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Blaming and Naming: Recognizing and Avoiding Retrospective Antipatterns

Retrium Team

Using the familiar “patterns” approach, Aino Vonge Corry Ph.D. explored antipatterns related to both remote and co-located team retrospectives. From “blaming and naming” to too much small talk, Aino reveals traps she’s encountered in leading hundreds of retrospectives 

Defining Antipatterns 

To define patterns, Aino explains how teams develop patterns all the time. When teams look at context and forces that are leading to issues and develop a way to solve these issues, the team is creating a pattern. This pattern will create benefits, consequences, and related solutions. An antipattern develops when the consequences far outweigh the benefits. When that happens, the team must come up with new solutions that solve new consequences as well as the original issue. 

Antipatterns not only waste team time, but they can also drag down team morale and progress. In her book, Aino Corry discusses the many antipatterns that she has seen teams develop and ways to overcome them. As part of her presentation, Aino discusses the top five antipatterns that teams often struggle with and easy strategies to break the cycle. 

Prime Directive Ignorance 

What is the Prime Directive? This term comes Norm Kerth’s book, Project Retrospective. (2001) As Corry explains, the Prime Directive of any retrospective should be focusing on improving systems, not blaming others. 

"Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand." – Norm Kerth

Remembering the Prime Directive means that we keep the mindset that each team member does their best in each sprint. We as team members may not be aware of individual situations, and blaming one teammate for not “pulling their weight” does help move a retrospective discussion forward. 

Remembering the Prime Directive

“Bring the directive to each retrospective, and start with it. I have found that some groups react negatively to the wording of the Prime Directive, and in those cases, I reword it but maintain the core idea that we should all look for the problems in the system, not in the people.” - Aino Corry

The Prime Directive should be seen as a state of mind to enter when you walk into a retrospective. It is a team thing to have a retrospective, so you should think of everyone as part of the team, or as part of a system, and find ways to improve that system. If you start out by thinking they purposely have not done their best, you will not have a fruitful retrospective.

Wheel Of Fortune 

If your team ever feels like it is just trying to find a solution and get the retrospective over, then you might be falling into the Wheel of Fortune Antipattern. 

You may have seen this circle or some variation of this retrospective technique which asks what should we do more of, less of, start doing, keeping doing, and stop doing. As Aino explains, oftentimes teams will fill this out and then, boom, 💥 they win a ticket out of the retrospective and back to work. After all, they came up with solutions to work on. 

A team may say they want more pair programming, but they may miss why they couldn’t implement pair programming earlier. Was it a time issue? A technical set-up? If a team struggles to implement “more pair programing” then they will be right back where they started. 


Avoiding The Wheel Of Fortune 

If they Invest the time to generate insights and go deeper before coming up with action-items through a fishbone chart, a Five Hows approach, or some other method, they may examine larger issues at play.

Do It Yourself

When looking at who should be facilitating a retrospective, that job often falls to the scrum master. So why is this an antipattern? Aino explains the impact of having the same facilitator for every retrospective can have on team buy-in for retrospectives. As well as the issue that, as the facilitator, the scrum master is discouraged from participating in discussions. 

Make It A Team Effort 

Ensure team buy-in for the retrospective process, ignite new ideas, and help others learn by trading facilitation responsibilities. Using a retrospective tool will help both new and experienced facilitators easily trade off on the job of the facilitator. 

Disregard For Preparation 

While retrospectives are primarily discussion-based, that does not mean you shouldn’t prepare anything. Especially if you are working on a remote team. Teams that develop this antipattern often find retrospective discussion time is being eaten up with “what’s the password,” “let me find the file,” and too much small talk. When team members fail to prepare both physically and digitally for the retrospective, the quality of discussion falls. 

How To Prepare 

Aino reminds viewers that preparing for a retrospective means more than making sure everyone has the calendar invite. To help your team come prepared the facilitator or scrum master should: 

  • Send an email a day before the retrospective
  • Send an email 15 minutes before the retrospective (including stretch break reminders)
  • Make sure everyone is equal and those that are remote have fair and equal representation
  • Prepare an agenda and a backup agenda
  • Remove all recording presents to encourage honesty

In The Soup 

Playing off of one of the more famous retrospective activities from Diana Larsen, Circles and Soup, this antipattern examines retrospectives that tend to focus on what is out of the team’s control. This antipattern is characterized by statements such as, "The boss will never allow it," "Why can the retrospectives not help us," or "We never get anything changed."  Dr. Corry explains that this often happens. After gathering data, or discussing an issue at length, the team notices that their issues stem from a much larger problem that the team can not solve.  This mindset leads teams to come up with action-items that never get done or feeling completely disempowered. 

Staying Inside Your Circle of Influence

“Give me coffee to solve my problems. Give me red wine to forget the problems I can’t solve. And give me the wisdom to decide between the coffee and red wine problems.” 

Aino suggest two primary strategies for avoiding this anitpattern. First, focus on what you can do, and develop action-items that can affect issues that are in your circle of influence. Second, examine who is in the room. While Dr. Corry warns against regularly having “anyone with firing ability in the retrospective” for larger companies. Sometimes it can be efficient to bring a manager in to start a discussion about issues that are outside of the team’s influence, but inside the manager’s

To learn more about Aino Corry and Retrospective Antipatterns, be sure to check out the whole webinar and check out her new book, Retrospectives Antipatterns, currently on pre-order and available everywhere in December of 2020. You can get a sneak preview of the first chapter by visiting her website.

Aino Corry Ph.D.

Aino Vonge Corry is an independent consultant, who sometimes works as an agile coach. After gaining her Ph.D. in Computer Science in 2001 she spent the next 10 years failing to choose between being a researcher/teacher in academia and being a teacher/facilitator in industry. She eventually squared the circle by starting her own company, Metadeveloper, which develops developers by teaching CS, teaching how to teach CS, inviting speakers to IT conferences, and facilitating software development in various ways. She has facilitated retrospectives and other meetings for the past 15 years during which time she has made all the mistakes possible in that field.

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