“I just can’t get her to engage!” – Gnarly Retrospective Problems

A Scrum Master from the financial industry shared a gnarly retrospective problem with me:

My gnarly problem is that I have one member of my team that doesn’t like to participate in our ceremonies. Her body language shows it, but her words never do. She doesn’t really talk during any of the ceremonies, just tells our manager that she thinks they are a waste of time.


I keep trying to play games and spice things up and I’ve tried the boring, to the point method of: works well, not so well, and needs improvement …


I just can’t get her to engage! Any help on this?

This seems to be a very common problem. I’ve certainly had it. That’s why I want to share an edited version of my answer here. I try to keep a focus on retrospectives although it seems to be a larger problems.

In a live coaching situation there are loads of good questions to ask: How does the team react? Was there ever a retrospective during which she was engaged? What is she like outside of the retros?

Without knowing many of the specifics, here is some generic advice.

Prologue: We can’t force agile on people

In general, I’ve stopped forcing people. As Marshall Rosenberg said, you cannot make people do anything. We certainly can’t make them “be agile”. If she doesn’t want to be there, she won’t engage. What would happen if she didn’t have to come? How would that affect the team? How does it affect the team now that she’s not engaging?

I’ve often seen teams invest a lot of energy trying to include someone who didn’t really want to be part of it. Not everybody is cut out for agile. Not everybody can be won over. That’s okay. Time will tell if she wants to work in an agile team or not. Sometimes it’s best for everyone if someone leaves the team – As graciously as possible: Let everyone save face. Certainly no mobbing!

But we’re not there yet. Everybody deserves a fair chance and we’re trying to include someone.

Make it worth her time

She gave a reason for her disengagement, at least to the manager. And it’s a valid reason. Veronika Kotrba and Ralph Miarka taught me: “Everybody is the expert for their own situation”. If she thinks it’s a waste of her time, then it’s a waste of her time. Period. The question is: What would make it worth her while?

What is your relationship like? Is that something that you can ask her? Without being defensive or reproachful? With a curious mindset because you would honestly like to know? That would be my preferred route. And you can phrase it very positively: “What would you want to have happen that would make the retrospective a good use of your time?”

If you feel like you cannot approach her directly, you could try Outcome Expectations. Maybe she will tell what would make a retrospective valuable to her.

Make people speak up early in a meeting

In the Retromat ebook there is a passage about quiet people. Quiet as in “shy or introverted”. It’s not the same as an unwilling participant, but the following tips might help:

1) If people don’t speak early on in a meeting it gives them silent permission to stay quiet. It’s part of the duties of the “Set the Stage” activity to give everyone the opportunity to speak within the first 5 minutes.

2) You’ve already mentioned body language. What about her position in the room relative to the other participants? A lack of involvement might manifest in sitting outside of the inner circle. Luckily positions also work the other way around: If I can coax a person to join the inner circle they will often also engage more.

For the future: ESVP

When I start with a new team I often run ESVP in one of the first three retrospectives. I’m fully prepared to let Prisoners go. I’ve only ever had Prisoners once (in a retro with 25 people). I invited them to change their minds and then gave a 5 minute coffee break to let them slip away quietly. (ESVP was anonymous, of course. I honestly can’t remember if everyone came back or if the 2 prisoners stayed away.)

I assume your team is not that big and it would be obvious who the prisoner is anyway. Plus, you’ve already worked with that team for a while. That’s why I wouldn’t use ESVP here, unless you think it might surface some other, less obvious Prisoners.

ESVP is something you might consider for a future team.

Phew, that’s it.

tl;dr Don’t force her. Find out what would make it worth her time.

I hope some of these options are helpful to you. If you’re in a similar pickle, I’d love to hear what you tried and how it turned out! Best of luck!

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2 Comments “I just can’t get her to engage!” – Gnarly Retrospective Problems

  1. Louise Penberthy

    “Find out what would make it worth her time.”

    Absolutely! There are all kinds of reasons why someone doesn’t participate. Find out what would make the retro worth her time to participate in. If you can provide that thing, whatever it is that would make it worth her time, and you can provide it for her, great. If not, maybe agile isn’t for her.

  2. Stephen Costanzo

    Even if “agile isn’t for her” or it’s not worth her time – we have to do something to help either change or mitigate that behaviour or we may have an impact on a team.
    In some organizations, Agile (in some form) is the way they work. It’s not always worth the loss of talent to let her go. (not that i’m saying what you meant Louise)
    In a small team if we use the ESVP model, it will be obvious who leaves as a P so I would be curious to hear thoughts on how it would work. We have put toys (pipe cleaners and the like) on the table so that if people didn’t want to participate they could at least be making some stuff that others may give positive feed back on 🙂
    If we let her leave and then have her come up with another activity to do that provides the team value? Set up (or clean up) the sprint board? This way the team still sees the contribution to the team even though she’s not present?
    Something I could think of would be to have her review the output of the retrospective and put + next to things she agrees with and ask if she can commit to the team’s goal. Hopefully the person would soon start seeing the value of engagement (first as a solo person and then as a team member) and not be resistant.
    Another thing could be that she doesn’t like/respect the team and is using the ceremony as the target so that she doesn’t have to bring up that it is a co-worker issue. I guess their SM or HR Manager could chat and see if she wants to be on a different team and see if that improves their engagement with the process.

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