The “Let’s Talk About The Elephant In The Room” Retrospective
Retrospectives are one of the most important Agile meetings — it’s at the heart of the “inspect and adapt” philosophy that enables continuous improvement and ongoing growth for teams.
For more mature teams, a retrospective can start to feel like a routine and even, boring ceremony. Getting engagement can be tough and people may stop openly saying things and contributing to the discussion.
A number of things can cause this happen — for example, the team may feel they’ve taken their improvement journey as far as it can go and may view the meeting as a waste of time. Others may become complacent when they see deeper organizational issues persist and are left unsolved. There could be conflicts within the team that people feel hesitant to discuss.
As a leader in an agile environment (coach, scrum master, team lead etc.), it can be challenging to tease out the real problems, encourage the team to share their opinions, engage in a healthy conversation, and offer up their ideas.
I’ve even left retrospectives with an action item assigned me that went something like this: “Blow the team’s mind with a new retrospective format because the current one is *yawn* boring.”
There are tons of retrospective formats to choose from to help you achieve a specific aim — you can take your team on a heroes journey (I tried that one recently and totally failed as no one really got the point), have them drawing sailboats, playing with lego, or falling into one each others’ arms through some sort of clichéd trust exercise. Websites like Tasty Cupcakes, Liberating Structures, and Fun Retros provide endless inspiration.
While these sites offer up plenty of great ideas, many of them are thematically similar — “Oh, let’s talk about the good, the bad, and then make action items” or “Let’s talk about what we should start doing, stop doing, and keep doing.” You see themes emerge over time “We have good team spirit.” or “We should have more lunches together.”
One of my teams recently confessed that our retrospectives were starting to feel old, even with me always changing up the formats. It was thought the formats themselves were limiting conversation and people weren’t really speaking their minds.
I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love getting feedback like this and being tasked with a challenge to help the team find somethings that works for them.
Accordingly, I set out looking for a retrospective format that would suit our situation — something fresh that would promote conversation, provide space for everyone to honestly speak their mind, and most of all get the engagement we’d been missing.
My Google searches didn’t yield anything useful. Browsing through my book collection (think Game Storming and Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great) didn’t help either. I wracked my brain for a an appropriate solution. But you know what? I was unnecessarily complicating things —a tragically ironic sentiment coming from someone always telling their teams to not over engineer things.
I came up with a basic, simple, and way too obvious exercise. I called it the The “Let’s Talk About The Elephant In The Room” retrospective.
Here’s the agenda I shared with the team:
“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room” — in other words, what are you not saying during our regular retrospectives?
- We’ll take 5 minutes to brainstorm 1–2 things per person.
- We’ll present the topics to one another, taking 1–2 minutes to give context and explain each one.
- We’ll decide on 1–2 topics to focus our discussions on.
- We’ll discuss the topics and decide on action items, if any.
Tips for making the session successful:
- Share the agenda ahead of time so the team doesn’t feel blindsided at the start — nothing is worse than being asked on the spot to share your feelings about sensitive topics. Be cool and give them time to to prepare.
- If your team is working remotely, and even if you’re not, stop killing trees and use helpful tools like FunRetro or Google’s Jamboard.
- The brainstorming should be done individually and in silence (although my teams like to play music during these moments to ease the awkwardness of the moment). This dedicated time gives people space to write down their own ideas and not be influenced by others. It also ensures that every single person has a chance to contribute to the conversation and be overshadowed by more dominant team members.
- Time boxing the initial presentation of the ideas forces people to be brief and to the point. Don’t be too hard on the time limits — allow the team to ask clarifying questions to ensure they understand each others’ points— but keep the team from veering into a deep discussion right away.
- As topics are presented, group the ones that are similar in theme. Perhaps take a moment to point out how aligned they are in their thinking.
- To choose the focus topics, have the team vote. Tally votes and choose the 1 or two topics maximum to discuss more in depth. For added fun, you can take an “applause meter” approach and get them to clap for the points they want to discuss the most. It’s goofy but could help keep the mood in the room light — an approach that obviously won’t work or be appropriate in many situations, but I’m a fan of keeping my retros full of humour.
- For the discussions, take your usual moderator stance, and give the team space to hash out discussions. If your team is using video, observe the body language of participants, ask questions if something seems unclear, etc. Only jump in when talks go offtrack or start to feel unproductive. Stimulate discussion with questions that will enhance the conversation. Maybe add some of your own commentary, if relevant.
- In some cases, these discussions may simply serve as a venting or a “getting on the same page” exercise for the team. As such, action items may not always emerge. If the identified problems are beyond the team’s influence, you may simply share the feedback with people who have power to make change. As the discussion for my team went on, I started to note some possible action points and shared it with them after the conversation winded down. We chose to move on some of them and took a pass on others.
- This format can obviously be applied outside of Agile retrospectives. You can use this exercise to spark conversation for any team, regardless of whether they practice Agile or not.
At the conclusion of the retrospective, I asked my team how they liked the exercise and if they felt that people were bringing up real issues. They enthusiastically favoured the format and said they appreciated everyone’s honesty. They wanted to repeat the exercise when we met in a month’s time. There’s seriously no better feedback or positive affirmation than that.
Did I do anything revolutionary with my team by going through this exercise? Certainly not. I was presented with a challenge and applied a straight forward approach that happened to work out favourably. I could have just as easily fallen on my face! Because I’m humble and I dig that whole servant leader concept all us Agile types preach about incessantly, I’m always inspecting and adapting my own methods.
I’m sharing my experience with hopes that it may inspire or help others who may face the same situation I did.