Retrospective Smells: Blaming

agile retrospective smell blamingA positive and non-violent atmosphere is essential in agile retrospectives so that teams can reflect, learn, and decide what to do. Blaming is a “retrospective smell”, a signal that something might be going wrong in your retrospective that needs attention. In this second post in the series Retrospective Smells I’ll explore how blaming can happen and what can be done to reduce or prevent it.

Recognizing Blaming

The purpose of agile retrospectives is to reflect, learn, and decide upon improvements that teams will do.

If people start blaming then that will hurt the retrospective and the results coming out of it. Blaming creates a negative culture, it blocks looking for solutions. It hampers the team spirit and the relationships between team members.

Blaming can happen in several ways:

  • Team members blaming each other for things that have happened.
  • The team blaming the Scrum master for things that (s)he did or didn’t do.
  • People complaining about the Product Owner, for instance about being insufficiently available or introducing late changes.
  • People who are whining about things they did themselves, behaving like a victim, feeling negative, unable, or insecure.
  • Us vs. them behavior about other teams, departments, or stakeholders.
  • Grumbling about the organization or management, for instance about getting insufficient support.

In the retrospectives that I have done, I have seen all of the above. Blaming, complaining, and other negative behavior is bound to happen sooner or later in one or more of your retrospectives, so you’ll better be prepared.

Dealing with Blaming

The retrospective facilitator has to monitor the atmosphere during the retrospective. Whenever (s)he sees any blaming or complaining then (s)he has to bring it up, and address it together with the team.

Things that you can do are:

  • Explain the purpose of the retrospective: to reflect, learn, and improve.
  • Establish the ground rules, agree up front with the team that a negative kind of behavior is not acceptable.
  • Remind the team of the Prime Directive: Let’s assume that everyone did the best they could
  • Acknowledge that people might not be happy about how things are. Then suggest that team members, instead of blaming other team members, talk about the problem and avoid finger pointing.
  • Create a safe culture. Note that this might backfire, safety might make it easier for people to blame others.
  • Provide room for team members to share their feeling in a more productive way. A way to do this is by doing a one word retrospective.
  • Ask a person who is complaining to reformulate what (s)he is saying in a nonprovocative and non-accusing way.
  • When finger pointing happens, ask the team members to talk about themselves, about their personal feelings. Avoid “you” statements, encourage to use “l” statements.
  • Set a positive atmosphere by using retrospective exercises that bring out things that went well. Examples are the perfection game, appreciative inquiry, giving appreciation, etc.
  • Have the team focus on things that they can influence instead of complaining about stuff that is outside of their control. The circles and soup exercise from Diana Larsen is a great way to do this.
  • Work in pairs to discuss how things went. Team members will feel safer and are less likely to complain. For example, you can use the 1-2-4-all structure from Liberating Structures to give people time to think individually, then in pairs, next in pairs of pairs, and then all together.
  • Explicitly bring out blaming so that the team becomes aware and learns to deal with it. Craig Eddy described this in his article about the blame retrospective.

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 Blaming as described in this post.

Sharpen your Retrospective Facilitation Skills

Facilitating retrospectives can be challenging. You have to deal with people and their feelings. Things can get ugly during a retrospective, as a facilitator you need to sense what’s going on and have the skills to handle situations before they go out of hand. In an earlier blog post, I  provided 7 good practices and tips that facilitators can use to help teams to get more value out of their agile retrospectives.

Another way to sharpen your facilitation skills is to practice them in a safe setting. Some of the workshops that I give to practice facilitating retrospectives are:

Here’s a list of upcoming public workshops on agile retrospectives:

There are no upcoming events.

No more blaming in retrospectives

How do you recognize blaming? And how do you deal with it?

Please share your experiences by commenting on this article!

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.

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