A sprint retrospective is supposed to be a time for self-reflection by a team; a timeboxed event in which the team can
identify things they are doing well and not doing so well, things they could start doing and stop doing; it’s a time
when they can find ways to improve individually and as a team.
In my experience very few retrospectives are focussed internally; instead most of them are focussed on the positives and
negatives of external teams and the impact those external teams have on the team performing the retrospective. I know
the Scrum Master is supposed to help remove the impediments and help coach the team to remove them, but if the Scrum
Master is serving multiple teams, doesn’t feel empowered to act or doesn’t agree with the team that the impediment
exists them this system does not work. In my opinion there needs to be an additional feedback loop for the team to
report external issues to the organisation.
In sprint retrospectives I’ve seen a number of different methods used. Starfish retrospectives, PANCAKE retrospectives,
Good Bad Confusing retrospectives, versions of each of these that include an MVP, and versions that include “cake”
(highlighting anyone who went above and beyond their duties). In all of these I’ve found that teams tend to focus
outwardly for the negatives and inwardly for the positives. When an MVP or “cake” section is added it is almost
exclusively for people within the team. On some rare occasions the team has focussed exclusively on external
influences, but never have I been in a retro where the team is focussed on themselves.
So, why do teams focus externally? I believe it is a sign of a culture of fear and blame; and also, a sign that the
Scrum Master is not able to perform their role to the required level.
Reflections of Culture
I see a team focussing externally as a significant sign of a culture of fear and blame. This isn’t to say this culture
exists within the organisation, more that it is perceived to exist. In a newly formed team the perception could be due
to previous experiences in other teams or other organisations; in a team that has recently had some staff changes it
could be an influence from the incoming team members; in a stable team it could be that nothing has been done to correct
the team’s perception. Having said this, I believe it is far more common that a team does not feel safe to raise
issues, they fear that they will be punished for the negative items they raise (either as a team or individually).
Scrum Master Duties are not Fulfilled
As well as being a reflection of culture, an external focus by the team could be a sign of inadequate servant
leadership. I’ve seen this occur when an organisation practices “fake agile” and still operates in a command and
control style, when a Scrum Master is serving multiple teams, and when the Scrum Master role is undertaken by an
individual within the team who is not empowered to fulfil the role.
In a “fake agile” environment, the external influences raised will often be related to the selection of tasks, the
allocation of resources or the modification of priorities midway through a sprint. In all of these cases, an
organisation is not utilising Scrum and is instead undertaking some derivative of Scrum. I’ve seen cases where a team
is not given the opportunity to select what tasks to perform, instead the task selection is dictated and only the
quantity of tasks is chosen by the team. I’ve seen cases where teams are unstable, staff are added and removed
depending on resourcing requirements elsewhere, and silos mean that a team is constantly dependant on external teams or
individuals. I’ve also seen cases where part way through a sprint a new task is added, given higher priority than the
sprint goals, and the team has to react to it. In all of these cases the team has identified significant external
negatives during the retrospective, and in all cases the Scrum Master has played a significant hand in enabling these
external influences to occur.
When a Scrum Master is serving multiple teams and is unable to fulfil the Scrum Master role to an appropriate level for
one or more teams, then a team that is feeling underserved will see the other teams as competition. If the other teams
are seen as competition, then the team performing a retrospective will try to beat the other team and this is easily
achieved through the identification of negative external impacts from the other teams.
In situations where a Scrum Master is selected from within a team (possibly the role is rotated through team members,
but not always), an organisation must have a high level of agile maturity and an agile mindset to enable this person to
perform the role adequately. I’ve been a part of teams that have an informal Scrum Master within the team; this
person’s performance is measured by their output and as such they do not focus on the Scrum Master duties. In these
situations, the person is also unlikely to have the empowerment to work toward resolving external negative influences.
Enough Problems, Give me a Solution
Despite raising a number of issues that are highlighted by a retrospective that is externally focusses, the solutions
are relatively simple to define. All the solutions are found in the Scrum Guide; it exists for a reason, and that is
because it improves employee consistency, output, outcomes and happiness.
Of course, I said the solutions are easy to define, but they definitely aren’t east to enact.
If your team doesn’t feel safe, then the organisation needs to work to changing the culture or needs to find a way to
demonstrate to the team that it is a safe place. Thankfully demonstrating the safety is easy if the culture already
exists; if the culture doesn’t exist then you have a big task ahead of you.
If you’ve adopted agile roles and ceremonies but still operate under command and control structures, then change the
management style. Again, another massive task, but if done properly, one that will have huge benefits.
If your Scrum Master isn’t performing their role then identify why. Do their beliefs align with Scrum or are they a
manager in disguise? Are they overloaded and can’t give the teams the attention they need? Are they, or do they feel
disempowered? There are far too many reasons to list here, but as an organisation you need to identify and resolve the
If the team doesn’t have a formal Scrum Master, then the organisation needs to modify their performance measures for the
individual that is performing the Scrum Master duty to ensure they are given the focus the role requires. The
organisation also needs to ensure this person is able to raise external issues and seek to resolve them.
Once these issues are resolved, then the team will run out of external negatives and can be coached to focus inwards on
ways to improve the team.
But What About the Missing Element?
The missing feedback loop from the team to the organisation is a much more complex problem than any of the ones I’ve
just raised. Providing a team with an open channel for feedback is a key requirement; this channel must be able to
bypass the Scrum Master when required. To enable this channel senior management must be willing and able to accept
negative feedback, but more than that, they must actively encourage it.
Apart from suggesting this channel needs to exist, I do not feel experienced enough to make a suggestion for including
such a channel in a document as broad reaching as the Scrum Guide. I know how I would implement such a channel within
organisations I’ve worked at, and I know that in many of those organisations such a channel would not be useable due to
a mis-alignment with agile values and principles.