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There are many ingredients that go into making a good retrospective great. But almost all of them—whether it’s honesty, psychological safety, openness, or simply a desire to improve—rely on agile teams expressing themselves.

Retrospectives can’t go anywhere if team members aren’t committed to talking about issues and taking responsibility for making continuous improvements.

illustrated video call with 9 participants and some of the participants are represented by their first initial signalling that they have their video turned off one participant is asking who would like to speak first and another participant responds fine I'll do it

Retrospectives only work with team member participation.

Through Parabol’s activities helping teams run better, more democratic, and more inclusive retrospectives, one common struggle I hear from Scrum Masters and Product Owners is: “my team are really quiet in retrospectives—how can I get them talking?”

Not only are retrospectives painful when no-one speaks up, but they no longer serve their purpose of creating continuous team improvement.

Why Is Your Team Quiet In Retrospectives?

Sprint retrospectives are strange meetings, because unlike most other meetings, retros ask participants to share vulnerabilities, weaknesses, problems, or challenges.

Vulnerability and openness is what makes insights from retrospectives so valuable. But it also makes them more difficult meetings to participate in.

There are a few things that might be preventing a quieter team from speaking up in retrospectives:

illustrated video call with 9 participants and thought bubbles illustrating their concerns with sharing their true feelings in the meeting

There are a variety of reasons why team members may be quiet in retros.

  • Fear of reprisal: Sometimes people don’t feel safe being vulnerable, whether it’s owning a mistake or simply acknowledging that something went wrong. New teams in particular may find members struggling as they worry that their failures may be used against them.
  • Fear of judgement: Everyone wants to be respected by their peers. So some team members—particularly newer ones—may feel that what they have to offer isn’t worth being discussed or will make them look stupid.
  • Don’t know what to say: Agile retrospectives are meant to serve the team primarily, rather than managers. Team members may feel that they don’t have anything new to contribute to the meeting, so they remain silent. I see this commonly where team members feel they have contributed by writing retrospective reflections, but they don’t feel confident verbally expanding on them or the issue at hand during the retro.

Some of your team members may also be more on the introverted side of the spectrum. If that’s the case, here are some tips for designing more introvert-friendly agile meetings.

Why Quiet Retros Are A Bad Sign

Retrospectives in agile are like team therapy. Every 2 weeks you sit down together and talk over the past two weeks. And like therapy, the goal isn’t to have all the answers after one session, but to make steady progress. Unless you are able to gradually open up, it’s impossible to move forward and have productive meetings.

Fry Futurama Meme Too Quiet In Here cartoon character with orange hair and squinting his eyes
Quiet retrospectives can be dangerous.

Like bottling up negative feelings, quiet retros are dangerous for your team’s health. When problems or issues aren’t exposed, discussed, and solved, they can build up in a toxic way.

Strong and experienced teams may be more confident discussing issues, but new or less experienced teams are more likely to internalize issues because of various fears or insecurities. Bottled up quieter teams might find these feelings brewing into resentment or of not being heard, which can damage psychological safety.

Having open communication in retrospectives is important because:

  • Honest discussion is necessary for teams to improve. Without it, you will run into the same problems time and again. This creates a vicious cycle, where team members start to believe retrospectives are boring because the same issues keep coming up.
  • Communication enhances team transparency and openness. When teams can be open with each other about their work, they are more likely to be more open during their work together. This prevents siloes and hidden information.
  • Learning becomes something to celebrate rather than to fear. A good retrospective can be a transformative experience for teams, revealing hidden insights, and helping them to chart a bold path forward. The faster your team can learn together, the faster you grow and the better you become.

How To Get Teams Talking In Your Retrospectives

When you’re facilitating a retrospective meeting it’s easy to feel responsible for getting the team talking. After all, you’re there to direct the conversation—or are you? Facilitators exist to help the conversation flow. Not to create it.

Here are some practical things you can do in your next retrospective to encourage open communication.

Before The Meeting

There are plenty of things teams can do before or outside the meeting to encourage openness. And a lot of these things have to do with the broader culture of your team and perhaps even your organization. Here are my top tips for before the meeting starts.

1.  Create A Culture Of Ownership

You can’t create a culture overnight, but you can set expectations that help to enforce it. Retrospectives should primarily serve the team and help them to become better. So consider reiterating that retrospectives serve the team, and try overcoming any fear of reprisal by being clear that what happens in the retro stays in the retro.

2. Set Expectations For The Team

New teams might not know the ‘rules of the game’ and may worry about what’s expected of them. Sometimes new team members don’t know exactly what they should be reflecting on or what a retro reflection should sound like, so set expectations and share some useful tips for retro participants in advance so everyone knows how to contribute.

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3. Debug Issues In Your 1:1s

People like to communicate and interact in different ways. If you’re worried about the team dynamic in retrospectives, consider asking team members individually how they feel about it and what you can do to improve the dynamic. You might be surprised to find similar themes coming up, providing you with a clear route to help solve the issue.

4. Encourage Async Reflection

Not everyone works well when they are put on the spot and told to reflect on the past two weeks. Introverts may benefit from having more time to think.

Try opening up your online retrospective board at the start of the sprint to encourage people to contribute when they feel ready. This is a great way of making meetings more inclusive for introverts and can help save more of your sync time for discussion.

5. Work On Psychological Safety

Psychological safety helps team members feel comfortable enough to sit down together and open up. It’s a long-term process built by creating a judgement and blame-free culture.

You can help promote psychological safety by scheduling social time together, playing a game before a meeting, or asking an icebreaker question. Something as simple as a trivia game could make a big difference to how your team feels before jumping into work and meetings.

Building psychological safety is important for any team, but it’s particularly necessary for remote teams where participants don’t always have as many opportunities to build trust and strong interpersonal connections.

6. Make Retros An Invite-Only Affair

Prying eyes can damage openness in retrospectives, so make sure it’s just your team and the meeting facilitator invited. If anyone from management or other parts of the organization wants to join, explain to them that joining could damage the psychological safety of the team. If you’re worried about how to handle that conversation, here are some pointers.

7. Read The Prime Directive Before Getting Started

Norm Kerth’s Retrospective Prime Directive is a useful mantra that sets expectations for retrospectives. Usually retrospective facilitators will read this out at the beginning of the retro to set the tone. The Prime Directive can help quieter teams feel more confident speaking up by reiterating that retros are a safe space that is free of judgement.

During The Meeting

The day has finally come. Your team has been hard at work sprinting for 2 weeks or more. It’s time to hold your sprint retrospective to investigate what went well and where a little improvement could come in handy. Here are my top tips for getting teams talking during your retro.

8. Start With An Icebreaker

Icebreaker questions give everyone an opportunity to speak at the start of the meeting. Sometimes getting your first word out is the hardest thing. So make it risk free by asking a fun question that helps the team open up and connect.

For remote teams this might be an especially valuable way of forging a connection when you don’t have as many opportunities to connect.

9. Keep It Anonymous To Encourage Openness

It might take time for a new team to feel confident opening up to each other. So try making all retro reflections anonymous to overcome fear of reprisal or judgement in the team. Anonymity is a great way of having an honest and open conversation without leaving anyone feeling overly exposed. Many online tools make reflections anonymous by default to help you with this.

10. Make It Easier To Interact With A Poll

Voting in a poll is an easy thing to do and a great way to provoke a conversation. As a meeting facilitator it allows you to see who thinks what and ask targeted follow up questions rather than the sort of open-ended questions you might usually ask to get a conversation started.

For example, if there are two options for how a process issue could be improved, pose them in a quick poll. See who picks which option and start the conversation from there. Like in planning poker or agile estimation, you can spend your time trying to find a third way or align around one of the existing options.

11. Rotate The Facilitator Role To Build Team Ownership

Try rotating the role of facilitator within your team. This helps create empathy with the whole team about how hard it can be to facilitate a quiet retrospective.

If you’re worried about it going wrong, try using an online tool that does some of the leg-work for first-time facilitators. You can build ownership of the team retrospective by encouraging the facilitator to choose the retrospective template.

12. Create Targets For Reflections Or Use A Timer

If you’re struggling to get much engagement in the process of writing up retrospective reflections, try setting targets for the team. For example: “I would love to see at least 5 reflections from each teammate in this retrospective”. You can also experiment with using a timer for adding reflections so participants know roughly how much time they should spend writing.

13. Set The Stage To Trigger Better Quality Reflections

It’s tough to reflect on the past sprint if you can’t even remember what happened. So don’t underestimate the value of setting the stage for your retrospective.

Try opening up Jira, Confluence, GitHub, or wherever you organize your work, and doing a quick overview of what got completed and what’s still outstanding from the sprint. This will help keep the contents of the sprint top of mind and also helps to prevent recency bias from skewing your retrospectives.

14. Break Into Smaller Groups To Encourage Conversation

If you’re struggling to have meaningful discussions on topics, consider breaking down the retrospective into smaller groups of people to discuss specific issues, come up with solutions, and report back.

The downside is that you lose some of the transparency of conversation. But the upside is likely more engagement when 2 people working together know they need to report back with something. It can be a good way to kick-start a deeper discussion.

15. Ask “Why” To Invite Deeper Thought

Why is an under-rated and under-used question in retrospectives. Asking why someone feels a certain way, or why something went wrong can help trigger deeper reflection. If you want to get to the root cause of an issue, you can even try the Five Whys approach.

16. Make It Fun By Playing A Game

Game activities tend to de-risk conversations, help people open up, and make retrospectives feel less serious. They also help people to contribute in a non-verbal way. So if getting people talking is the issue, creating a space for them to engage in another way is a really handy way of getting input.

I recommend the planets in orbit game, which can be used for team-building games or as a retrospective format. Many retrospective games take place online so they are ideal for remote teams or meetings with virtual participants.

17. Enjoy The Silence

When you’re the meeting facilitator it’s easy to feel like you’re responsible for filling the silences. But silence isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes those few extra seconds of quiet are just what team members need to be nudged into contributing.

Bear in mind that retrospectives involve a lot of interpretative work as team members think about how to get better or how to resolve process problems, so silence doesn’t always mean disengagement. People may simply be thinking or preparing to speak. Giving those few extra seconds of silence might be just what the team needs.

After The Retrospective

You’d be forgiven for thinking the retro is over when it’s over. But there’s more work to be done to consolidate learnings, get feedback, and make sure your next retro is even better. Here are a few things to try at the end of your retrospective.

18. Hold A Retrospective On Your Retrospective

Running a retrospective on your retrospective can help you diagnose some of the ways the meeting can be improved. Ask teams how they feel about their retrospectives, what they would improve, and ask them to suggest some experiments that might help make their retros better.

19. Reinforce Positive Behaviours

Once your retrospective is over, give positive feedback acknowledging team members who spoke up and when retrospectives went well. Consider honing in on useful insights that were generated and give some kudos to team members who participated a lot. If your team members don’t feel comfortable receiving praise in public, simply thank everyone for their contributions.

20. Diligently Follow Through On Action Items

Teams engage more in retrospectives when they can see the value they deliver. If you go to a meeting every 2 weeks and talk shop but nothing happens, then it’s not valuable to you. But if team members follow through on action items and they can feel the friction disappearing from their work and processes improving, it’s easier to see the value.

Think about it like working out or losing weight. If you train hard and don’t see the results you’re more likely to quit. But if you can see early and meaningful progress, you’re more likely to see value in that and stick with it.

21. Schedule The Next Retro In The Team Calendar

Continuous improvement fails when it’s no longer continuous. That’s why it’s important to be disciplined by holding them regularly. When teams have more opportunities to open up to each other, it becomes easier and easier. If you haven’t done it for a while, it can be harder to put yourself out there and be vulnerable.

If you’re struggling to kick-start a habit of regular retros, there are a few tips and tricks to try, including sending recurring reminders, making retros sacred, and stacking a retrospective habit on another existing habit, such as the sprint review. Remember, you should be booking roughly one hour of retrospective time for each 2 weeks of sprinting.

Retrospectives That Get Your Team Talking

Facilitating retrospectives isn’t always an easy task—especially with new teams. Even when meeting participants want to speak up, it can be hard to consolidate information and come up with clear next steps that have team buy-in. But if your team doesn’t feel confident speaking up, those are the least of your worries.

Retro participants may feel shy speaking up, or they may have a fear reprisal or judgement. They may be stuck for something to say or feel they have nothing to contribute. And it may be different for each person on your team.

But when it comes down to it, getting your team talking more in retrospectives is about doing three key things:

  • Making sure meetings deliver value, so everyone understands why retrospectives are important and what they gain from them.
  • Associating retrospectives with positive feelings, because team members want to attend when retros are fun and result in team improvement.
  • Helping people feel safe expressing themselves, because not everyone opens up as quickly as others or prefers to communicate in the same way. Some people prefer having more time to reflect async, or using written comms or emoji over speech.

The ideas and strategies in this blog are designed to help you do just that, whether you’re running remote retrospectives or in-person retros.

So before your next retro, steal some of these strategies. Try just one or two and see where you get to. If things aren’t working out, collect feedback, iterate, and get the team’s input on how to make things even better.

And if you’re still struggling, you can always try a silent retrospective!

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By Galen Low

Galen is a digital project manager with over 10 years of experience shaping and delivering human-centered digital transformation initiatives in government, healthcare, transit, and retail. He is a digital project management nerd, a cultivator of highly collaborative teams, and an impulsive sharer of knowledge. He's also the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager and host of The DPM Podcast.