What can you do if retrospectives repeatedly go wrong?

Not all retrospectives go well. When you support a team as a Scrum master, there are all kinds of strange behaviours or team dynamics that can make retrospectives go sideways, time after time. A facilitator can’t always prevent that. At least I can’t. Not always. Got lots better, though. Over the years I’ve picked up several different angles to get retros back on track (what I think is the “track” anyway). Enjoy:

Choose specific activities

When I started out as a Scrum master I thought my only option was to carefully choose activities to nudge people into the direction I thought they needed to go. And for some situations that works well.

The team acts the victim. Others need to change, there’s nothing they can do? Try Outside In, Circles & Soup, If I were you, …

There is a specific “weak” area they don’t like to look at? Communication Lines for (surprise!) flow of information, Quartering for Tickets, Company Map for Power Dynacmics, …

Talk to individuals

Then I started to address individual behaviour in spontaneous 1:1s whenever I could snatch the person alone. For instance: “I’ve got the impression that you often address me during the retrospective (/standup/…). The information is not for me, it’s important for the others. I would love for you to try to look at the others more.”

Other example: “You’re very quiet during the retrospectives. I think your perspective is valuable and your view and ideas are missing. We are missing out. I’ve also noticed that you often aside, a bit removed from everyone else. Are you not feeling as part of the team?” In this case the answer was No. If it’s Yes, you’ve got a whole other problem to work on.

“Would you humor me and take a seat smack in the middle next time?” In this case it worked. He picked a middle seat and engaged more. (I had addressed the quietness before with other suggestions. I chalk that win up to the seating arrangement \o/)

Set the topic

Then I re-learned from “Agile Retrospectives” that I can set a topic for the entire retrospective. (I usually let participants set the topic, i.e. collect topics and then Lean Coffee their most important ones.) Setting the agenda gives you a lot of power. Wield it wisely.

Style Critique

This one I learned from a great ex-colleague. He facilitated a meeting among team leads. He was the boss of about half of the people in the room. When we thought we were done with the retrospective, he went meta on us and reflected our own behaviour back to us, namely that we talked over each other and didn’t really let each other finish. One possible interpretation of this is lack of respect. AFAIR he then made the express wish for us to be more considerate next time.

On the personal level I was stunned, I was part of the group and had not really noticed our subpar behaviour. On the meta level I was thrilled. I remember thinking “Wait, you can do that? This is great (if sparsely used)”. It was a new tool to address group / team problems.

Formerly I would have just shaken my head in despair that the team has such poor dynamics and tried one of the previous approaches, often to no avail.

I would not have dared to go meta as a new facilitator. Also I wouldn’t have had enough examples of behaviour to compare against and know when it’s appropriate to go meta critic. Now I sometimes do it after the actual retrospective, for example in this case:

“You’ve off-handedly mentioned that $person’s behaviour is detrimental for $team, yet doing anything about this behaviour is not part of your solution. From my perspective it looks like your action item will work around issues with $person. That seemed very strange to me. Worth pointing out.”

It’s just an observation, something to ponder. I won’t press the issue. They can dwell on it. If it’s important it will come up again.

So, there they are. My re-railing tactics. What are yours?

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books