Retrospective Smells: Lack of Focus

To enable teams to reflect, learn, and decide what to do, a positive and collaborative atmosphere is essential in agile retrospectives. If discussions are not leading to actions and seem to go in circles, that’s a signal that something might be going wrong in your retrospective that needs attention.

In this fifth article in the series Retrospective Smells, I’ll explore what can cause a lack of focus in retrospectives and what you can do to solve it.

Recognizing Lack of Focus

The outcome of a retrospective are improvements that teams will do. As these improvements will take time and energy of the team members, it’s important to focus them on addressing the main issues that teams are facing.

A lack of focus decreases the effectiveness of your retrospectives, something that you don’t want to happen.

Lack of focus can happen in several ways:

  • Too many topics that seem to be insufficiently related are being discussed.
  • It feels like a competition, where people try to get attention for what they think is most important.
  • Several discussions are going on at the same time, possibly in subgroups or one-on-ones.
  • There is insufficient listening to what is being brought up, too much talking instead of listening.
  • People tend to bring up new things instead of contributing to the main topic that needs to be addressed.
  • The discussions don’t lead to an agreement with actions, they seem to trigger more discussion instead.

I’ve seen this happening in retrospective. If the atmosphere is not right then your retrospective can become unproductive due to a lack of focus.

Dealing with Lack of Focus

The retrospective facilitator needs to focus on what’s happening in the room. Whenever (s)he sees signals of a lack of focus then (s)he has to deal with them to prevent wasting time and energy.

Things that you can do are:

  • Agree with the team upon the topic for the retrospective.
  • Invite only people with insight into the topic or impacted by the actions. Leave out other, or make their attendance optional.
  • Set the scene: State the topic, write it down for everyone to see it.
  • Try to be specific on what you want the team to focus on, state what’s included in the retrospective and what not.
  • Have a “parking lot” to put things that are important but not within the scope of this retrospective.
  • Book enough time to explore the topic in depth.
  • Don’t schedule too much time, limit the topic and plan subsequent meetings if needed.
  •  Keep people engaged and energized, ask them to stand up, work together, visualize!
  • Stop discussions (gently of course) which are not related to the topic.

The Retrospectives 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 Lack of Focus as described in this article.

Share your experience

In my series on Retrospective Smells, I will write posts on the smells mentioned in the above picture and on many others. In these posts, I’ll provide tips for recognizing smells and suggestions for dealing with them.

This website is all about sharing experiences. So I’d like to hear from you.

Which retrospective smells have you seen and how did you deal with them?

    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.

    Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.