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Most of us have sat through some pretty awful retrospectives. Retrospectives in which The Team discusses the same issues over and over. Retrospectives in which the facilitator uses the exact same facilitation activity again and again. (“What Went Well, What Didn’t Go Well” or “Start Stop Continue” anyone?).
You’ve probably thought to yourself: “My team simply doesn’t care about retrospectives. They just want to write code! No matter what I try…“
Teams that have “given up on retrospectives” have actually just given up on the retrospectives you’ve tried to run so far. How do I know?
Let’s do a thought experiment.
Imagine you could conjure up a genie 🧞 who could grant your team one wish. 🌠 Anything at all. Would your team say, “Genie, be gone! We don’t need your help. Everything here is perfect and nothing needs to change”? I highly doubt it! Almost every team would say, “Wait a second. You’re a genie who can instantly fix our problems?!? This is amazing! Genie, I wish for you to fix <X>.“
If only, right?
Here’s the thing: retrospectives are designed to accomplish just that ☝! Only, instead of a genie 🧞snapping their fingers and making wishes come true, your team has to do the hard work of fixing the problems themselves.
And that’s the rub. It’s not that people don’t care about retrospectives. They do. Or at least, they would if your retrospectives actually led to real change.
So, in order to increase engagement in your retrospectives, you’ve got to help your team change its mindset from “we’re powerless 😐” to “we can do this. 💪"
Short of conjuring up a genie (and if you can figure that one out, let me know!), what can we do to help turn our team into believers?
Let’s find out 🚀
Before figuring out how to increase engagement in our retrospectives, it’s important to ask why there is low engagement in the first place.
This shouldn’t be a surprise to you. 🙏 If you read Chapter 2, you already know that before Deciding What To Do (in this case, picking an Action Item that you hope will increase engagement in the retro), it’s important to first Gather Data (how do you know there is low engagement? do only 2 of the 10 people on The Team speak up?) and Generate Insights (what is the root cause of the low engagement?)!
Only then — after you’ve identified the root cause of the low engagement — should you attempt to find a fix.
So what are some potential reasons why people aren’t engaged in the retrospective process?
In his book, Essential Scrum, Ken Rubin outlines a number of possibilities (which I’ve adapted and modified a bit). Any one of these might be the root cause of your problem. They are all worth considering!
1. Scheduling Conflicts ⏱️
Sometimes it’s difficult to find a time when everyone can attend the retro. If this is consistently the case, it can be frustrating and demotivating.
2. Anti-Agile or Anti-Scrum Attitudes 😩
If you have been burned by agile or scrum in the past, you might come with some baggage against retrospectives.
3. The Belief That Only Technical Work Has Value 🏗️
Some people believe that anything besides the core work they do is a waste of time.
4. The Belief That Retrospectives Don’t Change Anything 😑
If your retrospectives haven’t led to change in the past, why attend them in the future?
5. General Boredom With The Retrospective 💤
When teams run retrospectives on a regular and frequent basis, they can get boring. This is especially true when teams run the same techniques again and again.
6. “Our Team Rocks” Syndrome 🤩
Some teams are high performing already and team members might question whether additional areas of improvement even exist!
7. Timezone Differences ⏲️
If your team is distributed across many time zones, it can be challenging to find a time that is suitable for everyone.
8. Hard to Participate Because The Team is Distributed 🌎
When you have a remote, virtual, or distributed team, it can be difficult to find a way for all team members to participate equally in the conversation.
9. Lack of Psychological Safety 😨
If people on your team don’t feel safe, they likely won’t speak openly and transparently. When the “real issues” aren’t being discussed, people can feel like the retrospectives aren’t helping.
10. “Been Burned Before” Syndrome 😤
When you’ve been a part of teams that run regular retrospectives for a while, you’re bound to have come across your fair share of poorly executed retrospectives. This can make you skeptical of their value on your new team.
Turns out there are lots of reasons why people don’t engage in retrospectives.
Which one (or ones) apply to your team?
I bet while reading the list you “nodded your head in agreement” more than once. “Yup! That one. Oh yeah, that one too. And another!? “
In fact, this is typical of complex problems — there’s almost always more than one reason why the problem exists. 💡 Don’t try to fix them all at once! Instead, pick one of the underlying causes and then Decide What To Do.
I can’t tell you the number of times I talk to people who say the #1 problem they face with their retrospectives is that they don’t actually lead to change. The retro itself “seemed okay” but there was no follow-through! Nothing gets better.
If that sounds familiar, then without question the best way to increase engagement in your retrospectives is to actually start focusing on the Action Items after the retro is over. Get some small wins under your belt! Build some momentum.
People will start to participate more in your retrospectives if they feel that the retros are helping them. If they are helping everyone work better together. If they are helping them become more productive. Frankly, if they have any sort of positive impact at all!
The most important thing you can do is break down the Big Hairy Problems that everyone wants to fix into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Sure, you’d love to fix the whole entire Big Hairy Problem right now. But it’s not gonna happen. It’s too big to fix right away.
Instead, you should approach your Big Hairy Problems the same way you’d approach building a new product. As agilists, you know that the first thing you do when it comes to building something is break down the “big vision” into small releases that are more manageable and testable.
It’s no different when it comes to retrospectives. Break down the bigger goals into small, achievable Action Items that you are confident you can accomplish. (Don’t forget to be SMART!)
So what’s the best way of helping your team break down its Action Items?
15% Solutions from Liberating Structures is a technique that can:
15% Solutions help your team focus on what they can control, rather than what they can’t. Even if you can’t solve the entire Big Hairy Problem today, you can take one small step 🚶♀️ to begin your journey. And then another. 15% Solutions help your team to translate ambitious, long-term problems into small, short-term wins.
Use 15% Solutions while Deciding What To Do. Especially if The Team is struggling figuring out what it can do as a next step, 15% Solutions can help. Here’s how it works in practice:
In fact, if you practice finding 15% Solutions frequently enough, you’ll end up creating a culture in which people ask, “What is your 15%?” during all sorts of meetings. Not just the retrospective! Which is a great culture to have. It empowers people to start making progress without asking for permission. 💪
So, you’ve made some small improvements using 15% Solutions and got the team more invested and engaged in the retrospective process. Congrats!! 🎉 Don’t let the small wins fool you — you’ve done something BIG! 🙌
Now that your team is starting to improve the way it works together, it’s time to start thinking about how to make the retrospective itself more interesting and engaging.
But! What I’m about to tell you is very important.
If your retrospectives aren’t leading to change, nothing else that I’m about to tell you will truly help increase engagement.
So focus on your 15% Solutions first. Then move on to…
Imagine you are an engineer. What do you spend most of your day doing?
Almost certainly it’s solving Hard Problems. Your job is to go from “is this possible?” to “yes, and here’s how!” 🔥
Imagine doing that day in and day out. It’s what you’re paid for, and it’s what you enjoy doing. And then, along comes the Scrum Master who says, “time for the retrospective!” Ugh.
What mindset would you, the engineer, have at that moment in time? You’d almost certainly be in Solution Finding mode. It’s what you do!
Which is great in general, except that retrospectives are not Solution Finding meetings. Of course, you might eventually find a solution to a problem you’re facing. But the primary purpose of the retrospective is to achieve Actionable Team Learning. And being in “learning mode” requires a very different mindset from being in “solution finding mode.”
That is one of the reasons that Setting the Stage is such an important part of a retrospective — it provides the time and space for The Team to transition from one mindset to another.
Here are a few Setting the Stage activities that give your team the time and space to shift its mindset (fair warning: they might strike you as strange if you’ve never tried them at work before! don’t let that discourage you from giving them a shot 😀):
Synchronous Breathing – Have everyone sit in a circle. No conference tables allowed. As the facilitator, walk in the center of the circle and say “We’re going to try something a bit different today. We’re going to take 5 synchronous deep breaths together. It will feel strange. It might feel silly. Some of you will be so uncomfortable you will laugh. But let’s try it.” Then have everyone take a long, relaxing deep breath at the same time. Do it again. And again, five times. What does this accomplish? Science has proven that deep breathing “affects the heart, the brain, digestion, the immune system”. And when you breath deeply together with your team, it helps everyone achieve those benefits, together.
Count to 20 Game – The goal of this game is to count to twenty. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?Not so fast. 😇 Here’s how it works. Someone starts by saying “1.” Then someone else has to say “2.” But! If more than one person says “2” at the same time, you have to start over again! Try to get all the way to twenty. It’s much harder than you think! Once your group masters this (there are tricks…), you can take it to the next level. Have everyone close their eyes while they play. The game becomes even more difficult! This game is fun — but more than that, it gets the team in sync with each other.
Meditation – Meditation at work? Why, yes. And it’s getting more popular. Here’s how to do it. Get everyone into the room and remove all chairs and tables. Turn off the lights and ask everyone to be silent for 15 minutes. Just relax. Together. When the 15 minutes are up, you can either end the meditation, or ask people “What are you grateful for?” Let people respond and don’t fill the silence. Once everyone is done, you can say something like, “Thanks, everyone. Before moving on, let’s take a minute to visualize yourself being the change you wish to see in the world.“
These ideas might seem “hippy dippy” and “out there” at first. You will almost certainly experience resistance from at least one person on The Team. But be open minded — these techniques accomplish something tangible: they give everyone a chance to change their head space from Solution Finding to Learning.
If you find people checking their phones during the retrospective, is that a problem? Who knows! Without ground rules, how do you know behavior is acceptable and what is not?
That’s where ground rules can help.
Ground rules have three major advantages:
The best time to create a set of ground rules is when The Team first forms. But even after that point, creating ground rules can still help. In fact, the retrospective itself is a fantastic opportunity for The Team to work on ground rules.
But no matter when you come up with them, the most important thing is that the ground rules are actually applied. Like Action Items that never get worked on, ground rules that aren’t applied are not helpful.
While it’s up to your team to come up with ground rules that make the most sense to them, a good starting point is the list of ground rules from Where The Action Is by Elise Keith (which, by the way, is a fantastic book to read about effective meetings in general).
Respect our commitment to making meetings enjoyable and productive.
Respect the work of the meeting.
Respect each other as humans.
If you notice that only the extroverts on your team are participating, it’s your job as the facilitator to create an environment that encourages the more introverted people to speak up as well.
To do that, first you have to understand why introverts don’t feel comfortable speaking up. (You might notice that asking why is a trend! Always ask why before deciding how to fix a problem.) It’s not that introverts don’t have ideas — they do! But there are a number of reasons why introverts hesitate before contributing:
So what can you do, as a retrospective facilitator, to encourage the introverts on your team to participate? It’s actually quite simple.
First, create opportunities for anonymous participation. One way of doing this to invite the team at the beginning of the sprint to add ideas for the next retrospective to a “parking lot”. You can do this using physical sticky notes (though handwriting might enable you to identify the source of each idea) or using a digital tool that enables anonymous feedback (for example, on Retrium brainstorming is fully anonymous so your team can be 100% confident that their ideas will never be tied back to them).
Second, use facilitation techniques to create structure around the conversation. Rather than asking The Team, “So what is not going well right now?” and then having an open discussion, use facilitation techniques that create rules about what you can do at certain times. For example, you can start the retrospective by asking everyone to privately write down their ideas on sticky notes. Then move on to grouping (also called affinity theming) to create topics of conversation. After that, ask everyone on the team to dot vote on the ideas they want to talk about most. Finish with a prioritized discussion based on the topics that were voted up by the team. Using rules like these create expectations for participation that help introverts feel more comfortable.
Third, don’t just rely on verbal communication. Many introverts are most uncomfortable sharing their ideas verbally, but would be perfectly fine sharing their ideas in other ways. For example, you can use Constellations to get an understanding of how people feel about various issues without having them say a word. Or, you can use sticky notes to give people the chance to share their ideas using written communication.
Sometimes, the reason there is a lack of engagement in the retrospective is because people don’t feel safe speaking up.
Without psychological safety, it’s next to impossible to run a successful retrospective!
So how do you know whether you have psychological safety? The best way is to run a Safety Check. Safety Check is a great Setting the Stage activity which can have a big impact on the rest of the retrospective.
To run a Safety Check, ask your team to anonymously write down a number from 1 to 5 to indicate their level of safety (1 is “I do not feel safe” and 5 is “I feel 100% safe”). Then, based on the responses you get, decide how to proceed.
For example, if you get a bunch of 3s or 4s, that means that there are a number of topics that make some people on The Team feel unsafe. Since retrospectives rely on psychological safety to be effective, consider focusing the retro on what you can do to improve the team’s psychological safety.
Here are a few ideas that might help:
Speaking of having fun together, it’s entirely possible to have fun during the retrospective as well! If you are running the same type of retrospective again and again, it can get boring.
That’s why sometimes it’s best to design your retrospectives to emphasize having fun. There are lots of creative ways to do this. Here are just a few:
A great place to find ideas for fun and games is at #play14, which also hosts an excellent unconference on this topic!
Meetings are run in conference rooms, right? Not necessarily! Sometimes changing where you run your retrospectives can help spur engagement and creativity.
One of the best retrospectives I ever participated in was held outside. The Team simply walked around together. Slowly, and with intention. We took time to appreciate things around us we never even noticed were there before! Weeds growing in the back of the garden. Grass growing between the cracks in the sidewalk. Window shutters that needed repair. And much more!
What we found mattered much less than how we found it. We took the time to establish a more intentional mindset.
We were surprised by the impact this had! We learned that by being more intentional, we were able to hold more constructive conversation with each other. We were able to dive more deeply on the problems we were facing, and find alternative solutions we never previously considered.
Intentional walks aren’t the only way to “change the physical space”. You can simply trying using a different conference room. Or, even better, go outside when the weather is nice! You might find that the fresh air and warm temperatures help provide new perspectives on old problems.
Be creative and don’t be afraid to try new things.
Most companies celebrate success. Fewer encourage you to share your failures.
And yet retrospectives rely on a culture of openness when it comes to failure. How are you supposed to improve if you can’t talk about your mistakes?
If this is your situation, the best thing you can do is to take a leap of faith yourself by openly sharing your mistakes with The Team.
One of the best ways to share you mistakes is by using an Oops Wall. Yes, an Oops Wall!
What’s an Oops Wall, you ask? An Oops Wall is a place where anyone can put up a sticky note advertising the mistakes they made! Hang the Oops Wall publicly so your team can see it. And every time you make a mistake, put up a sticky note on the wall describing your “oops”. Share your mistakes transparently and frequently.
At first, people will react strangely. “What in the world are you doing that for?” they might say. But slowly, someone else will start adding their mistakes to the Oops Wall. And then another, and another, until eventually the entire team starts to use the Oops Wall!
That’s when the magic happens. Whereas we started being unable to talk about our mistakes, we now have a culture of openness and transparency.
Not only does this help us run better retrospectives, it also increases the level of trust people will feel with each other on The Team more generally.
Being the first to put up mistakes on the Oops Wall is scary. 😰 It makes you vulnerable, when no one else is. But it’s also a perfect example of leadership: demonstrating positive behavior in the hopes others will follow.
The greater the number of people in a meeting, the less likely it is that each person will participate.
It’s easy to understand why: if there are only two people in the meeting, both people have to contribute, or else it would be a monologue! But if one hundred people are in the meeting, no one would notice if you just sat on your hands the whole time and stared off into space.
So if you find yourself facilitating a group in which some people participate and others don’t, how can you encourage full team participation? The answer lies in breakout groups.
Here’s how I use breakout groups. Whenever I sense that the energy in the room has dropped, I’ll say, “Let’s switch things up a bit. Rather than having a whole-team conversation, let’s break into smaller subgroups of 3-4 people. Once each subgroup has had a chance to discuss the issue, we’ll reconvene with the larger team.“
One nice thing about breakout groups is that they help vary the mode of communication on the team. Some people feel more comfortable speaking in front of large groups of people, while others feel more comfortable in a more intimate setting.
By alternating between full team discussion and breakout groups, you’ll be giving everyone on the team the chance to participate in the way they feel most comfortable.
Sometimes the reason people don’t participate in your retrospectives is so simple you might have missed it! Are you talking about something The Team doesn’t find interesting or relevant?
Many teams that first start out with retrospectives just have an open discussion. You know better than that. Open discussion without bottom-up prioritization unfairly benefits extroverted and senior people on The Team. And if the same type of person gets to pick the topic for the retrospective each and every time, the other people on The Team will eventually stop caring.
To give everyone an equal opportunity to impact the focus for the retrospective, you should use a bottom-up prioritization technique.
Perhaps the simplest way to prioritize topics of discussion is to use Dot Voting. Once you have generated a list of candidate topics, give a few votes to each person on The Team and ask them to place them on the topics they think are most important to discuss. Explain how you can put any or all of your votes on a single topic to express the strength of your preferences. Then sum up all the votes and pick the focus for the retrospective based on the topic that received the most votes.
Another great way to pick a narrow focus that The Team actually cares about is to use Team Radar. Team Radar is an easy way of quickly using data to see what is going well and what is not going well.
To use Team Radar, ask everyone to rate how they think The Team is doing on various aspects of its work. You could ask for ratings on engineering practices, culture, the company’s values, or anything else that might be important. Once you collect the responses, calculate the average rating on each spoke. If you find that one topic has a particularly low rating, then consider focusing the rest of the retrospective on just that topic!
If you follow this approach, you will likely see participation in the retro go up significantly, because the retro will be focused on something The Team has told you needs to be improved.
On Retrium, Team Radar looks like this:
In this example, you can see that everyone seems to think Commitment is doing poorly. Everyone gave it the lowest rating, a 1! So Commitment would be a great focus for your retro.
In contrast to this approach, imagine you had let the most outgoing person on The Team pick the topic of discussion. Imagine that individual was the person who rated Focus a 1 in the Radar above. That individual might really want to talk about Focus! But how engaged would the rest of The Team have been in the discussion?
If engagement is low in your retrospectives, and you aren’t sure what to do about it, the simplest thing you can do is … just ask why!
At the end of your next retrospective during the Close The Retro phase, ask The Team: “what can I do to make the retrospective more relevant to you?“
Collect the responses and see what you can learn.
Or, if you’d prefer something less formal, simply grab coffee or lunch with each person on your team and casually bring up that you’ve recently noticed low engagement in your retrospectives and you were wondering what you could do to improve.
Either way, it’s important that you word the question so as to make it clear you are looking for advice, and not looking to criticize. Yes, you might be frustrated that participation is low. You might be annoyed that after all this effort you’ve put in to making the retrospectives better, people still don’t seem to care.
That doesn’t matter. Asking, “how can I improve?” will yield much better results than asking, “why aren’t you all participating?”
You’ve worked hard at improving your facilitation skills. You have tried lots of different activities and techniques to keep the retrospective fresh and interesting. And yet participation is still low. What’s a facilitator to do?
One thing you can try is letting others facilitate the retro in your place. It hurts, I know. It might feel like retrospective facilitation is part of your job responsibility. But truly, it’s not. If you are a Scrum Master, your job is to help the team succeed as a servant leader. If that means letting someone else run the retro, then great! No problem.
There are a number of benefits to rotating the role of the facilitator. One benefit is that changing things up a bit can help participation, in and of itself. When you run a retro every two weeks, they can get a bit boring and repetitive! Bringing someone else in to facilitate for you can help spice things up.
Do you bring data to your retrospectives? Or is the conversation just based on opinions and feelings? The next chapter is all about how to use Objective and Subjective Data in your retrospectives to create a shared understanding across the team.Next Chapter