Agile Retrospectives: The Facilitator

This is post #5 in a series dissecting agile retrospectives, see the introduction here

The Invisible Man CC image from flickr by “Chaotic Good01”

This final post will be a relatively short one. I understand the facilitator doesn’t really fit into the “ceremony” category, but after planning out the rest of the blog post I realised there were still some things I wanted to share that I couldn’t fit into any of the sections; they applied more broadly to general patterns that have stood me in good stead when I facilitate retrospectives. So here they are, some final thoughts and recommendations on how you as a facilitator should behave when facilitating a retrospective

1. Prepare

The majority of retrospectives that I have seen have included about 30 seconds of prep time from the facilitator – a quick dash to the supply cupboard to pick up some post-its, a rushed handful of sharpies and we’re off, with the facilitator working mostly from memory, or running on autopilot. If you are facilitating a retrospective, don’t do your team the disservice of a poorly planned and executed retrospective.

The previous posts covered in detail the reasoning behind the prime directive, the safety check etc, so I won’t rehash that here, but none of that happens for free. As a facilitator, to effectively communicate all the lessons from the past posts takes a planned and structured retrospective, which can only come after some investment into preparation.

Even if that planning takes you an hour (which I don’t think is an unreasonable amount of time) think of it like this: if there are 10 people attending that retrospective, 1 hour of your time taken for preparation will ensure that the most effective use is made for 10 hours of the teams time.

2. Recap

Retrospectives are all about receiving and responding to feedback, which includes the feedback from previous retrospectives. If a team is serious about getting benefit from retrospectives then they need to stop taking them in isolation and start treating them as one continual process. Go over the previous week’s action items – did the team complete them all? are they still relevant? does the team still consider these problems to be relevant? Did a successfully completed action item have the desired impact? if not, does that mean the team has yet to identify the root cause of an issue? There is so much to learn from the past action items, and not providing the team the opportunity to learn from them is a big mistake.

Even though they are held at regular intervals, the team is constantly evolving and learning and every retrospective is one step in the teams grand journey and not a standalone event.

3. Explain

It is the responsibility of every facilitator to spread the knowledge and understanding of why we do things as well as explaining the what. I remember back to my first every retrospective and how many things I wish had been explained to me. It is down to us to stop things falling into the realms of obscure ceremony and the only way we can do that is to spread knowledge and make sure we always explain the way.

4. Motivate

A small point, but as a facilitator, it’s important to find ways to keep the process fresh and interesting, stop the retrospective becoming stagnant. A lot of the time I find simply by sufficient planning and running a well-oiled retrospective provides significant motivation compared against a half-hearted, clearly last minute one.

5. Time cop

(note, not the same thing as timecop). A key responsibility of an effective facilitator when running an effective retrospective is to keep time. The last thing you want happening is getting to the end and finding out you only have 5 minutes left for discussion or that you run out of time before you’ve gotten to any action items.

This involves planning out the activities well as well as keeping the team informed of how long they have left during the activities themselves. A tool that I find very useful when I am facilitating or even running workshops is the 3-2-1 widget for OS X, which a very simple, visual way to keep the team informed of time and is also another reason why I like to always have access to a projector when running a retro.

6. Be Invisible

One of my biggest issues with facilitators is when they take up the spotlight and just dominate the entire process – few things are as frustrating or as damaging to the retrospective.

The biggest piece of advice I can give the facilitator is to just be invisible. Yes at the start of the retro you should be very vocal, running it almost like a lecture maybe, reminding the team of the prime directive, walking them through the safety check, spreading all that lovely knowledge, but that should all take up only the first fraction of the retro. The bulk of the time will most likely be dedicated to the brainstorming/voting/discussion/action item phases.

Once you get past the brainstorming and the team has decided what topics it wants to attempt to discuss and address, this is the point at which to disappear. Up until now the team has most likely been arranged all facing the front, all eyes and attention on me. Now is the time to shift the focus onto the team itself, ask them to form a closed circle with you on the outside and to face each other and talk to each other. As the facilitator you have no business being so heavily involved in this stage, this is (hopefully) a team of professionals here and do not need to be treated like children.

If I am facilitating I tell the team that I am going to go sit down in the corner and that I expect the only time that anyone on the team needs to acknowledge me or look in my direction is when they have an action item they want me to scribe on the board for them. I make it very clear to the team that they should not direct their conversations to me, but to each other, and should not focus on me. I trust them to be able to regulate their own discussions and moderate themselves, and they will. On that very rare occasion where I need to intervene, I can, because I’m still there, in the room and am able to jump in when needed but most of the time I will never need to.

And never point at people, saying, “you’re very quiet, what do you think of this?” (actual quote I’ve seen in the past). We’ve already seen how the safety check provides us with context and awareness of the people around us, how it reminds us that these are real people with real feelings and emotions, don’t ruin all that good work by putting people on the spot and forcing them to talk, no good can come of it.


That’s the end of the series on retrospectives. I hope it’s been useful at illuminating the reasons behind some of the apparent ceremony that can appear in a retrospective. I want to end with a reminder of what I think a retrospective is.

A retrospective is a a team coming together on a regular basis to answer one simple question:

It is that simple. Everything else that surrounds it is just a way to provide support and aid in finding answers to this one question. The prime directive sets us up to focus on the appropriate conversations for this forum, the safety check makes us aware of the surroundings, the action items remind us that thought without action won’t change anything, but we also remember that before we act, we need to know what problem we’re trying to solve. Everything we do has reasoning behind it, but the most important thing is that this question is answered.

If you discover other ways of finding these answers, without a retrospective, that’s great! It’s not something to feel guilty about, the retrospective is just one way to achieve a goal. Go out and find other ways, it’s how a process evolves, just remember the reason behind the activities, they are there to fulfill a purpose, and then find alternatives to achieve the same result.

About the Author: akash


  1. Pingback: Facilitating Retrospectives | Technical Blog by NET-A-PORTER

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