Retrospectives are a critical element in Scrum but they won’t work well if your team hates them. A Sprint Retrospective needs someone to facilitate and keep it on track to encourage effective discussion. It’s more of an art than a science, but these key things will help.
1. Remain Neutral
From the Cambridge Dictionary, facilitation is “the act of helping other people to deal with a process or reach an agreement or solution without getting directly involved in the process, discussion, etc. yourself.”
This is often the hardest thing to do in the role of facilitator. It’s natural that you have ideas and opinions on what the team could try to improve, but the moment you move to advocacy, the team loses trust in their facilitator. The team needs to know that your goal in the retrospective is simply that they have a successful event and make their own discoveries. If they feel their facilitator has a personal position or opinion involved, they’ll question whether the event is being run to help them, or to steer where the facilitator thinks they should go.
This doesn’t stop you from being a facilitator and a ScrumMaster or Developer, if that’s the case – it merely means that, during the retrospective, you must set aside your personal agenda. Step back from advocacy (which does have a small place outside of the retrospective) to neutrality. Neutrality requires that you don’t advocate for viewpoints, positions, or ideas during the retrospective and, instead, seek to ensure that viewpoints are understood and ideas are heard.
But what about those times when you have ideas/issues that you feel are important to be discussed in the retrospective? You have four viable options:
- Don’t share the idea at all. If it is valuable for the team, someone else will come up with it.
- Invite another team member or an outsider to be the facilitator in a retrospective when you intend to discuss your idea.
- Write your idea down and give it to another team member prior to the retrospective. It becomes their job to advocate on behalf of your idea and, during the event itself, you don’t speak to it.
- Have a hat with a “team member” sign that you wear when presenting and speaking to your idea. There are several caveats with this idea: it can only work when the team already trusts that you’re a good facilitator, it can only be used sparingly and, when used, it really should be for only a short fraction of the retrospective.
While it’s challenging when the facilitator is an active team member, having the team’s manager or executive as the facilitator is far worse. Managers have power and, because of that power, participants won’t feel safe being candid and honest when difficult subjects are discussed. Managers cannot facilitate retrospectives and, under most circumstances, they shouldn’t even be in the room.
2. Own the Retrospective Plan, Keep it Interesting
To be effective, you should have a plan but also change up your retrospectives so they don’t get boring and predictable. If they’re always the same old song and nothing improves as a result of the conversations, team members will become disengaged and miss out on the benefits of a well-run sprint retrospective.
As the facilitator, you own the design of the retrospective. You decide which activities fit the team’s circumstances and mood, so be mindful of your choices. For example, if your team had trust issues last Sprint, then don’t plan an activity like Story Oscars that focuses on why a User Story went wrong, or there’s a good chance it will turn into a blame-and-shame session. In a situation like that, you’d be far better off to pick an exercise that is likely to promote a Systems Thinking mindset, so that the wider context becomes visible before you try to deal with trust issues.
Even with the best plans, you still must be prepared to adapt. I’ve facilitated a retrospective where I could just sense the energy of the room dying and the existing activity wasn’t working for them, so I flipped to a Sailboat Retrospective exercise, which felt a little more lighthearted and interactive. Likewise, if the conversation seems to be going in a different direction than you anticipated but it’s still productive, consider allowing it to unfold and adapt your plan based on the team’s need.
- Cover the meeting outline before beginning by giving the team a short outline of your agenda.
- Don’t solve problems. Help your team communicate effectively so they solve it.
- Allow silence. If the dialogue pauses naturally, don’t seek to fill the void. Silence often prompts someone new to speak up.
- Ask open-ended, probing questions that seek to clarify, and test to see if your understanding of a statement is correct by rephrasing it back to the original person.
- Direct questions to the quieter members of the group to help bring them into the discussion.
- Monitor the energy of the group by observing body language, fidgeting, tone of voice, etc.
- Pay attention to your own body language and reactions. What signals are you sending? Are you favouring anyone? Signalling irritation?
- Don’t do all the writing. When writing summaries is necessary, consider inviting a team member to do it. You may find that their interpretation of events is different than yours would have been, which is valuable to learn from.
- When you must be the scribe and you paraphrase, ask the audience if your rephrasing matches their original intention.
- Encourage people to use “I” language if there are difficult situations. That is when the person describes the effect it had on them and their feelings, rather than makes statements that start with “You did … x.”
- Refocus the group if they jump ahead segments. For example, if in the data-gathering phase, people start to solve the problem, gently guide them back to the task at hand.
- Use a Parking Lot to set aside questions or issues that can’t be handled right now. It acknowledges that there is something that needs to be addressed but prevents the retrospective from being stalled as a result of it.
- When you have team members who are more expressive than others, consider exercises where their opinions come later, after quieter team members.
- Bring in an outside facilitator from time to time – someone from another team (not just the ScrumMaster), an Agile Coach etc. – so they can observe and offer objective feedback and suggestions for improvement.
This is just a quick post about one of the most essential parts of Scrum. Learn much more in our free Guide to Effective Agile Retrospectives.
Mark Levison has been helping Scrum teams and organizations with Agile, Scrum and Kanban style approaches since 2001. From certified scrum master training to custom Agile courses, he has helped well over 8,000 individuals, earning him respect and top rated reviews as one of the pioneers within the industry, as well as a raft of certifications from the ScrumAlliance. Mark has been a speaker at various Agile Conferences for more than 20 years, and is a published Scrum author with eBooks as well as articles on InfoQ.com, ScrumAlliance.org an AgileAlliance.org.