Think of the best retrospective experience your team could ever have.
What does the perfect retrospective look like? Who is there? What goals do you achieve?
Each team's perfect retrospective is a little different. For example, an engineering team 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 worldwide 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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Let's take a minute to define what a retrospective anti-pattern is clearly. Teams develop choices and habits because they appear to be viable solutions to issues the team is facing. However, they ultimately 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.
To be clear, anti-patterns are not to be confused with bad habits. The most significant 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 will closely examine the recurring retrospective anti-pattern themes that might quietly sabotage your team's chances for retrospective success because these anti-pattern themes are Killing Productivity, Killing Efficiency, and Killing Engagement and Trust.
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"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 can 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 the song lyrics from my favorite band, that wouldn't be productive for this chapter's goals.
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 look at how teams kill productivity when they think they're actually improving it.
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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 are 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 accomplish more reasonably. The team can then build momentum from their success and create lasting change for the better as they take on the next goal and further future goals.
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 repeatedly.
Stop running into walls! If the team feels overwhelmed, you need a retrospective to discuss why and realign on that shared goal (that we just discussed). 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 their work, safely express concerns, and come to a 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 and 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 no one person is responsible for ensuring the action item is complete, there is no clear responsibility or push to succeed. 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're 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 exciting opportunity for teams. It is a meeting specifically designed to examine the team's issues 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 consistently use retro time to focus on factors in other parts of the company, you have no time left to improve the team's internal issues.
Instead, steer the conversation back to topics within your Circles of Influence. And remind your team of the two things that are always in their control. First is the reactions to problems outside your control. Second, while you might not be able to fix an external problem alone, you can always 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 entirely 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 derail teams that are newer to retrospectives. As a result, they search for the "perfect idea." And continue 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.”
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 thinking. Plus, when teams stop being afraid of failure from imperfect solutions, they are more likely to develop new ideas that can revitalize productivity and engagement across the team.
Once you have stopped anti-patterns that kill your team's long-term productivity, it is time to address the ones that make the retrospective experience distressing for everyone involved. Like Productivity Anti-Patterns, Inefficiency Anti-Patterns kill your team's ability to do good work. The difference is efficiency killers are not waiting weeks to dole out their carnage; the misery starts during the retrospective and 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.
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 sources 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.
Preparing before a retrospective allows team members to clear their minds for the coming discussion. This practice helps team members 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 its adoption and support for retrospectives. "We love them so much; we have an annual four-hour retrospective!" 😯 Don't worry they took breaks.
But brings us to our next anti-pattern: talking about everything.
This pattern usually presents in two distinct ways:
Retrospectives last for way too long
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: the retrospective goes long to cover all the topics and issues everyone wants to discuss. Not only does this disrespect everyone's time, but it also drains energy. Hello, meeting fatigue! It is impossible to predict how long a discussion will last accurately. 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, essential 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? The odds are no. Instead, the extra time borrowed from other meetings and project time could frustrate the team and build animosity towards the retrospective process.
While the second scenario better respects the participants' time, it does not allow the team to focus on topics that need a deeper discussion. Instead, the team cannot delve into a topic and fully explore an issue 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 these habits, use a tool or technique that allows participants to vote on the most critical topics. Then focus your conversation on the issues the group most wants to discuss, being mindful of making the space needed to engage the team in the most critical issues. This tool will encourage a more valuable discussion and creative solutions to the team's challenges.
“I'll just come by to see how the team is doing”
Retrospectives are a place where participants should discuss issues and celebrate success. That goal is impossible 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 team member can then independently advocate for sharing specific details outside the retro. 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 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 time.
I know. I know. Just a few sections earlier, I advocated for the need to focus the discussion and 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 discuss issues thoroughly 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 through roman voting or some other method, give the participants a chance to determine if this needs to become a separate meeting for the interested parties. That way, those who want to continue can, and those who wish to move on aren’t sacrificing their time on an irrelevant topic.
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 start to dread your retrospectives because of the constant awkwardness, your engagement rate will suffer.
How do you balance the need for thoughtful silence with the anxiety-inducing awkward silences people struggle to fill?
Explaining the benefit of silence to your team is the key to avoiding this anti-pattern. By assigning a purpose and a value to the quiet moments, you can allow individuals time to develop ideas, formulate thoughtful responses, or consider how they 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”
So I said this wasn't an anti-pattern. 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 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 run the company successfully.
When more significant 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 team's needs 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.
“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.
Letting the team continue to be guided by the thoughts and opinions of the more vocal teammates can feel easier. After all, 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 they don't need to participate if no one else is talking.
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 having 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 must advocate for your participants' needs. This advice is often misconstrued to mean that the facilitator or manager should have all the answers or make final decisions on the discussed issues. This mindset moves accountability for developing ideas and acting decisively on action items away from the team to the facilitator. This shift puts undue stress on the facilitator.
To ensure this anti-pattern doesn't develop, Leslie Riley uses a particular 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 team members' opinions.
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 the team's radars 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 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. Not only does taking the time to celebrate give your team a morale boost, but it is also the ultimate proof of 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 healthily and productively, 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.
Next Chapter: Root Cause Analysis: A Retrospective For Problem Solving
Some teams may realize they’re finding solutions in their retrospectives before they fully understand the problem that needs to be solved...