Chapter 24 Dead Silence – Retrospectives Antipatterns

Chapter 24 Dead Silence

. . . in which the team members are completely silent, often in an online retrospective, and the facilitator uses various tactics to hear their opinions despite their reluctance to participate

Context

Sarah felt she had tried everything to encourage her team to talk. She had even shared stories about her vacation in the hope that the team would start talking, if not about the way they work, then at least about something.

It was the third online retrospective with the distributed team, and Sarah felt powerless. Dead silence reigned in the virtual room they used, and nothing she said could get more than a small background hum as response. Most of the team members’ sound and video were turned off. The ones on video were looking at their screens and tapping on devices, but nothing appeared in the shared document, so Sarah knew they were busy with tasks unrelated to the retrospective.1

1. As an online facilitator, you get an almost uncanny sense for whether people are focusing on the retrospective or paying attention to something else.

In her desperation for the team to participate, Sarah even talked the retrospective down, making comments such as “I know this is not your favorite way of spending your time” and “I realize you find these retrospectives useless and boring.” The only reaction she got was subdued laughter.

Sarah ended the retrospective early, since there was nothing to discuss.

General Context

Often in a distributed retrospective, some people are silent. That can work if you make sure they are heard from time to time. But sometimes the whole team becomes silent, and in contrast to a real-life retrospective, it is not possible to walk toward people or urge them to talk by making eye contact. It is easy to be silent online, but it is much harder in real life, where the silence can get a little uncomfortable.

In online retrospectives, you can have a team placed in a number of different locations, each with their more or less efficient online connection being dead silent. Perhaps they are afraid of speaking up; perhaps they are working or writing emails or scrolling through Facebook; perhaps they have nothing to say about the subject they are supposed to be discussing.

While it seems odd that the team has nothing to say about a topic that they themselves chose as relevant, it nevertheless happens. Perhaps they feel they should discuss the test strategy/process/meeting agendas at this retrospective, because they know they are not satisfied with them. But for some reason, be it shyness, introvertedness, or a feeling of being powerless, the discussion does not happen.

It could also be caused by a mix of politeness and the constraints of online collaboration. Even with the camera on, it can be hard for people to tell who is about to say something, and not wishing to interrupt, they stay silent. Another reason some people stay quiet is that they think what other people have to say is more important than their own input.

Antipattern Solution

The antipattern solution is to allow people to remain quiet. The thinking is that if they have nothing to say, they should not be forced to say anything.

Consequences

In the short run, the consequence is that the discussions at the retrospective are based on very few people’s voices, so some causes, stories, or worries are not voiced. In the long run, the consequence is that the retrospectives become fruitless and will be canceled. One by one, individuals will stop making time for them until, in the end, the entire team has lost interest.

Symptoms

The obvious symptom is silence at the retrospective. Blacked-out video and muted sound are also symptoms, although some people mute their sound for other reasons, such as to spare the meeting unwanted background noises—coughing, children interrupting, static, and so on. The less obvious symptom is that people start declining the invitations to retrospectives.

Refactored Solution

There are a lot of tips and tricks in the refactored solution because the choice of what to do is very much based on the cause of the silence.

As a general rule, remember to hear everybody’s voices at the beginning of a retrospective. If people are “allowed” to be quiet in the beginning, it is much easier for them to stay quiet during the retrospective. This is known as the activation phenomenon (Gawande 2011).

Use a round robin from time to time based on the same question for everybody—for example, “How did you experience this incident?” or “To what degree do you think this experiment was successful in the last sprint?” A round robin allows everybody to feel that hearing from them is important even if that is not their usual expectation. I have often heard some surprising insights from quiet people in a round like this. Keep the question simple, at least for the first time, but don’t use a yes/no question. Do not make anyone uncomfortable, at least not on purpose.

If you think the silence is caused by shyness, divide the team into smaller groups and let them talk on another channel. If this is not enough to make all of them talk, keep dividing them until they are in pairs. Make sure you are able to listen in on them from time to time.

Sometimes, people are quiet simply because of the sheer number of people in the “room.” In some online collaboration tools, you can use breakout rooms. If that is not possible in the tool you use, you can have the team use another tool to talk in smaller groups or even start multiple meetings in the same tool. If you send them out to a place where you cannot reach them, you have to make sure that you have a way to “find them” and tell them to come back if they don’t come back at the time you specified.

If the cause of their silence is that they do not feel safe within the team, this probably needs to be dealt with offline or in a separate meeting. If you notice that someone is silent all the time, consider taking up the issue with him or her outside the meeting, perhaps in a phone call or a one-on-one chat. Ask if he or she knows how important it is to hear from everybody on the team. Avoid asking, “Why are you so quiet?” The latter can come across as an attack, while the former encourages the person to reflect on his or her role and responsibility within the team.

Perhaps the team simply finds it difficult to talk about things and share experiences and ideas. In this case, you can try to tighten up the agenda for the retrospective. As an example, instead of allowing them 10 minutes to think individually about events from the last sprint, give them only 3 minutes, and then have each person share it with one other person. This gives them a chance to think of something before they have to share it, so the people who need to reflect before talking can be allowed that time. It also gives the people who need confirmation before they share in plenum a chance to test the waters with at least one other person. Of course, in this way, you might not be able to address as many issues as you wanted to (and they wanted to). But focusing on a few subjects and actually having an informed conversation about them is better than touching superficially on 25 topics.

As you can see, there are many ways of solving this problem, and most of them depend on why the team is silent. Finding the cause(s) behind something is important in all aspects of life in general and in retrospectives in particular.

Online Aspect

The context of this antipattern is an online retrospective, but as mentioned in the Context section, this can happen in offline retrospectives as well. When you are together with people in real life, it is easier to get them to talk, because you can use your body language to encourage them. Another difference is that, in an online retrospective, the disengaged team members are often doing other things, such as reading emails or looking at the news. It is obvious if they do that when you are in the same room, and it is easier to set ground rules about this (e.g., no phones or computers in the retrospectives). It is important to find the cause of this. Is it because they are shy, or is it because they are disengaged, and if they are disengaged, why are they disengaged? When you know more, you might find that you are in another antipattern, such as Negative Team (Chapter 21), Curious Manager (Chapter 15), Lack of Trust (Chapter 22), or perhaps the room is full of Silent One (Chapter 19).

Personal Anecdote

Some years ago, and fortunately not in the beginning of my facilitation journey, I was asked to facilitate a retrospective for a team that was completely distributed. The team members had never met. They were all from a “strong, silent” culture. None of them had been in a retrospective before. They had been hired for their programming skills, not their communication skills.

I started the retrospective, as always, by asking them all to answer one question. In this case, the question was a simple one about their role in the team. Most answers were short and to the point, which was all I asked for, so that was fine by me.

In the next part of the retrospective, I explained the agenda for them and what I expected them to get out of it. I also explained how to use the Google Drawings document we would be sharing. In retrospect, I think I could have asked them what their expectations were from the retrospective, but I didn’t.

We entered the Gather Data phase in a very quiet way, and I asked them to fill out online sticky notes in a Google Drawing with incidents that had happened in the last 2 weeks and place them on the Google board. Between the eight people present, they wrote 10 notes. I suspected some of the team members had not written any.

Normally, the next part is to go through all the notes and divide them into groups. There was no need for that with so few notes. I read them all aloud to make sure that everyone knew what each note said. Later, I thought that it might have been a good idea for them to read the ones they posted themselves and hear why they chose these incidents to share. But I didn’t.

For each of the notes, I paused a little and asked for questions, comments, or reflections in order to Generate Insights. Each time, there was silence.

Since I knew that Generate Insights is a crucial part of a retrospective, I was determined to make the team reflect or at least discuss some of the items. I appreciated that they had chosen to share some things, but I wanted them to learn more from them. One of the incidents was that the planned release had been canceled. I thought that this would be interesting for them to talk about. I drew a fish skeleton and decided to make a “forced” fishbone cause analysis. Normally, I would ask team members to volunteer in writing notes for the possible causes they could think of and place them on the fishbone.

In this case, though, I decided to hold a round robin so that I could force them to speak up. I went through the list of people in the retrospective and made them all give a possible cause for the canceled release, and I wrote it on the fishbone. For the first 5 minutes, people did a lot of sighing, and some said they would like to pass. But after that, the round robin started to work. The result was a number of possible causes for the canceled release, technical as well as organizational. Now we had somewhere to start a discussion that mattered to them, and during the rest of the retrospective, it was easier for me to get them to speak up, especially since I knew my challenge now and was able to compensate by never asking a question in plenum but rather giving them time to reflect and then asking them one at a time.

When I decided to do what I did in this setting, it was because I guessed that the reason for the silence was culture, not shyness or fear. I could have been wrong, of course, and then I would have had to change my approach or even end the retrospective and talk to them all offline in order to know what to do in the future.