Separate Retrospectives

This content is syndicated from George Dinwiddie's blog by George Dinwiddie. To view the original post in full, click here.

I was talking recently with a friend about separate retrospectives for sub-groups. They were worried about thing devolving into separate silos, with a retrospective for programmers, a retrospective for testers, a retrospective for analysts, …. I would be worried if that happened, too, but I can see value in separate retrospectives. How can we know when they’re appropriate and when they’re not?

I’ve led a separate retrospective for developers (programmers and testers) at a client making an Agile transition. In that situation, it seemed to me that the full-team retrospective concentrated on “acceptable” improvements—things that were easy to propose in a corporate environment. And I noticed that a number of the developers didn’t say volunteer anything. That was a clue to me that there were things to be said that people didn’t feel comfortable saying. Given the fact that the Scrummaster was a former project manager, this dynamic wasn’t unexpected. Having a separate retrospective, with a safety exercise at the beginning, allowed some issues to be acknowledged, even if they weren’t tackled.

In my friends situation, the majority of the participants are programmers who have, for the most part, worked with each other at other companies. They know each other well and are working together at this company precisely because they get along and respect each other. That’s all well and good, but the side effect is that there’s a bit of a monoculture among these developers. They readily agree with each other within a limited viewpoint.

You would think that a retrospective would bring out other viewpoints and counteract the hegemony of this group. Unfortunately, the group had settled on “majority vote” as their standard means of deciding which topics to pursue in the retrospective. How did they choose that? I don’t know, but I’d guess they voted. Ellen Gottesdiener examines a number of group decision-making approaches in her article “Decide How to Decide.” (Software Development Magazine, January 2001) While majority vote is fast and efficient, it always results in a loser, and sometimes in a persistent loser. For retrospectives, I prefer “Spontaneous Agreement” or “Consensus.” When the group I’m facilitating can’t converge on a choice that hears all voices, I’ll sometimes fall back on “Decision Leader Decides After Discussion” to give those voices a chance.

If you’re stuck in this sort of situation and you’re not the facilitator or otherwise capable of making the decision, then feedback to the retrospective facilitator might be in order. It could be that the facilitator just hasn’t noticed what is happening. It could also be that the facilitator doesn’t yet have the skills to know what to do about the retrospective being consistently owned by a sub-group. Some helpful feedback, stated in terms of observed behavior and personal impact, might be just the thing to break that log-jam. Or, it might not, particularly when there’s a difference in organizational power between the facilitator and the person who wants to help the situation.

Having a separate retrospective of people locked out of the decision-making in the larger retrospective is an escalation of this approach. If one person has been unable to influence the facilitator’s behavior such that all voices are heard, perhaps the group of disadvantaged people can dig deeper into the problem and come up with some more effective solutions. If this group continues to feel the need for a separate retrospective, though, then it indicates a continuing problem.

That’s not a good sign for the organization. Human dynamics of a given group don’t always work out smoothly. And sometimes organizations fail.  Being deaf to voices have different information, values, or preferences is a good way to fail. The universe doesn’t depend on every organization succeeding. As an individual, there’s always Martin Fowler’s advice, “Change your organization, or change your organization.

Leave a Reply

What is 5 + 5 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is:
Please do this simple sum so I know you are human:)

There are 101 ways to approach anything.
To find the best way, sometimes you need expert help

What People Say

“Kelly revolutionised the way our digital department operated. A true advocate of agile principles, he quickly improved internal communication within our teams and our internal clients by aligning our business and creating a much enhanced sense of transparency in the decisions the business was making. Kelly also introduced a higher sense of empowerment to the development teams...”


“Kelly’s a leading program director with the ability to take charge from day one and keep strong momentum at both a program and project level driving prioritisation, resourcing and budgeting agendas. Kelly operates with an easy-going style and possesses a strong facilitation skill set. From my 5 months experience working with Kelly, I would recommend Kelly to program manage large scale, complex, cross company change programs both from a business and IT perspective.”


“Kelly is an extremely talented and visionary leader. As such he manages to inspire all around him to achieve their best. He is passionate about agile and has a wealth of experience to bring to bear in this area. If you're 'lucky' he might even tell you all about his agile blog. Above all this, Kelly is great fun to work with. He is always relaxed and never gets stressed - and trust me, he had plenty of opportunity here! If you get the chance to work with Kelly, don't pass it up.”


“Kelly is an Agile heavy-weight. He came in to assess my multi-million $ Agile development program which wasn’t delivering the right throughput. He interviewed most of the team and made some key recommendations that, when implemented, showed immediate results. I couldn’t ask for more than that except he’s a really nice guy as well.”


“Kelly and I worked together on a very large project trying to secure a new Insurer client. Kelly had fantastic commercial awareness as well as his technical expertise. Without him I would never had secured this client so I owe a lot to him. He is also a really great guy!”


“Kelly came to the department and has really made a huge impact on how the department communicates, collaborates and generally gets things done. We were already developing in an agile way, but Kelly has brought us even more into alignment with agile and scrum best practices, being eager to share information and willing to work with us to change our processes rather than dictate how things must be done. He is highly knowledgable about agile development (as his active blog proves) but his blog won't show what a friendly and knowledgeable guy he is. I highly recommend Kelly to anyone looking for a CTO or a seminar on agile/scrum practices - you won't be disappointed!”


“Kelly was a great colleague to work with - highly competent, trustworthy and generally a nice bloke.”


“Kelly was engaged as a Program Director on a complex business and technology transformation program for Suncorp Commercial Insurance. Kelly drew on his key capabilities and depth of experience to bring together disparate parties in a harmonised way, ensuring the initiate and concept phases of the program were understood and well formulated. Excellent outcome in a very short time frame. ”


“I worked with Kelly on many projects at IPC and I was always impressed with his approach to all of them, always ensuring the most commercially viable route was taken. He is great at managing relationships and it was always a pleasure working with him.”


“I worked with Kelly whilst at Thoughtworks and found him to be a most inspiring individual, his common-sense approach coupled with a deep understanding of Agile and business makes him an invaluable asset to any organisation. I can't recommend Kelly enough.”


“Kelly was a brilliant CTO and a great support to me in the time we worked together. I owe Kelly a great deal in terms of direction and how to get things done under sometimes difficult circumstances. Thanks Kelly.”