Retrospective Smells: Passiveness

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In agile retrospectives, active participation is essential to reflect, learn, and decide what to do. Passiveness is a “retrospective smell”, a signal that something is going wrong in your retrospective that needs attention. In this first article in the series on retrospectives smells, I’ll explore how to recognize passiveness and provide suggestions for dealing with it.

Recognizing Passiveness

Recognizing passiveness is usually easy, you can spot it when people are not communication and participating in the retrospective.

Then again it can be hard because you have to look for something that is missing. As a facilitator you can be overwhelmed by what is happening in the meeting, not noticing that one or more participants are disconnected.

Sometimes people may appear to be involved, where it is questionable. They do react and answer questions, but meanwhile, they are checking their email or having a chat on their laptop or phone. They look at their watch and are thinking about their next meeting. Their mind is not at the retrospectives.

The Retrospective Smells Cards are a tool for Scrum masters, agile coaches, and anyone who facilitates agile retrospectives to recognize smells and solve problems or mitigate the impact.

This coaching card deck includes a card about Passiveness as described in this post.

Dealing with passiveness

There are many ways to deal with passiveness and keep people actively involved in the retrospective.

Things that you can do are:

  • State at the start that all input matters and that you want everyone to be involved
  • Ask people to shut down their laptop, and silence their phone and put them away
  • Make people feel comfortable, create an environment where they feel safe to speak up
  • Reflect and check when you feel that someone is not actively involved
  • Ask people directly for their experience, opinion, and suggestion how to deal with something
  • Use a retrospective exercise that requires activeness, like a constellation
  • Use non-verbal communication techniques to get people who are more introvert involved
  • Play games to get everyone involved (one example is the Agile Self-assessment Game)
  • Ask people to stand up and move forward to the board (I always do this for clustering or voting)
  • Keep control of your own emotions, focus on the meeting culture
  • Don’t fill gaps with your own talking, silence and patience are powerful tools to get people talking
  • Help people to express themselves

If you have a way of dealing with passiveness that’s not on the list, let me know!

Something that I learned from Jerry Weinberg is to be aware of incongruence. When you see a difference in what people are saying and what they are doing, then check with them. Over the years I’ve learned that what people do says more than what people say!

Improving Retrospective Facilitation Skills

It can be difficult for a retrospective facilitator to run the meeting and be involved in the discussion. I prefer to have an independent facilitator, someone who is focused on the process and the culture in the room. It can be the Scrum master of another team, and agile coach, anybody who is not a team member and who has the skills to facilitate the retrospective.

I provide workshops on agile retrospectives where you will practice facilitating retrospectives. Some of the workshops that I give are:

Upcoming public workshops on agile retrospectives:

  • Workshop Facilitating Effective Retrospectives

    Learn how you can facilitate retrospectives, practice exercises that involve everyone, and gain insight into psychological safety in retrospectives in the online workshop Facilitating Effective Retrospectives on April 12, 2023.

    April 12, 2023 at Online

On April 2018 I co-organized and attending the Retrospective Facilitators Gathering in the Netherlands. Retrospective smells was one of the topics that we explored in an open space session. Head over to my article on retrospective smells to see what we came up with.

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 8 Comments

  1. Philippe

    Thanks. I also think that one of the goals of the energizer, or whatever opening activity is to get everyone to speak. It is said that people who don’t speak during the first 5 minutes of a meeting are very likely not to speak at all during all the meeting.

  2. Richard Robinson

    A couple of thought, Ben.

    1) As you suggest, it’s crucial to _enable_ people to speak, and I find it’s important to make sure that you start with discovery-oriented ‘open’ questions (‘How do you think x went?’) and only slowly progress to actionable ‘closed’ questions (‘What specifically do we need to change to achieve stop y happening again?’).
    2) Ice-breaking activities (games, etc.) can certainly facilitate the process, although a team that still needs ice-breakers after working together so intensively may have deeper issues. Also, avoid forcing shy team members (or us Brits) into participating in games. They can be very embarrassing and counter-productive. Likewise for multi-cultural groups: a ‘game’ that is acceptable for one culture can be offensive or humiliating for another.

    1. Ben Linders

      Great thought Richard, thank you for sharing them!

      As a facilitator, you have to guide the team through the retrospective process. It starts with making people feel safe, setting the stage where they dare to be open. Next, gather the data, make sure that people participate and share. Then come to actions and close the meeting.

      I fully agree that teams who have been working together for a longer period shouldn’t need a warm up or ice-breaker exercise. f they do then that’s a smell that something is wrong with the team, which I would turn into the topic of today’s retrospective!

      A facilitator should never force people. Ask people to opt-in, and make it safe for them to say no. However, if all opt out, then again that’s a smell to investigate and bring up.

      If it turns out that (a significant part of) the team doesn’t want to do the retrospective, and that you can’t convince them in any way (convince, not force) then I suggest canceling the meeting. Make the team aware however that this is not helping them to work together as a team, so any problems that they have will most likely become worse. It’s up to them to deal with that when they are ready for it.

  3. Amit

    Very nice article Ben. One observation i have about retros is that if this is done on last day of sprint, team tend to finish it for the sake of it, rather than utilizing it for giving honest inputs.

    Also, as a facilitator, I bring forward some metrics on the table to give some pointers to team.

    Another obsevation is that if team feels that these inputs are making their way to retro of retro, they hesitate to provide honest inputs.

    Any comments?

  4. Ben Linders

    Thanks Amit for your reaction.

    Doing the retrospective on the last day has the advantage that all the information from the sprint, including the end result and feedback received in the sprint review. But if it has been an intensive energy draining period then switching to reflection mode isn’t easy. The facilitator can help the team to relax and get into reflexion.

    Metrics, facts, and data, are usually great input in the retrospective.

    The retrospective is there for the team to learn and decide. If it doesn’t feel safe enough for people to be honest on how things are going, that’s a serious issue to be addressed by the facilitator. Within the team people should trust each other. A safety check or any other way to bring this out to the open and discus it would be my first suggestion.

  5. Xavier

    Hi Ben.
    Nice article.
    Sometimes, I have cases where a member won’t dare to talk because others will monopolise the speech. It’s even worse when these ones are senior, or are the managers of others. The latter won’t express different opinions.
    In this case, I warn the seniors / managers in advance that I might ask them to talk less 🙂 : I agree with them on a sign, like put my hand on their shoulder, and they know that they have to leave some room for others.

  6. Ben Linders

    Thanks Xavier, this is a great way to get everyone involved in retrospective!

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