Who facilitates the agile retrospective?

facilitates the agile retrospectiveIf I ask people who facilitates the agile retrospective, most tell me that it’s their Scrum master. Some even look surprised, as if their could be anybody else who leads their retrospectives? Yes there can be. In some situation it’s even better if somebody else than the Scrum master facilitates the agile retrospective.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. I don’t care much about what specific frameworks or processes such as Scrum or SAFe say about who is “responsible”for the agile retrospective, or who’s “task” it is to do it. For me it is not about “who’s work it is to manage the meeting”. What matters are the results! How can you make your retrospective valuable: have a effective meeting and get good actions that help teams to improve.

Basically anyone can facilitate the agile retrospective. The main guidelines that I use are:

  • If it is a mature team with experienced team members, then any team member (including the Scrum master) can facilitate the retrospective next to their team member role.
  • If the team is new or just started with agile, and doesn’t have much experience with reflecting and facilitation, then I suggest to have an independent facilitator.

For a new team the retrospective should not be facilitated by a team member, and certainly not by the Scrum master. Why you might ask? Because this team is on a journey to discover how to work in an agile way, and that means changing the way people work together. This change impacts everybody on the team, and in the beginning mostly the Scrum master. Having to lead the retrospective, and reflect and learn at the same time is hard. My advice is for the team to focus on the learning and get someone else to facilitate the meeting.

An independent facilitator for the agile retrospective

So who can facilitate the agile retrospective for a new team, if it isn’t the Scrum master of the team? Whoever is does, that person must have the proper skills to do it. It can be a team member from another team, be it that team’s Scrum master or anybody else from that team who knows how to lead a good retrospective. Or it can be an agile coach, process responsible, quality manager, or even somebody from HR or a line manager. The position or role that the facilitator has is irrelevant, what matters is that the person can act as an independent facilitator and has the right skills.

In a comment on an earlier version of this post Kasia Ziemba mentioned the danger in having the retrospective facilitated by a line manager by stating “Until managers understand that their role is to support, not command and control, it might block the learning process in a team.” I second that, and adding to it, I’ve seen situations where the manager truly tried to support the team, but due to the history of the company team members didn’t trust managers enough to be fully open an honest when their where in a meeting. Past performance and perception can work against managers when they want to adopt an agile management style, it’s hard. On the other hand, I have seen managers with very good facilitation skills who helped teams tremendously on their agile journey. Team perception is crucial, if the team doesn’t feel safe with a facilitator then have somebody else facilitate the retrospective.

Becoming a servant leader of a self-organizing team isn’t easy for new Scrum masters. The focus in the retrospective for a new team (actually, for any team) is to reflect and learn. That works better if someone outside the team facilitates the agile retrospective for them. Someone who knows how to lead the meeting, and what it takes to adopt an agile way of working. Recognizes barriers and impediments and helps the team to find a solution.

Who facilitates your agile retrospective?

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Hi Ben! I’m a bit confused about this article. I do not agree that Scrum Master is not able to facilitate the retrospective. It is hard sometimes, to be detached and neutral, especially when a lot is going on in a team, even though it is possible. Moreover, I think that it shows the maturity of the Scrum Master in his or her role.
    And the second point is that I do not belive that facilitating retrospective by a line manager will give a meaningful outcome. Until managers understand that their role is to support, not command and control, it might block the learning process in a team.

  2. The danger you mentioned in having the retrospective facilitated by a line manager is a very true, I second that. Adding to it, I’ve seen situations where the manager truly tried to support the team, but due to the history of the company team members didn’t trust managers enough to be fully open an honest when their where in a meeting. Past performance and perception can work against managers when they want to adopt an agile management style, it’s hard.

    Regarding facilitation by the Scrum master, the same can be true. Being “raised” with command and control management team members can expect the Scrum master to lead and decide for them. I wrote about this in Why dedicated Full-Time Scrum masters are hard to implement – and what’s the alternative. If an organization assigns Scrum masters to teams then team members view Scrum masters as a leader, a manager. And again, they will not be open and honest.

    An independent facilitator deals with these risks. They are focused on the atmosphere in the retrospective meeting to create safety. Therefore when in doubt I recommend to have an independent facilitator. One which also knows to step back if a team is able to do things themselves :-).

    Thanks for commenting on my blog Kasia and pointing out the risks with managers facilitating retrospectives! I’ve updated my post based on it!

  3. Ben, thank you for taking my comment into account!:)
    I think that this is very valuable discussion so I dare to put one more comment about assigning SM to a team. Even though an organization assigns a SM to a team, it all depends on his or her mindset. Will he or she be seen as a leader or a manager, depends on the team maturity level and context. In fact sometimes SM behaves like a manager but still in the spirit of empathy and trust. I was hired as a first, full time SM in the environment which has been rather command and control and I probably was seen as a next manager at the very beginning. It took time to show team members, what SM actually does and the most important, Scrum values in practice.

    1. Thanks again Kasia for another great addition!

      People don’t mind change, but they hate being changed. If the SM is introduced as someone who want to help them, who will listen to their concerns, who is genuinely interested, then acceptance of the SM will be much easier. If the team perceived the introduction as getting a new manager pushed on them then it takes more time to establish trust.

      My personal experience is that the way a person is introduced into an organization matters a lot. I’ve been introduced in many different ways. At times this made it hard for me to have the impact that the organization expected from me. While at other occasions things went much more smoothly. Position, role/function name, the person who introduces are all things that can make or break the first impression. But that’s another story…

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