Chapter 19 Silent One – Retrospectives Antipatterns

Chapter 19 Silent One

. . . in which a team member chooses to be almost completely quiet, and the facilitator applies various tactics to make sure the Silent One is heard

Context

On our team, Kim is the Silent One. She is not a native Danish speaker, and she is shy. The result is that she is very quiet both at the meetings during the sprints and at the retrospectives. She is always smiling and says that it has been a very good retrospective when there is a retrospective-of-the-retrospective at the end. Still, she does not ask any questions or enter into the discussions.

Sarah does not register Kim’s silence as a problem at first, since she has to focus on keeping the retrospective moving forward and getting the expected results. Kim is adept at playing the role of the Silent One, and this is what her colleagues have come to expect from her. When Sarah decides that Kim’s silence is a problem, she calls Kim out at every retrospective and asks her in the plenum discussions if she has anything to add. She never has.

General Context

People are not always in the mood to speak, and some are more talkative than others, but some people are quiet to an extreme. It is nevertheless important to hear what this latter group has to say because a retrospective is a team activity, and everybody on the team should be heard. Otherwise, only those who shout loudest will get their say, and the Silent One will rarely be heard.

Often, the Silent One is someone who feels less important than the rest of the team—a student intern, a new arrival to the group, a member of a minority of gender, nationality, or work role. I often see testers as the Silent One, not necessarily because they are shy by nature but because the team has taught them that developers’ opinions are more valuable than those of testers. This attitude is changing now, but it is changing too slowly for my taste.

Antipattern Solution

What happens most often is that the Silent One is not detected because the facilitator is busy moving the retrospective forward, keeping the people who are talking focused, and making sure the Loudmouths don’t dominate the meeting. It takes a pretty experienced facilitator to detect Silent One, since they are so amiable most of the time. (If they are not amiable, see the antipattern Negative One in Chapter 20.) Nobody really minds that they are silent, since they seem to be happy. And if they have nothing to say, why pressure them?

Consequences

There are many negative consequences to this antipattern. The most important one, I believe, is that not every voice is heard, and the team loses the benefit of shared experiences. The Silent One effectively removes him- or herself from the discussions and thus from the decisions. As a quiet listener, the Silent One often has had a chance to observe and think about all that has been said, so this person is well worth listening to despite the effort it takes for him or her to speak.1

1. Remember, still waters run deep.

Another negative consequence is that people who already feel only marginally a part of the team can feel even less like part of it if they are kept quiet in a corner, even if it is by their own choice. The team then misses diverse insights. In addition, it is hard to know if the Silent One is secretly unhappy or is thinking of leaving the team or the organization.

Symptoms

One of the team members is always quiet. You might not notice it at the beginning, but after a few retrospectives, you start seeing a pattern of behavior—or rather, an antipattern of behavior! You find yourself asking this person specific questions or giving him or her extra attention to encourage the Silent One to contribute to the discussions. You might also notice someone is silent because every time he or she tries to say something, someone else interrupts—in which case you have to look at the Loudmouth antipattern (Chapter 18).

Refactored Solution

Depending on the situation, this antipattern can be remedied in different ways. One obvious part of the refactored solution is also mentioned in Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great (Larsen & Derby 2006): make every person in the room say something early in the retrospective. Once they have said something, it is often much easier for them to speak again, and it is definitely the case that if they are allowed to be quiet, it is much easier for them to stay quiet. This is also called the activation phenomenon.2 So, always start your retrospectives with everybody saying at least one word.

2. In The Checklist Manifesto (2011), Gawande describes how important it is to activate people from the start in order to enable them to be active later.

If I notice a Silent One in my retrospective, I start dividing the team into smaller groups when they need to discuss an issue. I start by dividing them in two groups or sometimes into groups of three. If the Silent One still seems reluctant to talk, I use the Think, Pair, Share approach from my teaching training.

You can also use the 1, 2, 4, All technique from The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures (Lipmanowicz & McCandless 2014) in which there is an additional step between the pairs and the sharing—the pairs go together in groups of four.

For both activities, it is important that everyone has a chance to think and reflect on their own before they start talking to someone else. Some people have an active preference and others have a reflective preference in the way they think, learn, and work. Active thinkers need to talk about issues directly. Reflective thinkers need some time on their own to reflect on the issue before they start talking. If you just ask a question in plenum, they will never be the ones to answer first, and once the plenum discussion has started, they will never have the space to reflect.

To help myself recognize the Silent One antipattern, I often write down the names of all the people present in the room. As each person contributes to the discussion without being directly prompted, I add a little dot next to his or her name. If anyone on my list winds up without a dot, I look closely at whether he or she might be a Silent One.

When you know that you are in this antipattern and the tricks I’ve outlined do not work, you might have to talk to the Silent One outside the retrospective to see if there is a particular problem at the retrospective and whether you can do anything to help. Otherwise, splitting groups up or having activities with less talking can be the refactored solution to this antipattern.

Online Aspect

In an online retrospective, it is easier for a Silent One to hide, and you might not be aware of the situation right away. When you have acknowledged that you have a Silent One, the online setting can work to your advantage. You can make use of round robins, breakout rooms, and activities that involve no talking, just writing, and in which all the team members are muted. The point is not so much to force the Silent One to speak as to make a context in which the opinions of the Silent One can be heard. Some of the online retrospective tools can help you with this task, because they often include a lot of support for writing and drawing together.

Personal Anecdote

In a team where I facilitated retrospectives every other week, I noticed that one of the members was very quiet. I did not know why, and since it was a distributed retrospective and he was at a different site, it was not easy for me to casually talk to him. I wondered, naturally, if he felt that the retrospectives were less useful than he needed them to be, so I decided to try something with the team.

At the next retrospective, they had populated a timeline with Post-it Notes about the events of the previous 2 weeks and how these events had made them feel. Instead of reading them all aloud or allowing people to read their own notes, I decided to make a sort of round robin in which they all had to first choose a positive Post-it Note to discuss.

They could choose their own Post-it Note, one they were interested in discussing because they found it relevant, or one they did not understand. Most people did not choose their own note but instead chose one of the latter two types. We went through this exercise first with all the positive notes, then the question mark notes, and then the negative notes.

Although most notes were chosen because people found them interesting, it was an eye-opener to me how many were chosen because people did not fully understand what was being referred to on the note—either the issue itself or the reason it was viewed as positive or negative. This exercise opened up the Silent One in a way I had never seen before. I did not choose him first for any part of the exercise, but once he saw other people choose issues they did not quite understand, he was able to pick those that he did not understand.

I realized that he had been holding back previously because he was afraid to admit that there were things he did not understand. So, in a very nondirect way, we created more trust among the team members, and that was exactly what was needed in this instance of the antipattern.