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Revamp Your Retrospectives

How Rotating Retros Can Drive Shared Leadership

For anyone that has been a part of software development in an Agile environment, the principles of reflection and adaptation are nothing new. In Agile, a team conducts a “retrospective” at regular intervals to reflect on how to become more effective, and then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.

Retrospectives have become a fairly standard practice in tech organizations and Christopher Avery, a leader in collaboration methodologies, has advocated for their use: “The Retrospective is a chance for the team to act like a team, hearing every voice, integrating their perspective and reaching consensus on how to move forward in the next iteration.”

Teams with strict views of a particular Agile framework, like Scrum, typically have a dedicated person to facilitate team retrospective sessions. Even teams who adopt a less pure adherence to Scrum or other frameworks still likely have just one person leading regular team retrospectives, and most teams find it to be a fairly effective system. But is “fairly effective” the best we can do?

As vital as retrospectives are to continually improving how we work as a team and enhancing our development process, the traditional methods for conducting retrospectives are overdue for discussion. Just as we continually reflect, inspect, and adapt to improve as a team, we should go through the same process for the act of reflection itself. If we cast off our purist views of Scrum, we can see how broader participation — as happens when implementing a Rotating Retrospective Facilitator (RRF) — can drive more value in retros for small teams.

In their essay Shared leadership in teams: An investigation of antecedent conditions and performance*, Carson et al discuss the concept of “shared leadership”, highlighting the potential for overall team improvement when different team members take the mantle of “leader”.

“[S]hared leadership … represents a condition of mutual influence embedded in the interactions among team members that can significantly improve team and organizational performance” (Carson et al, p.2)

By empowering each team member to shoulder the responsibility of leading the retrospective, teams can bring a shared leadership framework into their operations and see a series of positive benefits as a result.

Whether you’re a regular facilitator of these sessions, or a team member who participates in them, this article will provide insight into why the RRF approach can be useful for your team and a roadmap for how to implement it. We’ll focus on ways to get your team, no matter the size, more involved in this reflection and adaptation practice. First, I’ll touch on the benefits we’ve seen of using the RRF for our team, then I’ll go into tips to get you started.

The Rotating Retro Facilitator is a new technique we have been piloting on our team. Simply put: for every development iteration (sprint) we switch the facilitator of the retrospective. The RRF approach has proven successful for us, and may work for your teams as well. Here are some key reasons why:

  • It’s more engaging. Routines can be boring and predictable and having the same person facilitate these types of sessions time and time again is part of that routine. Rotating the facilitator of these sessions helps bring the energy back. Different team members can bring a fresh perspective as well as different styles and approaches.
  • It introduces a variety of new activities to the mix. With rotating facilitators, we have seen a boost in the creativity and preparation that goes into the retrospective facilitation techniques and activities. We’ve seen healthy competition within our team and individually, and we’re continually trying to improve on the the previous retro whether it be on techniques, activities, or reviewing and following up on actions.
  • It promotes alignment and fosters team and individual autonomy. When a team relies on one person to facilitate these sessions, it can reinforce a dependency on just one person, leaving the individuals of the team to lose motivation and putting undue pressure on the facilitator to act as troop-rallier and advocate for the project. Leverage the unique perspectives and talent of the team in these sessions and minimize the need for a dedicated coach. Encouraging autonomy within the team allows the team to self-organize, which leads to accountability and ownership among team members.
  • It strengthens individual communication skills. As individuals, each person brings a unique set of skills to the team, but what we can all improve on as team members is our communication, facilitation, and presentation skills. Having rotating facilitators pushes the team to practice and strengthen skills in areas that may not be part of the regular day-to-day interactions and pushes us outside of our comfort zones. Giving feedback and receiving feedback can be hard, but it is good to practice these skills as team members. Team retrospectives are a great place to work on areas for growth in a safe environment.
  • It reinforces inclusion. Often, our teams include remote team members. By rotating who runs our retro sessions we can have a greater appreciation of and awareness about how to ensure our sessions are collaborative and inclusive of our remote team members. It forces us to empathize, and ensure we are facilitating in a way that is inclusive to each other’s needs.

Inspecting and adapting is how we improve as a team and as individuals. Mixing up how we uncover these truths leads to more engaging sessions, and a more productive way to achieve outcomes.

How to run a Rotating Retro

There are a number of ways to run rotating retros with your team. As with any retro, you have your main goal: create an environment that fosters open and constructive discussion so that the team can uncover ways to be more effective, reflect on identified issues together, and commit to adjusting behaviour to maximize efficiency. But with rotating retros, the options for how to achieve these goals open up, allowing you to engage with different ways of ensuring continued improvement on the quality of the work being done, and continued improvement on the retros themselves. Most importantly, each team member plays an active role in the retrospective process which can be a key factor in the success of a project.

“By actively participating in a team and feeling supported, team members are more likely to work cooperatively and develop a sense of shared responsibility for team outcomes.” (Carson et al, p.6)

Some basic notes to get started:

  • Have the team appoint a facilitator. Start by having the team choose who will facilitate the first session. This person will also get to choose the next person to facilitate — a passing of the torch, if you will.
  • Choose a frequency and duration, then book it! Our team does weekly retrospectives that align with our weekly sprints. Each retrospective session is 1 hour, which allows us enough time to capture the necessary actions without running the risk of people tuning out or losing the focus necessary to be sure we’re targeting the most important issues. We’ve found the most success running our retros on Mondays (we’re the most energized at the start of the week), but track and choose what works best for you. Above all, we make sure these sessions are booked in the calendar. If the session is blocked off in the team calendar, it minimizes conflicts with other day-to-day priorities and is more likely to actually happen.
  • Bookend the day. Finding ways to minimize context switching is important, which is why we’ve found retro sessions are best placed at either the start or end of a working period. Our team’s preference is to run them at the end of our working day, so that it doesn’t break up our day into two chunks, but again, track and note what works best for your team.
  • Start with a team safety check. To ensure people are present in mind and body, a safety check can be done by the facilitator prior to the session. A safety check — a quick and anonymous poll that lets people voice their relative comfort levels — is a good measure for determining whether people on the team are willing to actively participate or whether they will merely observe. By running a safety check prior to the retro and collecting the data in advance, the facilitator can adjust their approach and facilitation activities depending on how people feel.
“The motivation to participate and provide input toward achieving common goals and a common purpose can also be reinforced by an encouraging and supportive climate. When team members feel recognized and supported within their team (social support) they are more willing to share responsibility, cooperate, and commit to the team’s collective goals.” (Carson et al, p.7)
  • Timebox. When you’ve only got an hour (or whatever length of time you decide makes sense for your team), it’s important to make the most of it. Have the facilitator be the “Time Cop” or have the facilitator ask another team member to help keep track of time. It is important that every member on the team voices what went well and what didn’t go well from his or her perspective, and the best way to ensure everyone gets a say is to have someone tracking the time and holding people to account.
  • Challenge each other. The advantage of having different people run and organize your retros is having new ideas brought to the fore. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different retrospective techniques and activities. Find ones that the team enjoys and that fit best. And remember, if you’re working with remote team members, run activities that allow for easy remote participation.
  • Document actions: Once the team has uncovered areas where it can be more effective and has reflected on ways it can collectively tune and adjust its behaviours to improve in these areas, the next step is to document the intended actions. This allows the team to recall and track the intentions it laid out together. A good method we have found for ongoing recall is printing and posting these actions in the team area. This also gives each new facilitator a jumping off point and a way to connect the retros week after week, even as the person leading them changes.
  • Commit to each other: Once you’ve collectively decided on taking certain actions as a team, commit to making them happen! As a team, come up with measurable action items, work together to divide the action items amongst team members to assign ownership, and, most importantly, follow up with the status at the next retrospective. If items are under the whole team’s control, do everything possible to complete those action items sooner rather than later. Following up on action items from the previous retrospective will be your best indicator on how effective your team retrospectives are and failure to do so could impede future efforts. In the words of Chris Avery: “Closure: it’s difficult to start something new when something else remains mentally or emotionally unclosed.” So see it through!

This small tweak in our practice has seen tremendous results and an overall boost in shared leadership within our team. Boring and predictable retros are a thing of the past, and we are continually finding ways to improve these team ceremonies through a process of ongoing reflection and adaptation. Our remote coworkers have reported a feeling of greater involvement and our overall team engagement levels have gone up. Give it a try! And when you have, let us know what has (or hasn’t) worked for you. We want to keep improving the way we improve.


Shared leadership in teams: An investigation of antecedent conditions and performance.

Carson, Jay B.; Tesluk, Paul E.; Marrone, Jennifer A.
Academy of Management Journal, Vol 50(5), Oct 2007, 1217–1234.