How to encourage people to make the most of retrospectives

Alex Bochannek

Engineering Manager, Site Reliability Engineering at Google



"I had an engineer working on a team who was an engineer's engineer. He really liked to design things well. However, he questioned the purpose of our sprint retrospectives, as he felt that they were a waste of time. He felt that the quality of the work was all that mattered, and technical solutions were more important than how the work was done."

Actions taken

"Senior engineers can have a harder time accepting the value of retrospectives compared to junior engineers. I explained to him that this was an opportunity for us to think about how we're doing our work. I asked him to have an open mind about it, and that we would see what we got out of it. During the retrospective this particular engineer correctly pointed out that the team's biggest issue was attrition, so we were able to focus on how to stop people from wanting to leave the team. It took the engineer some time to see the value of retrospectives and that they were not just about feel-good games and exercises. However, questioning the process was a good thing as it is this kind of iterative process refinement that retrospectives are about."

Lessons learned

"It's important to listen to what your team members are saying. Often there are layers of complexity that take a while to get to. Retrospectives should always be about the team. They need to be able to be open and need to feel safe in sharing. Including members of the management team in a retrospective is likely to reduce the psychological safety necessary for a successful retro. You need to be clear about whether the team should document the outcome of the meetings and what will and won't be shared. People also shouldn't have to wait for a retrospective. If they have a good idea during a sprint, they should be able to share it then. Never just assume everything is going well, especially when team members do not speak up. People are generally creatures of habit and they fall into the patterns of the sprint ceremonies (e.g. today's retro day, let's do retro). It's important to question what you're getting out of what you're doing, to be flexible, and to adjust. There are lots of exercises you can use to help identify areas of improvement (and also which areas work well!) in sprint retrospective meetings. I have successfully tailored to the team ideas for activities from the Retromat web site."

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Alex Bochannek

Engineering Manager, Site Reliability Engineering at Google

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