5 Tips for Facilitating Productive Team Retrospectives

Excellent retro facilitation comes down to five key factors: the right people, getting them talking, avoiding groupthink, actionable takeaways and the tools that make this process simple.

John Samuelson

May 3, 2021

If no actionable takeaways come out of your retrospective, did it really happen?

For many teams, the retro has fallen on hard times. Sentiments like:

“Just a few people contribute, everyone else just listens.”

“It’s too long and only half the team attends.”

“We never act on anything we talk about.”

...soon give rise to “Can we have retros quarterly?” and then “Do we need retros at all?”

Whether a retrospective meeting goes well or not depends on two factors -- the team and the facilitator.

Good facilitation can prevent retrospective meetings from becoming just another rote check-in for the team and transform them into an engaging and productive meeting that the team connects back to how they create value for the end customer.

Excellent retro facilitation comes down to five key factors:

  1. the right people;
  2. getting them talking;
  3. avoiding groupthink;
  4. focusing on actionable takeaways;
  5. and using tools that make the process simple.

Here’s how to put them all together to earn your black belt in retrospective facilitation and help your team rock their next sprint.

Get the Right People in the Room

Excellent facilitation can hinge on whether the right people are in attendance or not. When the entire core team is not in the room, the outcomes of the meeting will suffer.

Facilitators have a responsibility to block time on the team members’ calendars with enough warning ahead of time, so the meeting doesn’t come as a surprise. Booking last minute retros almost always results in one or more team members not being able to make it.

To get the team in the right frame of mind, include an agenda for the retrospective as a reminder that this is a group meeting with a focus on process improvement, not the content of the work they do.

Ask that the team prioritize this meeting over others. Even if retros get blocked in calendars ahead of time, there’s always a client meeting or reporting call that has the potential to take precedence.

Avoid situations like these by calling out the potential benefits of process improvement and the consequences of running retros without the whole team there like:

  • Decisions for the whole team getting made without team members who are affected
  • Discontent when process changes have been made without input from some team members
  • Opportunities for process improvement are missed because team members are not there to share them
  • The feeling that retrospectives are not important if we are not all expected to be there spreads throughout the team

Keep the Conversation on Track

Facilitators walk into a retro with one goal -- getting the team talking. Their role is to tease out all of the pieces of the process puzzle and help the team themselves put it together.

All retrospective templates and formats are built in a way that enables facilitators to keep the team’s ideation and discussion on track throughout this process.

The facilitator is accountable for creating psychological safety within the team, so that even the shiest team members feel empowered to submit their ideas. This will ensure that, when the time to make decisions rolls around, the team will have gathered a diverse set of perspectives to help them make a choice about their next steps.

Starting with an icebreaker to get everyone from the team speaking is one way to begin to build out the level of comfort required for open discussion. Icebreakers are like the training wheels of participation.

They are a particularly impactful beginning to remote sessions, where it can be tempting to switch off your camera and zone out.

Use these 20 icebreakers to get your retros started right.

Once the group has generated ideas for further discussion during the retro, the facilitator is encouraged to time each phase of the meeting which doesn’t have a clear end goal.

For example, dot voting and grouping may not need to be timed as there is a clear end in sight to these activities.

If left unattended, the team can spend an exorbitant amount of time chatting through a single topic, going around in circles instead of getting to the heart of the matter. To avoid that, facilitators can use a basic egg timer or countdown clock to timebox the discussion and ask the team to arrive at an action, if such exists, or table the topic.

If the conversation turns into a game of pointing fingers, facilitators can shut it down gently, recognizing that it ‘s not an optimal use of time.

Avoid Succumbing to Groupthink

Inside any team, there are always a few influencers and anti-influencers (the team members we just don’t want to be seen in agreement with) that have the potential to sway the team’s opinion in one direction or another.

For balanced retros, facilitators should seek ways to avoid the team members’ tendency to anchor their own opinions to those of a particular person in the room.

One of the solutions to the pitfall of groupthink is anonymity. By encouraging team members to submit their feedback anonymously, facilitators manage to source unique perspectives from the team members to help them arrive at an innovative solution.

In in-person retros, anonymity is nearly impossible. Facilitators can discourage participants from adding their names to the post-its they contribute, but other factors like their handwriting and observing who adds what to the board make for an experience that is not grounded in true anonymity.

In online retrospective tools, like ScatterSpoke, team members can:

  • Add their contributions asynchronously and anonymously, without seeing other people's contributions until the facilitator decides to open the view up to the rest of the team.
  • Use private voting feature to ensure that no one gets influenced by how other participants are voting.

If the team dynamic presents challenges like influence and the team’s tendency to anchor to other team members’ opinions, features that enable true anonymity for remote retrospectives are excellent tools for facilitators to have in their back pocket.

Rich Feedback is Great, Actionable Takeaways Are Better

As the team wraps up discussion of the emergent topics from the ideation phase, the facilitator focuses on enabling the team to generate actionable takeaways from their conversation topics.

Action items from the retro may need time to crystallize, so make sure to carve out time at the end of the retro to focus on next steps, instead of trying to cram this into the last 2-3 minutes of your timebox.

Separate out a section of your retro board that is dedicated to your team’s action items. Facilitators are encouraged to add “final” action items that come out of the “draft” ideas generated during the ideation phase.

Action items will not always be worded exactly in the way the original idea was presented. Excellent facilitators help the team further define the original idea as an actionable process improvement task or initiative for the team’s next sprint.

One common problem to avoid is generating actionable takeaways and then forgetting to assign them to any particular team member.

It’s painfully true that when we all own something, no one owns it.

That is why, as the retrospective meeting comes to a close, facilitators ask for volunteers to take responsibility for the action items that have been generated by the group.

Depending on capacity, role inside the team and other factors, team members will take on action items for which they are suited or team up to push them through the process at a faster pace.

During the next retro, facilitators will call on these volunteers to share their progress on the process improvement initiatives they own.

Choose Tools That Help You Drive Towards Goals

While many facilitators have managed to run productive retros with little more than a box of Sharpies and some sticky notes, the right tools can go a long way to making the retrospective process easier on the team and on the facilitating  team lead or Scrum Master.

Online retrospective tools in particular, offer a lot of advantages like:

  • Easy set up -- your next retro template is just three clicks away
  • Less mess helps the team stay organized and navigate through their feedback
  • Features for anonymity allow the team to tap into more and more unique ideas
  • Facilitators can easily archive boards for their records, instead of taking photos/notes
  • No waste -- let’s face it, online retros are just better for the environment :)
  • A consolidated resource -- the timer, voting, board and filters are all at your fingertips
  • The right online retrospective tool will streamline the retrospective process and give facilitators as well as team members exactly what they need to stay focused on the ideas at hand.

Facilitating a retro for your team in the near future? Check out 10+ fun and exciting templates you can use with your remote team to run productive retros.

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