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Retrospective 101

Retrospective Anti-Patterns and The Bad Habits Teams Pick Up Along The Way

Let's go on an adventure! Where to? The best retrospective experience your team has ever had, of course! 


Let's start with a few questions. What does the perfect retrospective look like? Who is there? What goals do you achieve? 


Each team's perfect retrospective is probably a little different from other team's. For example, an engineering team that has been working together for years will probably have different goals for their retrospective than a newly-formed team about to embark on their first project.

But in the quest for the perfect retrospective, teams across the world face many similar challenges including challenges the teams will unintentionally create on their own.

We call these specific challenges retrospective anti-patterns. And while they don't have scales or breathe fire, retrospective anti-patterns can continuously wreak havoc on your team's ultimate success.


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What is a retrospective anti-pattern?

Let's take a minute to clearly define what a retrospective anti-pattern is. Put simply, these are choices and habits that teams develop because they appear to be viable solutions to issues the team is facing, but they have a negative impact or undesired consequence.  In other words, these are commonly used retrospective practices that seem like a great idea on paper, but conclusively damage the team’s success. And we have seen them over and over again in our work with teams. Just to be clear, anti-patterns are not to be confused with bad habits. The biggest difference here is intention; we easily recognize bad habits but we adopt an anti-pattern with the expectation it will enable - not inhibit - our success.


While some retrospective anti-patterns have become habitual for many teams, these are specific choices that we make that in the short -and long- term are doing more harm than good. 


In this chapter, we are going to take a close look at the recurring retrospective anti-pattern themes that might be quietly sabotaging your team's chances for retrospective success. Because these anti-pattern themes are Killing Productivity, Killing Efficiency, and Killing Engagement and Trust.



Killing Productivity

"Productivity" has become a buzzword in the past few decades and has evolved to mean different things to different teams. An optimal environment is productive not simply in the quantity of work you are able to accomplish, but also in the quality of work you can produce. 


For example, I could write 30,000 words in this chapter. That would be a large amount of work done. However, if half of those words were dedicated to just copying song lyrics from my favorite band, that wouldn't be productive to the goal of writing this chapter. 


It is the same for your team. If you lose sight of the need to balance quality with quantity, you can easily fall into this anti-pattern and actually poison your team's productivity in the long run. 


Teams can kill productivity in many ways and it's important to note that it might take a while to notice the full impact each of these has on your team. 


Let's take a look at the ways teams kill productivity when they think they're actually improving it.

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Creating too many goals

“Create goals to help your team”

The team is excited and sees several areas for improvement, so they create a list of goals and get to work. Yet only a few of those goals get accomplished. What happened? It isn’t that your team isn’t working hard. Quite the opposite. The team may become overworked. They may be overwhelmed by the amount of priorities they have. They may realize that by having too many goals, they, in fact, have no goals at all.

“When you have too many top priorities, you effectively have no top priorities.”
- Stephen Covey

Creating too many goals retro after retro leads to a backlog of action items and to-do lists that is constantly getting reprioritized before -eventually- these goals are dropped entirely into the void of goals to work on “one day when there is time.” 


Spoiler alert: that day never seems to come. 😱 


Instead, create a few specific goals that your team can more reasonably accomplish. The team can then build momentum from their success and will create lasting change for the better as they take on the next goal and the next and so on.


Skipping the retro entirely

“It would be a better use of time to just work”

What is the number 1 retrospective anti-pattern of all time? Not having one.😬🤯 

I get it. There are always deadlines looming and taking the time to stop and reflect can feel counterproductive. You have code to write. Emails to answer. Life to live! 


But is this really helping your team in the long run? 


Continuing to work without stopping to examine processes and systems affecting you and your team means that you’re likely running into the same obstacles over and over and over again. 


Stop running into walls! If the team is feeling overwhelmed, you need a retrospective to discuss why, and realign on that shared goal we just talked about! While YOU might know it's important to run the retro every single time, you might get resistance from your team. In chapter 4 we looked at how discussion and honesty can be the best way to engage your team. Discuss why the team wants to work through the retrospective in the first place and what can be done to allow them the opportunity for reflection. Are there too many blockers? Is the goal unrealistic? Is there something bigger going on?


As counterintuitive as it may feel, teams that don’t want to attend the retrospective are the exact teams that need a retrospective the most! Taking the time to realign the work they're doing, safely express concerns, and come to consensus on a path forward always benefits the team in more ways than the quantity of output. 

Leaving action items for retrospectives only

“Share responsibility for completing an action item” 

So, who was responsible for making sure this action item was completed?

If this question comes up in your retrospectives, I have good news and I have bad news for you. First, the good news! You're creating action items in your retros! 😉 Now, the bad news. It is unclear who is accountable for your success. 


Instead of dictating which one person is responsible, develop the habit of having a volunteer act as an ambassador for each action item the team creates. This will be the person that makes sure the action item enters the workflow and won't be left to the dusty parts of retrospective history.


If you're not assigning one person as responsible for making sure the action item is complete, you've assigned no one to the task. There is no clear responsibility! Which leads to confusion, misalignment, and missed goals. 😱  


Born out of a desire to alleviate stress and save time, this happens when teams either rush to a conclusion by putting the facilitator and/or Scrum Master in charge or say, “it is something for the team to work on” without being specific. 


And it's important to note that just because they’re the ambassador doesn't mean they'e the ones that have to do the “work” associated with the action item.


Using the retrospective as a venting session

“Discuss everything bothering the team”

Retrospectives by themselves provide an interesting opportunity for teams. It is a meeting specifically designed to examine the issues facing the team and discuss ways to overcome these obstacles. Unfortunately, some teams use this mandate in a way that destroys productivity, efficiency, and overall team morale. 


I'm talking about retrospectives as venting sessions -- where team culture goes to die and safety can’t even phone a friend. 


This is the anti-pattern that tends to occur when teams use their retrospective meeting as an opportunity to complain about issues that fall outside of the team's control. 


How do you know if you're in a venting session instead of a retrospective? Venting sessions often include a few key ingredients: 


  • Team members use the retrospective to belittle or gossip about coworkers. 
  • Participants log complaints about management that no one plans to actually share with a manager.
  • Discussion continually focuses on issues outside of the group's influence or control. 


Everyone has a bad day now and again. Teams will often have obstacles in a project outside of their influence. However, a retrospective is designed to help the team find solutions to issues. If you are consistently using retro time to focus on factors in other parts of the company, you have no time left to actually improve the issues facing the team and the work that needs to be done to improve productivity.


“I like to send out an email reminding others to stretch and get water before the retro. We get stuck behind a screen so often. By reminding [participants] to get up, and start getting in that mindset, they can come into the retro fresh.”


-Aino Corry,

Blaming and Naming: Recognizing and Avoiding Retrospective Antipatterns

Instead, steer the conversation back to topics that are within your Circles of Influence. And remind your team there are two things that are always in your control. First, there is always one thing you can control, and that is your own reactions to situations outside your control. Second, while you might not be able to fix an external problem on your own, you almost always can try to influence someone or something who can fix it.

Focus on perfectionism

“Find the best solutions”

I talk a lot about retrospectives as a way to find lasting solutions for issues facing teams. But I am going to let you in on a secret. Sometimes.... they don't. 🤯 


Sometimes the issue is much bigger than one solution. Sometimes parts of the issue are completely out of the team's influence. And sometimes, there are too many unknowns to come up with the perfect solution no matter how many amazingly creative ideas you generate. 


This experience is frustrating for teams that have experienced retrospective success in the past and can totally derail teams that are newer to retrospectives. As a result, they stay on the search for the “perfect idea.” And keep running in circles. 


Stop looking for perfection! Instead, encourage participants to look for 15% Solutions and develop a growth mindset. In this way of thinking, action items, solutions, and ideas are fluid experiments as the team strives for opportunities to develop and learn.

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”


- Dr. Carol S Dweck,

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success


I know a few skeptics out there will say that failure sounds like a bigger killer of productivity than perfectionism.


I understand the concern. But just like we discussed in Chapter 4 when I first discussed 15% Solutions, you can always return to your original way of thinking. Plus, when teams stop being afraid of failure from imperfect solutions, they are more likely to develop new ideas that can enliven productivity and engagement across the team. 

Killing Efficiency

Once you have stopped anti-patterns that are killing your team's long-term productivity, it is time to address the ones that are making the retrospective experience distressing for everyone involved. Like Productivity Anti-Patterns, Inefficiency Anti-Patterns are killing your team's ability to do good work. The difference is efficiency killers are not waiting to start doling out their carnage; the misery starts during the retrospective and just keeps going.

Coming as you are

“Just bring yourself and a good attitude”

You are ready to walk into the retrospective! Do you need to bring or prep anything? If you answered no, or nothing but your ideas, you are falling into an anti-pattern of undervaluing preparation. 
In Chapter 5, we examined the types of data you should bring to your regular retrospective. But if you still feel you do not have specific data to contribute to the retrospective, Dr. Aino Corry explains multiple ways you and your teammates should prepare for a retrospective.

  • 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 recordings of who is present to encourage honesty

Data, backlogs, and status reports are all valuable pieces of information that can help you mentally prepare for a retrospective. Allocating 15 minutes before the start of your retrospective to stretch and refill your water is an excellent way to help your team prepare physically before the retrospective even begins. 


Taking the time to prepare before a retrospective allows team members to clear their mind for the coming discussion. This practice helps team member prepare for the conversation and collect data needed to avoid moving forward on inaccurate information.

Planning to speak about everything

“Speak about all the issues that are facing your team to better understand what needs to be done”

Once upon a time, I spoke to a company that proudly declared their adoption and support for retrospectives. “We love them so much, we have an annual four-hour retrospective!” 😯 


Which brings us to our next anti-pattern: talking about everything


This pattern usually presents in two distinct ways:

  1. Retrospectives last for way too long
  2. The facilitator rushes through a long list of topics to make sure everything is “covered.”


Both of these are symptoms of a larger anti-pattern that ultimately lead to the same place: the death of efficiency. 


Looking at the first scenario, in order to cover every topic that is brought up the retrospective goes long. Not only does this disrespect everyone's time, it also drains energy. Hello, meeting fatigue! Sure, it is impossible to accurately predict how long a discussion will last. But, when teams get into the habit of allowing the retro to go over the allotted time by even as much as five minutes, your team’s engagement will begin to drop which sets your retrospective - and your team - up for failure. 


As soon as you stop following the schedule the team has agreed to, important tools to keep the conversation fresh and relevant, like breaks and refreshment refills, are difficult to incorporate. At the end of that final topic, was the conversation still as valuable as the start of the first topic that opened the discussion? Odds are, no. Instead, the extra time borrowed from other meetings and project time could make the team feel frustrated and build animosity towards the retrospective process. 


While the second scenario better respects the time of participants, it does not allow the team to focus on the topics that need to have a deeper discussion. Instead, the team is unable to delve into a topic and fully explore the issue at hand to find a valuable solution. This technique ultimately stifles all conversation as people withhold comments in order to get through all the topics. As a result, teams are fast to document and agree on the first solution or action item that is discussed for a specific topic instead of taking the extra time to consider other ideas that could lead to a better solution in the long run. 

 

To prevent or overcome both of these habits, use a tool or technique that allows participants to vote on the most important topics. Then focus your conversation on the topics the group most wants to discuss, being mindful to make the space needed to fully engage the team in the most critical issues. This will encourage a more valuable discussion and more creative solutions to the challenges the team is facing.

Inviting everyone

“I'll just come by to see how the team is doing”

Retrospectives are a place where participants should discuss issues and celebrate success. This is impossible to do if - and I can not emphasize this enough- they don't feel safe. Over and over again I see organizations try to increase efficiency and transparency by sharing minutes, allowing stakeholders and managers in the retro, or sharing personal statements from the retro. While this might seem like a great way to share information and outcomes with the organizational leaders, for many teams, this has a significant negative impact on the team's psychological safety. That’s because they may not feel the same level of trust and rapport with a manager as they do with a team member they speak with regularly. 


To avoid this anti-pattern, create a working agreement with your team that provides clear guidelines on who should -- and should not -- be in a retrospective and what will -- and will not -- be shared with those outside of the room during the retrospective. Each member of the team can then independently advocate that the details of each retrospective should remain within the team unless there is a specific outcome that needs to be shared. Because, ultimately, it should be up to the team. If the team opts in to sharing something specific and identifiable, that's a-ok. If not, that should be respected as well.

Letting conversation flow

“Let conversations flow without worrying about time constraining conversation”

Ever been in a meeting where you kept coming back to the same discussion topic without making any progress? And even worse, it didn’t involve you at all, so instead you just think about all the other things you could be doing in that moment? That is the undesired effect of letting conversations flow without regard to the time.  


I know. I know. Just a few sections earlier I advocated for the need to focus discussion to allocate enough time to the most important topics. It may feel like I’m now encouraging the opposite. Hear me out. 


Yes, letting conversations flow is an excellent way to allow teams to fully discuss issues and generate more productive ideas. However, if you have been in a meeting for two hours with no break, then the quality of conversation might diminish as fatigue and biology start to take effect. While it might sound counterintuitive, one of the best ways to make sure discussions stay relevant and on topic and are respectful of the team’s schedule is to use and respect timeboxing limits.


Set the expectation with your team that the discussion will have a timebox to act as a guide for evaluating whether the discussion on a topic needs to continue or if you’re ready to move on. When used with realistic expectations that you may not get to every topic, timeboxing is an excellent way to make sure conversations stay focused and people can stay engaged. 


If your team struggles to produce a valuable conclusion by the end of the timebox, it is up to them to decide if they’d like to continue discussing the topic. Whether it be through roman voting or some other method, give the participants a chance to decide if this needs to become a separate meeting for the interested parties. That way those that want to continue can and those that wish to move on aren’t sacrificing their time on a topic that is irrelevant. 


Using silence as a tool for anxiety

“Use silence to encourage people to speak”

🦗🦗🦗🦗🦗🦗🦗

Love it or loathe it, silence can be an excellent tool to help the team create the space they may need to reflect on a question. But, it can also be a way to torture your participants. If your team members are starting to dread your retrospectives because of the constant awkwardness, then your engagement rate might start to suffer. 


How do you balance the need for thoughtful silence with the anxiety-inducing awkward silences people struggle to fill? 


The key to avoiding this anti-pattern is explaining the benefit of the silence to your team. By assigning a purpose and a value to the silence, you can allow individuals the time they need to develop ideas, formulate thoughtful responses, or consider how they may prioritize topics.  


Providing context is important to create buy-in around silence as a tool and is another great example of something to include in your team’s working agreement. Creating a timebox around the length of the silence and explaining the benefit of the silence is integral to having the team use silence effectively. Or else you really are just staring at blank faces. 😬

“The question is not, do I feel comfortable with silence. [It is] would the group benefit from it?


- Leslie Riley
Executive director Full Circle Inspiration


Killing Engagement and Trust

I speak a lot about psychological safety as the key to successful retrospectives. But even teams that are “doing everything right” can still undermine the team’s psychological safety. Often the result of wanting to avoid difficult situations, these killers of engagement and trust are the anti-patterns where professionalism turns to dangerous apathy.


Ignoring the obvious

“Retros are not for issues outside of the team’s influence”

Ok, so I said this wasn't an anti-pattern. But let me use an example of when not speaking about something outside of the team’s influence can be even more concerning. 


In 2019, The Wall Street Journal article by Elliot Brown reported on a bizarre incident that happened at WeWork in 2016. To summarize, WeWork’s then-CEO Adam Neumann announced that 7% of WeWork staff was being laid off as a necessary step to cut costs. Despite the somber news, the WeWork CEO then  seemed to celebrate. Trays of tequila shots were passed around to everyone at the all-hands meeting and Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC performed. Needless to say, many employees were left confused by this sequence of events. 


While an extreme case, this is an excellent example of ignoring the obvious. Neumann acted as though with the correct stimulus - in this case tequila and hip hop - the 7% layoff could be forgotten or ignored. It wasn’t. Instead it introduced new questions about Neumann’s ability to successfully run the company. 


When larger issues outside of the team’s control occur, many facilitators try to shy away from the conversation with the thought that having difficult conversations about the world can feel like a distraction from the issues and scope of the retrospective. It’s not. 


Checking in or having a full conversation about the feelings and concerns of team members is one of the best ways to improve engagement and trust between team members. Even if you do not feel the team has the level of psychological safety to have an open discussion about current events, you can use a tool such as a team radar to discuss the needs of the team and the best way to establish empathy amongst group members. And that empathy can help the team deal with the next large challenge that may cross their path regardless of how big or small it may be.


Self-awareness apathy

“Everyone has different communication styles, just accept it and move on”

The same people talk in every single retrospective. If the facilitator allows the issue to continue and the same team members dominate each retrospective, the team can quickly fall into this anti-pattern. 


Let’s be honest, it can feel easier to let the team continue to be guided by the thoughts and opinions of the more vocal teammates. Afterall, at least someone is talking, right?  


Wrong. Ultimately, by not making the space for new voices and opinions to be heard, those that started with limited engagement may stop engaging at all. Then, even your talkers will notice an issue and may decide that if no one else is talking, they don’t need to participate either. 


To stop this anti-pattern from continuing, facilitators should focus on helping team members build a level of self-awareness in meetings. 


Expert facilitator, Leslie Riley, explains that one way to encourage self-awareness is by pulling those that usually dominate conversations aside and have them keep a tally of how many times they have spoken in a meeting. This practice often leads those that are first to speak to start holding back and allow other voices to be heard, and the team can have a more equitable level of participation.

Always having the answer

“The team is looking up to you, so make sure you answer all their needs”

As a facilitator, you need to advocate for the needs of your participants. This advice is often misconstrued to mean that the facilitator or manager should have all the answers or make final decisions on the issues being discussed. This moves accountability for developing ideas and acting decisively on action items away from the team to the facilitator, and puts undue stress on the facilitator.

To make sure this anti-pattern doesn’t develop, Leslie Riley uses a very specific phrase in her retrospectives: “I don’t know, what do you think?”


This phrase helps teams in two ways. First, it shows a level of vulnerability that can increase psychological safety on the team. Second, it gives the team permission to ideate and create new ideas. Does she know a great answer, or have a solution already in mind? Maybe. But by starting with, “I don’t know, what do you think?” the team has the space it needs to develop ideas. This can lead to a stronger sense of ownership and buy-in on the team while validating the opinions of the team members.

Focusing on issues and ignoring successes

“Only use this time to discuss the team’s problems”

Your team lowered the number of bugs! 🎉 Congratulations! The average team happiness score on a team radar has gone up 30%?🔥 That is fantastic! 


Celebrate these accomplishments in your retrospective! How did you get there? What made you successful? What can you take from these achievements to drive improvement in other areas?


Teams often focus retro conversations only on the issues that they are facing and fall into the pattern of ignoring their successes until the end of the project or even the end of the year. 


Whether it is in a quick exercise to Set The Stage at the beginning of your meeting or a larger discussion, taking time to recognize and celebrate your team's successes (both big and small) increases engagement and ownership by highlighting the impact you’ve had from ideas originally discussed in a retrospective. Not only does taking the time to celebrate give your team a morale boost, it is the ultimate proof in the value of retrospectives.

Sustaining positive retrospective habits

It’s easy for teams to fall into any combination of these anti-patterns, and there are dozens of  reasons teams can fall into these patterns. Your team can be a diverse set of individuals with their own unique needs, thought processes, and communication styles. What worked well for one team might become an anti-pattern for another. The best thing you can do is actively retrospect on your process and norms amongst your team and work together to evolve your habits in a healthy and productive way, including updating your working agreements. 


Yes, running a retrospective on your retrospectives can be a great way to ultimately save time and prevent your retro conversations from these anti-patterns. 


Ready to start using a formal retrospective tool to take your conversations to the next level? Start your Retrium Free Trial Today.



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