don't let your retrospectives become purposeless: celebrate achievements more often.



Mário Melo

An agilist addicted to new technologies that sometimes needs to take a break and beat some goombas