Help, our retrospectives are complain-fests – How to turn blame and whining into action

Here’s another gnarly retrospective problems:

“Our retrospectives are huge complain-fests. All the team ever does is blame others and whine, whine, whine. Honestly, I don’t know what to do…”

This seems to be a common situation in newly agile teams judging from how often I have heard descriptions like that: The team eternally blames external parties. Naturally, they never come up with any action items. Why would they when it’s all somebody else’s fault anyway…

Blaming others is a convenient way to avoid taking responsibility and changing oneself. So how do you get a team out of this attitude? I describe several tactics in the ebook “Retromat – Run great agile retrospectives” and wanted to share them with you, too:

“What are you going to do about it?”

I start by stressing “you” a lot, as in “What are _you_ going to do about it?”

Here are activities supporting this angle:

Solution focus

Surprisingly you can also try a very positive angle: Talking about what the team did well sometimes opens up a window to also talk about what didn’t work out, e.g. with an Appreciative Inquiry.

In general, I’m a fan of the solution-focused approach, where you avoid analyzing the problem and look for things to try out instead. These activities fit this approach:

Change perspective

A change of perspective can help the team to empathize with their scape goat and see things in a new light. It can also do wonders if the scape goat attends the retrospective and shares their view and reasoning.

Try:

If all else fails I try an intervention along the lines of “We can’t change other people. We can only change our own perspective and behavior.”

Have you ever tried one of these with a finger-pointing team? How did it turn out?

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Ad-Hoc Leadership

[This topic in German will be part of the upcoming 2nd sipgate book \o/].

We don’t have any middle management at sipgate. In our teams nobody is anybody else’s boss. Hearing this, visitors often assume we’re without leaders. In fact, the opposite is true.

(Disclaimer: We do have a hierarchy. It only has 2 levels but it’s there. Our not-so-called C-level sets strategy and everyone else is trying to execute it.)

The roles of Scrum Master and Product Owner have elements of leadership in them. Product Owners have authority about what is being build. They do not have authority about people, their jobs, how the team builds something or the broader organizational setup.

Because nobody gets to lead solely by the power vested in them by some management title, everybody takes the lead sometime. If something is important to you and you don’t take the lead, there’s a chance nobody will. Fortunately, the issue that’s important enough to take action is a different one for different people. So it distributes nicely.

Some people will now object that there is always an informal hierarchy in a team anyway. And someone at the top. After pondering this for months and qualitative surveys at the coffee machine I can’t confirm this. Who’s on top is ever-shifting. Within any given team there are several people that lead, depending on the area in question. UX? Dan. Java? Lara. JavaScript? Kim. We follow their lead because we trust them to best judge the long term consequences of any decision. And yet, they usually don’t decide on their own, but together with others.

I’m pretty sure that half my colleagues would be team leads in other companies. They’ve got all the skills you’re looking for: take responsibility, present results in front of 100+ people, give constructive feedback, facilitate discussions and they’re reflected.

Btw, this post isn’t called “Agile Leadership” for a reason. In my experience, when managers talk about “Agile Leadership”, they babble about “empowerment” while keeping the existing hierarchy and its reporting structure as it is. Yeah, right. Wash me but don’t make me wet, much?

And what do we get from having a flat hierarchy? Everybody takes responsibility. We can take decisions fast. We don’t waste time on political games. Instead we can add value.

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Scrum Masters and Agile Coaches need an Emergency Fund

Scrum doesn’t fix an organization’s problems. It makes problems glaringly obvious so that you they have a chance to fix them themselves. Except that “glaringly obvious” is relative and sometimes you still need someone to point to the steaming pile o’ shit of a problem and say it out loud. Sometimes to someone that has the authority to fire the messenger.

As a Scrum Master or agile coach it is part of your job to speak truth to power if necessary. And while it’s certainly a good idea to work on delivery, and phrasing hard truths in a way that make it possible for the recipient to accept and stomach them, there’s still a risk involved.


That’s why you need to have a certain level of independence. And a big part of that independence is money. How can you expose someone to an uncomfortable truth, if that person can fire you from a job you depend on? Depend on for rent, for food, for insurance. For your kid.

It’s a whole lot easier to “have guts” if you have an emergency fund, e.g. 3 to 6 months of living expanses in cash in a bank account. How many months you need depends on how fast you think you can land another job. Ultimately it depends on what you need to feel secure. My need for financial security is high, so we’ve got 12 months. This is just living expenses, not fancy vacations. Not that it’s necessary at my workplace but it’s still a very comforting feeling and helps me not be afraid to say what I think needs saying.

If you don’t have an emergency fund, why not start now? If you can’t save big chunks, chip away at it. Small contributions will also help. Having some money in the bank will make you more effective in you job. And it’ll let you sleep better at night.

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Phases are not always linear in retrospectives

If you facilitate retrospectives then you’re probably familiar with the 5 phases from “Agile Retrospectives” by Derby and Larsen:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Gather data
  3. Generate insight
  4. Decide what to do
  5. Close the retrospective

Whenever I talk about them and in all the material I’ve created, it always looks like the phases are strictly linear. But that is not how they work in the majority of my retrospectives – because I rarely have single-topic retros. I usually run a “gathering potential topics”-activity like “Speedboat” or “I like, I wish” and then the team works through 2 or 3 of these topics.

It would be strange to first talk about 3 topics in depth and afterwards come up with action items for all of them. Instead we talk about 1 topic in depth and create an action item for this topic. And only then start with the next topic. Like in this highly elaborate diagram 😉 :

I thought it might be worth stating this explicitly as it’s not necessarily obvious for beginners.

What about you? When do you decide on action items?

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Expect turnover – Agile transitions and changes in the work force

The other day, I’ve had 3 visitors from a large corporation. Since one of them was from HR we talked a lot about these topics and exchanged our hiring processes. One hidden criterium of theirs is that people must be “leidensfähig” to a certain extent.

“Leidensfähig” is a beautiful German word that literally translates to “ able to suffer”. If you’re leidensfähig, you are able to put up with a certain amount of (corporate) bullshit without quitting. We cast for the exact opposite. If something sucks, it’s your responsibility to go fix it.

Expect turnover

It reminded me of how much hiring criteria differ between companies and that it’s really no wonder that turnover is to be expected during any big change. You’ve hired people to work in a certain way and – boom – now you ask them to work in a different way. Not all employees can and want to work in a new way. It’s not their fault either. It’s just people and companies going their separate ways. It’s not them, it’s not the company. They are just not a good match for each other anymore .

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“Too many topic ideas leave too little time to talk in-depth” – Gnarly Retrospecive Problems

Scrum Master Ellen wrote me about a problem with running out of time during retrospectives:

“I have a team that is quite elaborate in their retrospectives especially in the gathering data and insights part. Perfect, but this leaves less time for deciding what to do and transforming problems we face into action. Do you have suggestions on how to keep the teams focused on only the really important things they want to fix in the next sprint? The thing I try now is to minimize the number of post-its each person adds, but I would love to have some other suggestions.”

Yep, I definitely know that problem quite well. As I facilitate short retros (45-90 minutes) time is always an issue. Even small teams can come up with a multitude of topic ideas. And the more topics a team suggests, the fewer it can actually talk about.

Regarding minimizing stickies, there are at least 3 different ways to do it, all with their own disadvantages:

A) Give only very little time to write down topics
Con: Stresses some people

B) Limit the number of stickies to write (“Write 3 stickies with your most important topics”)
Con: Gives some people analysis paralysis

C) After writing, tell people to go through their stickies and only keep a certain amount (“Please count your stickies. If you’ve got more than 5, only keep the 5 most important ones and discard the others”)
Con: People have to throw away some of their work

I choose depending on the team, i.e. which con I think they can best live with. (I use C) most often.)

Alternatively, you can try to shorten the time that people take to present their topics. By 1) making them aware of the time problem and 2) intervening whenever people dig into a problem pre-maturely and start discussing instead of moving on to introduce the next sticky.

In my context (mature teams, very short retros of 60min every 2 weeks) “Gather data” is strictly for broadcasting: Everybody hangs up their sticky ideas, says one sentence per sticky and that’s it. Clarifying questions are okay, but no going into detail. Participants are great at reigning themselves in, when they go too deep into a topic. Everybody’s used to postponing until after dot-voting and then discuss the important topics.

That’s certainly learned behaviour. I’ve recently started to freelance on the side and now sometimes introduce retrospectives in other companies that are new to it. I noticed how easily participants get into details before it is clear, which topics are the most important ones. I stepped in a number of times. That’s when I realised how rarely (if ever) this happens at “home”.

One way to help a team help each other stay on track is with Jeff Patton’s Cups.

Hopefully, some of these ideas help you carve out more time for the important topics 🙂

PS: Now I wonder what a “normal” amount of topics per retro is. Across several teams I found we typically cover 2-3 topics in a 45-75 minute retro. It’s 2 way more often than 3.

I think it used to be more when we were less mature, but that’s might also due to the less than optimal method we used back then…

How many is “normal” in your retros? And how long are those retros?

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How we take decisions without managers and teamleads

We don’t have any middle management at sipgate. There is still a boss – bosses even, plural – and we look to them for strategy and long term planning, but they are not involved in day to day decisions. In our ~12 product teams no one is the boss of anyone else. This often prompts the question “So, how do you take decisions around here? Who decides things?”

That’s an excellent question that I had absolutely no answer for, the first time I got it. I had never thought about it, because decisions just … get taken. But how? And by whom?

Once I started thinking about it, I realized that the answer is not straightforward, because it’s always different groups of people that take any given decision. The guiding principle is:

We want decisions to be taken by the people who have the most information to make a good decision.
Sometimes that is a single person. More often it’s a pair or a team. Decisions that are more far-reaching but affect mostly one job role can be taken by this role’s community, e.g. all developers or all UX designers.

What happens when people can’t agree?

Our teams have many degrees of autonomy to take decisions about “their” product. Most decisions are taken together. When the team can’t agree the decision falls back onto the most appropriate role: The Product Owner has last say on product feature, time budget etc. Developers have last say on technical implementation etc.

A smart team and Product Owner take care not to force too many issues, because that always leads to trouble down the road. Resentful people are not doing their best work. Fortunately, we can usually agree at least on a general direction

What about company-wide decisions?

In most cases, the group that can take the best decision overlaps with the group of people that will be affected by the decision. The smaller the overlap, the more you need to consult with the people that will be affected.

A popular way to decide something with the input of many people is to discuss it in an Open Friday session. Let’s look at a decision from about 2 years ago:

At sipgate teams can go out on team events to foster team spirit. A typical team event is an activity (escape room, cooking class, minigolf, …) + restaurant + booze. Up to a certain amount, this is on the company’s dime.

Now, our colleagues in accounting had noticed a worrying trend and pitched the following session: “Last year, we’ve had 1 team building event in the whole year. Now it’s April and we’ve already received 5 team building events. We suspect some of these to be regular ol’ team events but we can’t and don’t want to decide which is which. We’d like to talk about how to handle this.

Wait a minute! “Team building event”? How is that different from a “team event”? Turns out, a team event is is your own private fun, whereas a team building event counts as company time, i.e. you can go home earlier if your team building day is longer than usual.

Anyway, at the time of the session, about 12 people from all over the company met and a short Q&A and some discussion we came up with a list of criteria so that every team can decide whether they are planning a team event or a team building event.

[A team building event is for teams that are in trouble. They typically last a day. You probably aren’t looking forward to them (see “team in trouble”). A team event is typically in the evening and you are happy to invest your own time because your team is awesome!]

Took less than 1 hour and those criteria still stand.

You made a money-related decision just like that?

Well, in this discussion a new colleague wanted to “delegate” the decision to a higher level: “Management has to decide that! That is not something that we can decide!”.

Not true. I could vividly imagine what would happen if we really bothered a higher level with that. The higher level would have been C-level, since there’s only 2 levels, C-level and everyone else. They would have looked at us like we’re crazy people and told us to decide for ourselves. They don’t want to think about minor operational stuff like that.

The same applies to at least 90% of issues that I’ve heard the “someone higher up has to decide that” bit by newbies. We absolutely can take many of these decisions and we do. We usually have more information and are also the ones affected.

It’s part of acclimatizing at sipgate to stop relying on higher ups. You can take your own decisions. You also have to. With great power comes great resonsibility.

What are the drawbacks of this distributed decision-making?

Problems arise, whenever it’s unclear who are the best people to take a decision. Depending on  personality some drop issues, others talk to a looot of people to try to reach a decision.

Another is that we are used to great autonomy. When team decisions are overridden by C-level it’s usually not taken well.

You might think that “You have to discuss, so this approach takes longer” is also an issue. I don’t think it  slows you down for two reasons:

  • A lot of decisions affect only 1 or 2 people and you can take those without asking anyone. You need a software tool for 50 bucks that will save you 1h per month? Buy it! The time to run this by anyone else is more expensive than the tool
  • Execution is faster, because we all agreed on what we want to do, instead of dragging our heals on executing something we had no say in and think is a stupid idea by someone ignorant

Would I trade this for a traditional top-down decision making process?

Hell, no! I admit, there were times (~2011) when I longed for someone to swoop in and just take a decision so that we’re done discussing. Now, I’m very happy that the powers that be deliberately created a decision vacuum until we had all learned to take widely supported decisions together.

Overall, I think this appoach makes us faster and results in much better decisions.

Addendum: I’ve just realized that this can only work because we’ve got a strong sense of “how we do things around here”.

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Enjoy the Silence

My proudest moment as a facilitator was when I did nothing.

Well, outwardly I did nothing. Inwardly I held the silence. I’m a chatty person. Shutting up is hard for me. Letting silence be. Enduring it. I counted from 10 to 20 in my head and when I had reached 20 I started over. I looked at them intently although they had technically already spoken about the problem. And then the magic happened!

The person that had talked before spoke up again. An additional thought on the topic that made her very concerned. We spend quite some time talking about what she had brought up. It was that important.

I don’t think she would have addressed the issue at all without that long pause. We would have nodded at each other in agreement, closed the topic and started another one, with that issue simmering on. Festering.

Very interesting things happen when you don’t fill an awkward silence with chatter. You’ll hear things that others wouldn’t have come forward with on their own. You’ll give others space to think through thoughts they hadn’t thought through before. It’s magical. Enjoy the silence!

What was your proudest moment as a facilitator?

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Mistakes were made – 3 things not to do when going agile

There are many awesome practices we do at sipgate that I love to share with others. But we’ve also gotten some things very wrong, especially in the beginning in 2010. Let me spill the beans about 3 “do not recommend” things for a change 🙂

Double duty Scrum Masters

All the first Scrum Masters were recruited from existing employees and they stayed in their old role for 50% of the time. I was 50% UX designer and the others were developers. This introduces a huge conflict of interest between SM duties and being part of the development team. And the short term “gotta make the sprint goal” interests will nearly always win against long term “team’s gotta learn and improve” interests. Can’t recommend.

Dedicated Scrum Masters are a far better idea.

Afternoon temp teams

Sometimes you need a few special to work on a small project for a short amount of time. We call these task force teams “temp teams”. In the beginning we had temp team members work in their “real” team in the mornings and the temp team in the afternoons. Yeah, multi tasking late that wastes a lot of brain cycles. Can’t recommend.

Nowadays temp teams work together all day. They finish the project faster this way and return to their “real” team.

1 shared backlog for all teams

We had 5 teams, ~3 products and just one backlog. The product owners wanted to flexibly allocate teams to products depending on their changing priorities. Didn’t work out to well. The teams couldn’t identify with any product nor establish testing or coding styles for themselves. A sprint later another team would continue working on “their” feature and “ruin” it.

Today each team only works on one product. They can make it theirs, learn its ins and outs and own successes and failures.

What are things that didn’t work out for you? What do you do now?

Activities to say farewell and reminisce in a retrospective

Teams go through stages. They form, clash, perform well, quarrel, perform, and so on. Until they  eventually disband. Tuckman called this stage “Adjourning”.

A while ago, Stephane asked for activities for a retrospective for an adjourning team. Here are some suggestions:

My team is awesome” would be a great opener.

Appreciative Inquiry” would also work well, if the questions were tweaked a little to serve the purpose.

If you’ve got a budget to take the team out to eat, “Retrospective Cookies” are an excellent option.

I guess it depends a little on whether you’d rather the team takes away a farewell lesson that they can carry over to the next team or you’d rather let them bask in their team spirit and appreciate each other.

What activities do you recommend for an Adjourning retro?

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