Chapter 10 Do It Yourself – Retrospectives Antipatterns

Chapter 10 Do It Yourself

. . . in which the facilitator is wearing several hats, which is suboptimal for both the facilitator and the retrospective, and the team finds other facilitators to take over at times

Context

Sarah feels responsible for keeping the team on the true path of agility. She has to crack the whip to get people to the daily standups, and every 3 weeks, at the end of the sprint, she makes sure a retrospective takes place. It is natural that Sarah, the scrum master, facilitates the retrospectives—all the retrospectives from first to last.

In the beginning, the team members found every retrospective to be interesting, useful, and sometimes even fun. Time has passed, however, and the team is getting tired of the way the retrospectives are done. They feel the retrospectives waste their time because they are stale and unproductive. They blame Sarah for being a bad facilitator and allowing the retrospectives to become boring and inefficient. Sarah is also becoming frustrated. She feels that she does not get anything out of the retrospectives. In addition, she has to be above the fray—careful not to become directly involved in any of the team’s tense or angry disagreements during the retrospectives, and she feels less and less like a part of the team.

How can Sarah reflect on her own issues when she is always occupied with facilitating?

General Context

An important part of being agile is to inspect and adapt. Having regular retrospectives is an obvious way to achieve this, and someone has to facilitate them. This “someone” often turns out to be the scrum master, which is not in itself a bad idea, but it can have negative consequences.

Antipattern Solution

Who should facilitate the retrospectives? For various reasons, the answer is often the scrum master. Scrum masters might appoint themselves because they believe (perhaps rightly) they would be best at it. They might be appointed by management, which believes facilitating is a scrum master task. In many cases, no one else dares to, or wants to, try their hand at facilitating.

Many articles and blogs describe the facilitation of retrospectives as the scrum master’s responsibility, and many companies I have worked with have decided that the scrum master is the obvious choice for facilitation of retrospectives.

Consequences

There are two alternative negative consequences of this antipattern solution. For both, the essence of the problem is that you cannot wear two hats in a retrospective. You cannot be both facilitator of and participant in a retrospective. Both roles require your full attention.

Scrum masters are so much a part of the team (hopefully) that they get deeply involved in the activities and discussions. When a scrum master also serves as the facilitator, he or she still wants to participate as a team member in order to benefit from the retrospective. The consequence is that he or she forgets to facilitate—to keep track of time and to be aware of the energy in the room (see Chapter 14, Suffocating). In addition, the scrum master may have a hard time being objective when it comes to changing the agenda of the retrospective in order to adapt to the situation.

The alternative drawback is that the facilitator is so eager to fulfill the role that he or she completely forgets him- or herself in the polls, brainstorming, and so on. Thus, the scrum master’s voice as part of the team is not heard.

Symptoms

You may discover that you are in this antipattern if the facilitator is unaware of the time or the energy in the room, or if the scrum master feels unfulfilled after retrospectives. You hear the team members making comments such as “The retrospectives are boring,” “They are a waste of time,” and “We should have a better facilitator,” and the facilitator even begins to complain: “I would like to get something out of the retrospectives as well.” Some of these comments could be rooted in other reasons, of course, and the following solutions might also remedy these causes.

Refactored Solution

One solution is to take turns in the team facilitating retrospectives so that everybody gets something out of retrospectives. Being the facilitator once in a while means you will, on those occasions, get less out of the retrospective as a team member. This can be a good solution if there are several people available who are able to facilitate retrospectives. As we have seen, not everyone has the skills, training, and experience, but the skills can be taught. I often teach members of an organization to facilitate retrospectives before I leave the organization (as consultants must at some time). I start with where the energy is, and it might be found in only one or two people in the beginning, but when others see how much the first team members enjoy the role, I normally get a second wave of people who want to learn. I start with a course to teach them the fundamentals, then I let them observe me, and then I observe them and give them feedback. After that, they are ready to facilitate on their own.

It is said that introverted programmers will stare at their shoes when they talk to you. In contrast, extroverted programmers will stare at your shoes. Notwithstanding the value of occasionally checking the shoes of participants, if your team consists mainly of such people, it may be hard to rotate the facilitating role. There is help out there, though, for those who would like to work on their facilitation skills, and I can highly recommend Facilitating with Ease! (Bens 2005), Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making (Kaner 2007), The Skilled Facilitator (Schwarz 2002), and Collaboration Explained (Tabaka 2006).

Also, some tools1 exist that make facilitating a retrospective easier. For example, Retrium is an online tool that allows you to choose a specific kind of retrospective and then takes you through everything you need to do in every phase of the retrospective. You could also sign up for a Recesskit, which means that you will receive a package every month with everything you need to facilitate a fun and interesting retrospective. Another tool is Retromat, an online tool that decides on five activities for you, one for each phase, so that you can be sure to be inspired with new activities. My personal favorite is Dialogue Sheets, made by Allan Kelly, which is like a board game you can print out and use to create the dialogues needed for a retrospective as well as other kinds of meetings.

1. https://www.retrium.com; https://recesskit.com; retromat.org; allankellyassociates.co.uk/dialogue-sheets

If you rotate the facilitator role, an added benefit is that the fresh approach of each facilitator often adds new energy to the retrospectives.

I often find that if other members of the team try facilitating, they learn how difficult it is to do it right and consequently have greater appreciation for a well-facilitated retrospective. It may look easy to facilitate retrospectives, but it is not—at least not if you want to do efficient, productive ones.

Another solution is to get someone from another team in the same company to facilitate. Or you might even consider hiring a complete outsider, a professional facilitator. Since I have personally facilitated many retrospectives as an external consultant, brought in for that express purpose, I am somewhat biased in favor of this solution. It does add an extra expense to get an external consultant to facilitate the retrospectives, but that cost can often be negligible when compared to the cost of wasting an hour and a half of the developers’ time in a retrospective that is not facilitated well.

Online Aspect

Since this antipattern is about deciding who should be the facilitator, it applies equally in both on-site and online retrospectives. But since the refactored solution often involves asking a less-experienced facilitator to facilitate, there are some subtle differences. In some ways, an online retrospective is easier to facilitate because of the online tools (e.g., Retrium) that guide you through a retrospective one step at a time. Also, the huge benefit of an experienced facilitator’s ability to read body language is lost in an online retrospective, so beginning facilitators are apt to do nearly as well as experienced facilitators in an online meeting.

Personal Anecdote

In a company I worked for, I turned out to be the one who wanted to—and was able to—facilitate retrospectives. I did it for my own team, and I started doing it for other teams as well. Even though I love facilitating retrospectives, this took time away from other work I also needed to do. In addition, as mentioned earlier, it robbed me of the chance to enjoy retrospectives with my own team.

We decided to make a shared document (see Figure 10.1) with all the teams that needed facilitation and all the facilitators. As a part of this plan, I had to mentor some of them into becoming good facilitators, of course. When a team had set a date for a retrospective, they would then book one of the facilitators. In that way, the facilitator could be someone from another team, and pooling the facilitators had several benefits.

Figure 10.1 Facilitator rotation

First, all team members, including the scrum master, were able to enjoy the shared learning of the retrospective with their team and to take part in deciding what to try out during the next sprint.

Second, the facilitators could focus on facilitating and not be so tied up in the discussions that they couldn’t keep track of time, energy, body language, and all the other important parts of the task of facilitating.

Third, sometimes it can be good for a team to try out new facilitators, since facilitators all have their own style and energy level. In this company, some teams always wanted the same facilitator, other teams wanted a different facilitator for each retrospective, and some had no strong preference.

Fourth, attending retrospectives of other teams can provide ideas for your own team (e.g., mob programming, having meetings only in the afternoons). One of the rules of a retrospective is that there must be trust that nothing shared in the room ever leaves the room unless everybody agrees to it. This is also known as the Vegas rule: What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas. In light of that rule, I do not mean that you should run back to your team and tell them what the other team is struggling with, but if the team you facilitate comes up with an interesting experiment for the testing procedure or a fun way of making peer review, then perhaps you can “borrow” it.

A related antipattern is Curious Manager (Chapter 15), since managers sometimes propose themselves as retrospective facilitators to “figure out what is going on” or even to tell the team what to do. As discussed in that antipattern, a manager as facilitator is not always beneficial.