Back to Academy
Table of Contents
It’s our most valuable resource. And in a post-COVID world, people are paying attention to how they’re spending their time more than ever before. While hallway meetings and quick desk-side check-ins used to be commonplace, the rise in asynchronous communication has led many people to ask one big question:
Is this meeting essential?
Retrospectives are not immune to this scrutiny. The fact is that quality retrospectives require time, patience, and practice. Unfortunately, those are three things that many people, teams, and even organizations regularly lack.
Let’s break it down.
If your team retrospects for one hour every two weeks, that’s 26 hours a year. Not including any action item follow-up or retrospective prep and planning that may require additional work.
If your team and leadership understand the value of retrospectives and are consistent, then 26 hours a year is a small price to pay.
However, if anyone in your organization doubts the value of retrospectives, that is 26 hours that would be better spent working through projects and tasks.
In the chapter, Retrospectives 101, we discuss the value of retrospectives and their role in helping teams continuously improve. We’ll now explore why people doubt the power of retros and some of the most common complaints facilitators across the world are hearing.
Gaining buy-in for retrospectives is not a given and can be difficult. Let’s dig into how doubt can manifest and explore a few strategies to help others see the time teams spend in their retrospectives as time invested.
Try Retrium. It guides you through the retrospective process.Start today for free!
Let’s start with one of the biggest complaints – we don’t have time.
In an ideal world, every project has patient stakeholders. There are never any unexpected blockers or issues in development, and the path to “done” is clear and easy. All projects are completed on time without stress or concern. Scope creep does not exist. ✂️
In the real world, none of that is true. And that’s a good thing. The fact that there is a time crunch and pressure to succeed is a good thing. Stakeholders want updates because they want you to succeed. The development will hit issues because you are creating something innovative, and there are impediments because you are growing.
Unfortunately, seeing the silver lining to the pressures of the world does not change the feeling that there is never enough time. These pressures can often be bad news for retrospective facilitators.
Retrospectives tend to be the first meeting on the chopping block when time seems short. Some team members feel that retrospectives waste valuable time when deadlines loom. After all, 26 extra hours can make a huge difference.
This might come as a surprise, but I agree…to an extent.
The fact isn’t that the team doesn’t have time for retrospectives; your team just doesn’t have time for flawed or ineffective retrospectives. They also don’t have time for complicated or misaligned retrospectives that don’t lead to actual follow-through and valuable improvements.
If you, as a facilitator, are hearing, “we don’t have time for retrospectives,” or, “retrospectives are a waste of time,” your team is really telling you, “ we aren’t getting any value from our retrospective.” That is a different concern. “We don’t have time” is impossible to address when taken at face value unless you have a time machine that can stretch and manipulate our clocks to make more time. “We aren’t getting value from our retros” is an objection you can address by finding ways to improve your retros and their outcomes.
A retrospective is one of the best ways to figure out how to improve. When you are getting pushback against the value of retros, run a retro on your retros. See what people find valuable and what is stealing the worth of the retrospective.
After each retrospective, run a Return On Time Invested (ROTI) wrap-up to examine if people thought the retrospective was worth their time and discuss ways to improve.
Not every retro will be a winner, but with consistent improvements, your team will start to recognize the value in retrospectives even when the clock is ticking down.
Want to know when the next chapter is available? Sign up below to be among the first to receive each chapter.
Valuable retrospectives require vulnerability. Which can be a hard sell for people that think talking about your feelings at work is a waste of time or even inappropriate.
However, expecting a retro to run without emotion is like asking one of your teammates to remove all emotion from their work. You want them to enjoy and find meaning in the work they do, right?
During each retrospective, the team needs to examine what brings frustration, happiness, fear, excitement, and other emotions to their work. This vulnerability can be uncomfortable for those who want to separate emotions and work. At least, at first.
In a conversation with the Founder of Full Circle Inspiration and former second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Leslie Riley, about her experiences introducing retrospectives with high-ranking members of the United States Armed Forces, I asked, "what was the response in the room when you encouraged these seemingly stoic leaders to discuss their feelings?"
She explained, "There was some hesitation at first. I remember one person saying, 'it was good, but I don'tdon't want to talk about that [feeling] stuff.' After some further conversation, they came to realize that the [feeling] stuff was where a lot of the changes needed to happen."
In my own experience, I was discussing the importance of checking in on each team member's emotional state and sense of safety. I was later told, "people just need to focus on the work and leave the feelings at home."
The irony that he was sharing his feelings about sharing his feelings was apparently lost on him.
We have established the importance of psychological safety as critical to the success of your retrospective since Chapter 7 and how team members' ability to share honest feedback is at the crux of every retrospective. Understanding feelings ultimately helps team members understand the additional context of the given situation and improve overall communication skills.
But one issue may stand in the way: some people hate discussing their feelings at work.
And I don'tdon't use the term hate lightly.
The fact is we not only bring our expertise to each job, but we also bring our previous experiences. For many, past experiences sharing personal feelings haven't gone well or have been plainly catastrophic. These past experiences can result from cultural upbringing, social stigma, bad experiences with previous teams, or various combinations.
However, navigating these challenges and overcoming the hesitation to share personal feelings has benefits beyond the retrospective meeting.
According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1 in 8 people in the world live with a mental disorder, and mental illness contributes to the deaths of more than 700,000 people every year.
In APA's 2021 Work and Well-being Survey of 1,501 U.S. adult workers, 79% of employees had experienced work-related stress the month before the survey. Nearly 60% of employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, including lack of interest, motivation, energy, or effort at work.
Meanwhile, 36% reported cognitive weariness, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and an astounding 44% reported physical fatigue—a 38% increase since 2019.
As empathetic human beings, these statistics are distressing. People in need should have the resources they need and the support of their communities to live healthy and happy lives.
As business and community leaders, however, the effects of these statics have lasting professional and personal impacts.
According to the Harvard Business Review article: Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People, financially, employee burnout affects productivity by the cost of $125 billion in direct business and another $190 billion every year in health care costs. Gallup calculates that burned-out employees cost $3,400 out of every $10,000 in salary because of disengagement.
Kronos Incorporated conducted a national survey of 614 HR leaders – including Chief Human Resource Officers (CHRO), vice presidents of H.R., H.R. directors, and H.R. managers from organizations with 100 to 2,500+ employees and found that "95 percent of human resource leaders admit employee burnout is sabotaging workforce retention."
Made even more troubling when you consider the cost of recruiting and replacement.
“many employers estimate the total cost to hire a new employee can be three to four times the position's salary”
–Edie Goldberg, founder of E.L. Goldberg & AssociateThe bottom line isn't the only impact that can be measured.
The bottom line isn't the only impact that can be measured.
When people are unhappy with their position, the increased turnover rate leads to a loss of institutional and customer knowledge, and innovation ultimately suffers.
In the community, those struggling with meeting their mental health are more likely to go to prison or experience homelessness.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an estimated $1 Trillion (yes, that's a T) is lost globally due to mental illness.
To put it simply, challenging any personal, cultural or social stigmas to be able to talk freely about feelings in a professional setting is essential.
But why is it essential in retrospectives? After all, retrospective facilitators are rarely qualified to deal with serious mental illness.
And they shouldn't. If a colleague is showing signs of serious mental illness, a group retrospective is not the place to discuss their options for support and treatment.
Instead, the retrospective is an excellent opportunity to make sure that teams feel comfortable and heard. Just like burnout has a lasting impact, so does empathetic listening.
Using retrospectives as a space to discuss feelings and emotions not only normalizes speaking about emotions and combats stigmas; it also gives project team leaders, managers, and operations a better understanding of the entire organization's needs. When people's complaints are heard and addressed, they are less likely to leave the organization and more likely to continue performing at a high level. Organizations and organizational cultures can grow off a solid understanding that concerns will be addressed.
In the chapter Psychological Safety, we explored the impact psychological safety can have on productivity. Still, it is vital to remember that sometimes the ability to be vulnerable is a success unto itself.
Author and researcher Brené Brown shared the importance of vulnerability in her book, Dare to Lead, in the case study on DeDe Halfhill. A Colonel in the United States Air Force needed to address the (assumed) exhaustion her command was experiencing. When one of her reports asked about the tempo of work and ongoing expectations, DeDe had a choice, have an honest and vulnerable conversation about the issues or tell the team to get back to work. She chose vulnerability and feelings.
“My willingness to ask an uncomfortable question opened the door to a great conversation. We ended the afternoon event having had a very candid discussion about how we build relationships in the unit, how we reach out to others when we’re feeling alone, and how we create a community of inclusion. It also provided invaluable insight for the squadron commander and set him on a path to address the right issue: connection and inclusion versus busyness and exhaustion.”
– Brené Brown, Dare To Lead
A great conversation doesn’t always need an action item, but it does need to be honest. The value will follow later.
Try Retrium. It guides you through the retrospective process.Start today for free!
So we've met, "I don't have time." Now let me introduce its cousin that went to med school and always seems to have their life together.
"We already know what the problems are."
"We already know all the issues" is a popular objection for teams that are getting caught up in the big picture and miss the details.
When a team feels they are self-aware enough to recognize issues without a retrospective, ask questions such as
These questions aim to see where the team's energy is focused. Are they in a growth mindset but need to dive deeper into a problem to find new solutions? Are they focusing on issues outside of their control? Have they given their solutions enough time?
Often when a team feels the problem is obvious, they can be focused on solutions before fully defining the problem and causes that need to be addressed.
If this is the case, use the retrospective as a chance for the team to organize their thoughts. Instead of focusing on an obvious problem that may or may not be in the team's control, look into the exact issue and what specific action items the team can take to alleviate or even resolve the issue.
Remember, improvement demonstrates value, and if the team is getting stuck on a few known issues, retros are an excellent opportunity to see where the team is blocked and where to move forward.
If the "issue" the team is stuck on is a personnel issue. This is not a retrospective conversation. Personnel issues should be resolved in 1:1s or management or possibly HR. If your retros turn personal, then you start playing the blame game. Let's look at why this should be avoided at all costs!
Want to know when the next chapter is available? Sign up below to be among the first to receive each chapter.
Say hi to Riley! Riley is a UX designer and is having a rough week.
User interviews did not go smoothly and led to overwhelming negative feedback on the new feature that's been in design for months. It is time for the retrospective, and Riley is hoping for some positive feedback on how user interviews could run smoother or how to improve the feature. The facilitator chooses to run a start, stop, continue retrospective. After some time deliberating, the notes are revealed. Riley can't help but notice the cards with his name.
They focused on Riley’s performance instead of the feature or interview practices. So Riley’s week just got a lot worse. Because now he has to become defensive of the practices they knew needed improvement. Riley is the victim of the blame game.
The blame game. A game with no winners, few rules, and the “prize” is a combination of anger, humiliation, and frustration.
If you are lucky enough to have never been the victim of this “game,” you must have been on some fantastic teams in your lifetime.
Most of us have not been so lucky.
One of the most important foundations of teams is the humans that make up the team. As humans, we have great days and days where we learn. No one is perfect, and we are all bound to make mistakes. However, getting called out on poor performance, whether deserved or not, is never fun – especially in front of our peers.
If your retrospectives are turning into a round of the blame game in each discussion, or you feel yourself getting defensive in each retro, your retro is demonstrating multiple red flags that undermine the value of retrospectives.
Here are some red flags that signal you’re playing the blame game.
🚩Flag 1:You aren’t focusing on ways to improve the system
Retrospectives may seem like a logical place to discuss team members’ mistakes. After all, it is the meeting where we discuss issues, right? Not quite.
Retrospectives are designed to look at the systems and guidelines people work within. While retrospectives can be adapted beyond this original scope - we love a good futurespective – using this time to evaluate individual performance does more harm than good.
Teams get the most value out of retrospectives that go beyond personal behaviors. Leave that for the 1-1 meetings. Most of us know when we made a mistake. If there is a personnel issue, a 1-1 conversation is the best way for both manager and team member to feel comfortable exploring what performance issues exist.
🚩 Flag 2: You aren’t cultivating a psychologically safe environment
In the wrong setting, such as a public retrospective, what may have started as professional feedback can feel more like a direct attack on the individual’s abilities. Mishandled conflict can have long-term effects throughout your retro conversation.
As Alexandra Efthymiades, Co-founder and Director of Consensio, a London-based conflict management organization, explains in her article, How to Achieve Calm In Conflict, these perceived attacks lead to a very real physical and emotional response.
“Workplace conflict makes us feel stressed and anxious,” explains Efthymiades. “When we perceive a situation as potentially dangerous or threatening, an automatic and unconscious impulse to protect ourselves kicks in. This is our fight-flight-freeze (FFF) response, our evolutionary survival instinct. This stress response, our body’s natural reaction to perceived danger or threat, instantly causes hormonal and physiological changes in our body. Emotions associated with the fight response include irritation, annoyance, frustration, anger, aggression and rage. Flight response emotions include worry, anxiety, fear and terror. The freeze response is fight-or-flight on hold, associated with feelings of helplessness.”
It is hard to focus on creating an environment for improvement when the retrospectives are causing an emotional response similar to a hungry lion chasing you. It’s no wonder your team doesn’t want to attend.
Let’s be clear, retros can be difficult, and even the most valuable and effective retrospectives will have team conflict at varying times. Team alignment is the key difference between a valuable retro and a damaging retro. When the team is focused on attacking a larger issue instead of each other, the retrospective discussion -while tense- can drive action that leads to the needed improvement.
🚩Flag 3: It demonstrates a toxic culture overall
Let’s check in with Riley. How likely do you think Riley is to admit to mistakes and ask questions in this type of environment?
Not likely at all, right?
When the retro is full of toxic behaviors, those behaviors have effects that lead to secrecy and gossip outside of the retro. This idea was explored in the paper Behavioral Integrity for Safety, Priority of Safety, Psychological Safety, and Patient Safety: A Team-Level Study, originally published in the Journal of Applied Psychology in 2012.
In a team-level study in four Belgian hospitals, a team of researchers led by Hannes Leroy explored how head nurses encouraged other nurses to report errors while enforcing high safety standards. They found that psychologically safe teams made fewer errors and spoke up about them more often.
“Corporate culture has relied heavily on fear and peer pressure for years, but we teams around the world in a variety of industries are learning that fear doesn’t lead to improved performance. It leads to expanded secrecy and a fear of repercussions when (not if) mistakes are made.”
A healthy culture begins with a safe space to discuss issues without fear of penalty or judgment.
Let me be clear, there is absolutely a time for personal accountability. It just isn’t in the retrospective.
A retrospective is a place for team accountability where issues facing the team can be openly discussed, and members can have difficult conversations to identify viable solutions.
In the hit AppleTV+ show, Ted Lasso, Ted is an American football coach who finds himself coaching a British fútbol team. (If you haven’t seen it, it’s hilarious! Definitely worth watching!) Getting back to the show, in one episode, Ted sets up a suggestion box to see how he can help his team succeed. One of the suggestions is to improve the water pressure in the shower, which he does. And while this is a fun moment in the show, the team’s issues go much deeper than plumbing. There is a lack of leadership, mistrust, burnout, fear, and failure to believe in themselves. As three seasons of the show demonstrate, dealing with plumbing is an easier issue to handle in comparison.
This happens with teams all the time. Teams often would rather discuss more minor issues, such as poor water pressure, than tackle challenging conversations, like poor team communication. Minor improvements can - and do - make a difference. However, if your team neglects deeper issues to avoid conflict, the underlying frustrations and disappointments will continue.
As I shared earlier, difficult conversations can lead to stress responses, and it is understandable why people may want to avoid them. However, there are ways to keep the environment safe while still covering deeper topics. Here are a few tips for productively getting to the more significant issues.
Confrontation thrives on ambiguity. One of the best ways to manage difficult conversations is to align on the goal of the conversation. What does a successful meeting look like? What do you want to get from the discussion? If you can remain aligned on the goal of the meeting, it is easier to focus on one issue at a time instead of meandering through multiple topics without coming to clear conclusions.
If you have a strategic mind, you often try to fill gaps quickly. You may anticipate what someone will say or try to interpret what they mean without intentionally asking for clarity. Instead of filling in information for others, ask for clarification, especially if you think you know the answer. Ask for specifics and details. Repeat what you hear to build a shared understanding. It will help the team better understand the issues and find specific solutions.
In the United States, there is a popular piece of relationship advice: never go to bed angry. Take my word for it - go to bed! Get some rest. By stepping away, you can create space between yourself and the situation, which may help you gain a new perspective.
The same advice applies to arguments and tough discussions on your team. If your team avoids difficult conversations because they get out of hand, it is ok to walk away from a topic and return to it later. People need to take breaks, especially when high tensions and emotions are strong.
When this happens, take a step back and schedule a time to return to the conversation and possibly reevaluate the definition of success for the retrospective.
This concern has a few variations. Agile is for development teams, and we aren’t a development team. We don’t work in sprints. We don’t usually need to do this, and so on and so forth.
However you say it, the concern remains the same: we won’t experience the same value as other teams, so we shouldn’t waste our time in a retrospective. And the fact is – and this is a hot take for a book devoted to retrospectives – bad retrospectives aren’t worth your time. Bad retrospectives can contribute to toxic work environments, team burnout, and meaningless action items that waste energy.
If you are new to retrospectives and are struggling to get the team onboard because the concept seems strange, that’s ok. It will be strange, uncomfortable, and awkward for the first few meetings. Yet, retrospectives aren’t limited to agile. We are retrospecting anytime we rearrange our desks or use a new tool. It is all about finding those small ways to test, improve, test again, fail, and try again.
Because retrospecting isn’t just a meeting, it is a mindset to find the best ways to spend our time and move forward together better. But more on that in the last chapter.
Through this guide, we have embarked on several adventures. We have imagined our first and fiftieth retros. We have developed ways to build and maintain safety. We have asked our teams to review relevant data, establish value, and follow through on ideas. We have discussed ways we can all form an environment for progress...