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 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:
- Valuable Agile Retrospectives for Teams – for Scrum masters, teams, agile coaches
- Increasing Agility with Retrospectives – for agile coaches, managers
- Continuous Improvement in Remote / Distributed Teams – for agile coaches, managers
- Exercises for Agile Retrospectives – for anyone who does retrospectives
Upcoming public workshops on agile 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 December 15, 2022.December 15, 2022 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.