How to Participate in a Retro
Difficulties of retro participation
The team retro is the sacred space where all team members bring improvement ideas to the table. Team retros are not complicated. But it can be difficult to participate given all the distinct personalities in a team. A great retro will leave all team members satisfied that they have spent their time productively. Unfortunately, my experience tells me that many teams have retros as a tick box exercise rather than a productive meeting. I firmly believe that effective, regular retros lead to teams that are a joy to be a part of.
The key ingredient to effective retros is participation. After looking online, I have only found articles and books describing how to facilitate a retro. I haven't seen anything describing how I should improve my participation. So here we go.
"I don't like talking in groups"
The engineering industry is full of introverts. Most of us didn't enter into software engineering to talk to other people. The dream was to stay at our desk in the corner of the office and write code. This may have been possible up to the mid-2000s. But today software is so complex that is requires multiple minds working together. The team is the new unit for software development. Everyone must work with other people to deliver high-quality software, whether they like it or not. If we don't have a choice to work with other people, we might as well make the most of it in our retros and discuss how we can work better together. Furthermore, why not figure out how to enjoy working together in a team?
- Speaking up in groups can be tough. Think about what you want to bring up in the retro before it begins. Write it down on a piece of paper.
- Instead of speaking up to your whole team, talk to 1 person about your concern or idea. Pick the person you like the most! Then present your idea to the team together.
"My teammates don't give me a chance to speak up"
In an effective retro, people talk and argue together. If you don't have many chances to speak up, keep in mind this could be a sign of fruitful conversation. The retro facilitator's job is to ensure everyone's voice is heard, but this is difficult. Sometimes, dominating voices want to give an opinion on everything. Whatever the reason, it is important to get your voice heard, especially if you have something valuable to say.
- Try to enter the conversation by saying "Do you mind if I share my thoughts?". This politely signals to everyone that you would like to be heard.
- If you continuously struggle to speak up, pull your retro facilitator aside and express your concerns. Tell them you would like them to make more space for you and your quieter teammates in retros. The facilitator will likely appreciate the feedback. The biggest concern any facilitator has is to get everyone participating.
"I can't think of any serious problems"
This is common in less experienced or new engineers. People new to the team tell themselves "I'm new here. I need to gradually integrate myself to the team, so I'm not going to speak up yet. Anyway, it sounds like my problems are tiny compared to the problems my team are bringing up!". But this ignores one fact: everyone is part of the team. Therefore, everyone should express their ideas, no matter how small they are.
- If you have nothing big to bring up, offer up a smaller suggestion. Maybe it's a blog post you saw online explaining how to make better code reviews. Or maybe you want to receive more pair-mentoring from a team mate. All suggestions are valid.
- Not everything has to be a problem. Think back to a day or hour where you thought "This is great - I love this". Offer it up and ask "Could we figure out how I can do more of this?". This is called strength-based inquiry. For example, maybe you had 2 hours yesterday when you were in the zone. Explore with your teammates how to get more 'zone' time.
"I'm afraid of someone disagreeing with me"
We never want to look foolish in a new team. Depending on the team dynamics, teammates may be either be comfortable with disagreements or they may be more tentative. While a team who are comfortable disagreeing with each other is a sign of team trust, it can be intimidating for a new joiner to raise suggestions.
- Start small. Test the waters. Talk about something that affects you rather than a general team issue. If you don't want to tread on other people's toes just yet, focus on yourself.
- Write down your idea. Practice arguing against yourself and come with a list of pros + cons. This will help you argue your point if you get pushback.
- Change is necessary, but uncomfortable. Therefore, disagreements are signs that the team is exploring real change. So speak up! If you don't, nothing will change.
"I can never think of anything to say"
It can be tiring to think of problems week-on-week. Sometimes, we go blank or have a bad day. When this happens, it feels like we are not contributing. Or worse, if we fail to contribute regularly, it can feel like the team relies on 1 or 2 people to make all the improvements.
- Tell a story of something good that happened. Retros don't need to be full of problems. Talking about the good things helps people remember their strengths rather than their weaknesses.
- Thank a teammate for their help. People like to feel appreciated for stepping up.
- Prepare before the retro. Write down your own thoughts on things that have frustrated you in the last few days. Maybe it was the way someone spoke, or maybe you don't understand what someone in your team is building. Reflect before talking with your teammates.
"I think the retro is a waste of time"
Let's face it - bad retros are a waste of time. Companies tell teams "We do Scrum", so the team ticks off each Scrum event without spending time to get good at each event. The team is disengaged because the same questions get asked every retro: "What went well? What went poorly? What should we improve?" Maybe you sometimes get a good discussion, but then the team comes back at the next retro to realise that nothing has changed and no actions were taken.
- Express your feelings. Say you don't enjoy talking about the same things every retro. If you have a scrum master, ask them if they could research some improvements in their retro.
- Do a bit of research yourself. Retromat is a great, quick resource for retro templates.
- Ask your teammates how they feel. Maybe it's just you that feels disengaged. But maybe everyone feels the same.
- If you're not enjoying making your team better, ask yourself why. Nothing ever changes...we still have the same problems...I'm the only one that speaks up. Talk about these problems to your teammates and come up with some experiments.