What a lack of participation in your retrospectives actually means

Before we launched Sprintlio, we spent several months working with 50+ software, engineering, development, operations and research teams to better understand their agile-ish ceremonies. When it came to retrospectives, the negative feedback from the participants (not the managers or facilitators) consistently fit in three themes:

Action items are often lost/not followed up on.
Our follow-up on actions is inconsistent so the trust is lost.
Time, meandering discussions, lack of focus, general superfluous bullshit.
They take time away from work.
Potential time waster if we don’t address anything new and team could otherwise get work done.
I’m not sure. All I know is they often feel like work, but unproductive work.
It drives me crazy when people don’t participate.
The lack of participation from certain members of the team.

Their retrospectives either lacked accountability, were a waste of time, or didn’t have enough participation. We’ve written about why most retrospectives don’t have accountability but the concerns over time effectiveness and lack of participation are different.

Thinking the meeting is a waste of time and having nothing to say actually have shared origins. Why would a consistent contributor who regularly identifies and implements opportunities for growth and efficiency in their work not do the same in a team discussion? It’s easy to dismiss a person as shy, but if the person holds their work to a high standard, it’s more likely that they don’t see value in it instead of being scared to share. You could try to change this by switching up the format, forcing participation by demanding people add X topics, playing a game, or doing fun exercises from Retromat, but you’d be missing the point. Why ruffle feathers for a meeting with that the team finds futile? Why step in controversy if nothing’s going to be addressed about the problem? Why point out the elephant in the room if no one’s going to deal with it?

The problem with your team’s participation isn’t social — it’s operational. Start by evaluating how accountable your team’s retrospectives are and work on that first before expecting your team to put themselves out there.

There are easier ways to give your retrospectives accountability. We’d love to show you. Visit sprintlio.com to learn more.