The Scrum Master’s Role for a Successful Retrospective

How do you tweak your retros to satisfy the current challenges of the team?

If there’s one word that should never describe your retros, it’s this one: Repetitive.

If you were to have an honest conversation with the team, how would they answer these questions: Are you getting value out of our retrospectives? Are the retrospectives making your life better?

Retros are an opportunity for teams to share fresh ideas and perspectives, not a rote activity that everyone is dragged to just because it’s on the calendar. 

However you choose to facilitate your retros, it’s important to be flexible. If the team just had a really bad sprint, maybe start the retro by focusing on the good or those things that went well.  

The conversation is ideally action driven instead of an opportunity for finger pointing. When you focus on areas of improvement, and actions you can take to be better, that’s usually when the team sees real change and value in these meetings.

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Lessons Learned from Stale Retros

Retrospectives are unquestionably a time commitment. I understand how they evolve into a chore that people see as something they want to get through, rather than a powerful tool to gain insights from. 

I recently worked with a team that was having very low participation in their retros. Initially, I just let them run the first retro like they were normally doing them. Even though very few folks attended, there were still enough members of the team who did show up, certainly enough to generate at least an hour’s worth of conversation. But the retro took maybe 15 minutes, total. 

I suggested some ways to switch things up. As the scrum master, I sensed members of the team were afraid or at least hesitant to speak up and share their insights. The team had recently onboarded a bunch of new people, so I geared part of the retro around onboarding. I asked some key questions like “What do you think is missing?” and “What could we have given you in this last sprint you didn’t have?”.   

By the second sprint, everyone on the team was present. The energy in the room was palpable, and it was definitely a more engaging and positive experience. 

Ask Simple Questions in Your Retros That Open People Up

My suggestion to the tech lead and the product owner was to give people more of a chance to speak up. If you ask people to tell you “What didn’t go well?” all the time, over and over again, retrospectives can quickly turn into a lugubrious chore that puts people on the spot.

In an ideal retrospective, everyone is speaking. What does that look like in practice? Start by reframing the way you talk about challenges as an opportunity. Try these simple prompts:

  • How can we improve? 
  • When you joined this team, what do you wish we would've done differently? 
  • What did we not provide you with that you were lacking? 
  • What were you missing in the last sprint? 

People on the team are more likely to speak about their ideas more broadly and freely, rather than feel like they’re being lectured about how they failed. It’s not a huge shift, but it immediately produces tangible results. 

Scrum Masters Need to Lead This Charge

When you refine the work you’re about to do, it’s much easier to check throughout the next sprint if that work is getting completed. But it’s pretty hard to generate that work if you’re tied to a process that keeps failing the team. 

Getting to the root cause of why things are (or aren’t) working takes time. It’s very unlikely that the reasons “something went wrong” were just because of what happened in a two-week sprint. I know that inexperienced Scrum Masters are usually doing their best and making some assumptions about what a retro is for. It’s what I thought when I first started as a Scrum Master. 

Sure, things happen and things can (and do!) go wrong. Going back to the theme: This is about process—not product—improvement. Anyone or any team can generate a bunch of action items in a meeting. If those action items don’t see the light of day, there’s a bigger problem with the way you’re having these larger discussions. 

Our role is to communicate both the team’s success and the team’s needs to the rest of the organization. It’s our job to keep a running list of all the action items the team agreed on, and how those are going throughout the sprint. I make sure to keep leadership posted once a month to let them know what the team just tried and how they feel about it. That way, leadership isn’t kept in the dark and is less likely to exercise too much control over this process. 

When an organization or a team doesn’t have this success model built in, retros are often used as a stick, when really they should feel more like a carrot. Smart, creative people typically like to be heard. And they rarely speak up when they are asked the same question every two weeks.

If you want some creative ideas on how to mix up your retros and change them from meetings the team dreads into events they show up to early, join James Nippert in our free Sketch webinar, “Crafting Retros Your Team Can't Wait To Attend.”

Webinar: Crafting Retros Your Team Can't Wait To Attend 

Tag(s): Retros

Taylor Cooper

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