At an open space event the other day a group of people were pondering the topic “Getting people to be engaged during meetings.” Inevitably the conversation turned to retrospectives. People described how some teams complained about being forced to have retrospectives and how others went without complaint but didn’t really participate. Some of the frustrations were that introverts never want to participate and have fun conversations with their teammates.
In short, some scrum masters were describing ways that they have been trying to pull their teams into a place of participating but weren’t being successful. Teams were feeling forced to do something they didn’t want to do and scrum masters were frustrated because no one wanted to play this very important game with them.
As I stepped back from the conversation I began to realize that what was missing was the understanding that there is an art to being able to facilitate an effective retrospective that starts long before the meeting. The scrum masters role in the retrospectives isn’t simply to facilitate while people to talk about what went well, what didn’t go well, and what will we do to improve in the next sprint. It is about creating new awareness. It isn’t about pulling people into the conversation. It’s about creating space for them to learn and grow and innovate in order to become higher performing.
This space doesn’t start in the retrospective. It starts days, even weeks or sprints before the meeting.
As scrum masters, it is our job to cultivate vision. It starts by stepping back every single day and seeing what the team doesn’t see. How are they working together? Do they really know what they are trying to become as a team? What does high performing look like? What are their goals as a team? Where are they struggling and can’t see it for themselves? What bad habits are they repeating? What decisions are they making that are out of alignment with the agile values and principles, scrum values, and proven best practices? What’s the elephant in the room that everyone smells but no one will talk about? What are they doing really well that they don’t even recognize? What amazed you and made you proud? Where do you see growth? Where do you see them falling back? What do they need to see? What conflicts need to be resolved? What isn’t being said?
It is our job to see the big picture over time and not just the little pieces of each sprint. Planning retrospectives is about strategy, not just tactics. It isn’t good enough to have a book full of retrospectives and blindly pick one just to mix it up each sprint. The purpose of changing retrospective methods isn’t so the team doesn’t get bored. We must pick the right tactic to bring the right result at the right time. It’s up to us to remember what they said success would look like five sprints ago and bring it back around for them to see if they are getting closer to their goal.
Choosing the right retrospective format includes processing this information and crafting a retrospective that will create space for them to see what they can’t see. It creates an atmosphere of safety where people feel comfortable with who they are so they can communicate with their team. This means that we have to understand who they are, how they learn, and how they communicate.
Are they analytical and need more concrete types of questions? Are they visual and need to envision the questions and problems they are trying to solve? Are they auditory and need to talk through things with others to gain perspective and revelation? Do they speak in pictures, tell stories, or have a creative nature where things like props, play dough, and pictures will help them? Are they introspective and need space to think before speaking? Do they think through problems while talking? How do they face conflict? What motivates them? Where are their passions? Are they extroverted and get energized through interaction? Are they introverted and get worn out through interaction?
These are things that the scrum master has to understand about the people if they want to foster engagement and growth. Every team is different. A style of retrospective that works for one group may not work for another. There is an art to creating space and safety for people to gain new awareness and growth. Successful retrospectives aren’t measured by how much participation and fun you are able to muster up but in how much actual growth the team gains through the activity. Taking the time to really see your team and understand what they need to experience in a retrospective is the first step.