When Retrospectives Go Wrong: All Action and No Talk

This is the corollary to the previous “All Talk and No Action” post.

I remember talking to two different facilitators about the way they run retrospectives. Facilitator A said “I don’t care too much about getting to action items”, implying that they wanted the people to discuss their problems. In contrast, Facilitator B said, “Why would you run a retrospective without any actions?”. I saw both sides of the argument, but also saw danger in both extremes. In the last post, I wrote about what happens if you only ever run retrospectives without ever changing it.

What would happen if you ran retrospectives only focused on action items?

Context is never shared
Running a retrospective gives some people a forum to be heard. Sometimes people need to get things off their chest, and need to be fully heard by all parties (keeping in mind it’s under the Retrospective Prime Directive). Regardless of whether an action item is created or not, some people may feel resentful if they don’t get a chance to tell their side of the story. By sharing a story, the team is also more likely to relate to the other person’s problem.

The wrong problem is solved
Often I hear people propose solutions in retrospectives without explaining what it’s trying to solve. Only by drilling into the issue further, do you sometimes uncover a very different problem. To this root problem, others may propose a better solution that is more effective, or works better for the entire team. Jumping to actions without discussing what you’re trying to fix often results in a poor solution, and often one to the wrong problem.

Teams lose a shared understanding
I’ve been in one retrospective where a team member only saw the result of the action items and never heard the discussions around it. They felt very resentful over a number of the action items, both because they felt left out and couldn’t see why they were needed. After the retrospective, we revisited the items and the reasons they came about to give them a better context but I don’t think it had the same impact if they had been there during the discussions.

What you can do about it.

Understand the the retrospective is simply a tool, so truly understand what you’re trying to achieve with it and facilitate it accordingly. Use a different set of activities to achieve your specific goals, and ensure you balance the needs of the group to make progress and the needs of the group to talk about the issues at hand.

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