Power differentials in the room are an inherent risk to psychological safety. When those are present, people are going to act differently. They’re going to control what they say, and especially who they say it to.
When the boss is in the room, people edit themselves. And that’s never a good dynamic for meetings that are meant to be about utter safety and honesty.
The point of a retro is getting to the absolute truth.
Your relationship with your manager could be excellent. But if that person is in the room, you might still censor yourself. Hard to get to the truth when you don’t feel liberated to tell it, right?
What is the Reason Behind a Retro?
Retros serve a very specific purpose. By having a retro, you’re already acknowledging the need for continuous improvement and/or a desire to continuously improve.
In Scrum, we have another ceremony for product improvement, but retros are related to process improvement. If continuous improvement is not important, then the retrospective has no meaning. It’s just a box to check.
Retros are truly an opportunity for a well-trained scrum master to do what they do best, which is precisely why the boss (A) shouldn’t be there and (B) shouldn’t be the scrum master’s boss.
The Importance of Psychological Safety in a Retro
When the person who is in control of your job and your career is in the room, you act differently. You may not want to (or admit that you do), but you just do. It’s human nature. I’ve seen night-and-day differences where no one speaks up, or people just say things to mollify that person (“Yep, everything’s great!” and so on), when the manager is in the room.
What happens when they leave? The floodgates open, the walls come down, you can pick your own metaphor here. It’s not just because a manager or a leader is disliked, either. Beloved leaders can still stand in the way of productive and open exchanges, because their teams are still going to err on the side of protecting that person’s feelings. Very few people enjoy the prospect of offending someone they genuinely like and respect.
No matter how good or bad the team’s relationship with “the boss,” no one is free to be honest when that person is leading the meeting.
A well-meaning manager may want to wade into the problem and fix it. An incompetent manager is just going to lead to more dysfunction. Instead, a skilled and well-trained scrum master should serve as an unbiased third party (in a perfect world, remember, the scrum master doesn’t report up to the same person as the team) that helps navigate and moderate the meeting to help the team guide itself.
Continuous Improvement Needs Constant, Unbiased Feedback
The entire point of a retro is to get valuable and unbiased feedback at regular intervals. The scrum master needs to gather that unbiased feedback and figure out how to blast problems out of the way. Scrum masters should be the first line of defense whenever feedback like that needs to live and thrive outside the team.
Here’s a real-life example. I was once working on a team that couldn’t promote anything into QA or through the various staging environments due to outages that were happening two to three times a day. The team manager knew about it but was limited in what they could do to move the needle.
I worked with the other scrum masters to escalate the issue throughout the organization, using our time to facilitate those discussions until the issue was resolved.
As a facilitator, I recognized what the team needed. To help get the team where it needed to go, I basically gave them a framework where they could complain, I could listen, and I could maneuver around the company to solve some critical problems they weren’t able to address (or their boss, for that matter) on their own.
A manager may not have the skillset or the time to help the team discover what's underneath the surface layer that they should actually be talking about.
Scrum Masters Can Document and Demonstrate Value
The scrum master can also be the keeper of past continuous improvement. The retro is an expensive meeting. You're taking all of your highly paid, highly skilled people away from their day job for at least an hour once every two weeks. Most leadership is going to want something out of it for that investment.
If I was a CEO underwriting the cost for that team, and they were just wasting that hour regularly, I'd be less than thrilled about it. But at the end of the year, theoretically, if you’re indulging in this continuous improvement practice correctly, the scrum master will have some way to measure how the team is better than it was a year ago.
Here’s the moral of this whole article. Give the team the space to have retrospectives and understand that is going to have a positive impact on productivity. Yes, retros require time commitment, and that has some hard costs associated with it (on paper, anyway). It’s the scrum master's job to defend them for what they are: A long-term investment.
When retros are working, you see it. The team delivers feedback consistently, and morale improves. When that's not happening, it could be time to address how you facilitate them. Check out the webinar from Sketch Coach James Nippert to give your retros a kickstart.
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