Managers in Retrospectives

It’s a topic that has come up many times, should managers attend retrospectives?    There are some concerns that appear and need to be discussed by the team.

How will this influence the team?

So how will this positively and negatively affect the team?  The first thing that pops in my head is trust.  As self-organizing teams, we need to have boundaries and the same is true with managers.  As a manager, you should be asking yourself, “When should I step in?” and “when do let the team fail on their own without affecting the company?”  It’s a balancing act of staying involved with the team without getting in the way.  (As a side note, I hope teams know that maintaining this balance is not easy.  It reminds me of developers pairing.  An expert developer has to be willing to let a novice make mistakes; otherwise they will never learn anything.  Now complicate the issue by adding 3 to 7 team members.  No amount of training can prepare you for that. )

At the individual level, management influence can have an effect in two ways.  First, important topics may never come out because no one wants to make any teammate look bad.  This defeats the purpose of the team retrospective completely.  Getting these issues out in the open helps the team become better and builds trust.  The alternative is letting issues fester until the team implodes.  Second, teammates could use the retrospective to make an individual look bad, leveraging the manager to make themselves look better.  It sounds a bit high school but believe me, it happens.

Still not convinced?  Think about how employees read into every action managers make.  Have you ever heard a buzz around the office because two managers were having a conversation behind closed doors?  We hear:  Someone is getting fired!  Raise are going to suck this year!  The company is getting bought out!  Turns out, they were just talking about the baseball game last night.  For some reason, employees become paparazzi and all eyes are on the managers.  They always smile when talking to one individual.  They must like them better!  He sent an email when Billy Bob left but called a just-in-time meeting for Phil.  They must hate Billy Bob!  It’s a bit ridiculous.  With examples like this, I can’t imagine how a manager in a retrospective could influence the team.

Why does the manager think they need to be there?

In the past when I have asked this question to managers the response I always seem to get is, “I need to know what is going on with my teams”.  I agree managers should know what is going on with their teams; however, there are more effective ways.  As discussed before, what is really going on with the team is most likely not going to come out with them sitting in the room.  It gives me the image of a group of teenagers trying to discuss an issue at school while mom and dad are in the room.  Not going to happen…in most cases.

Ok, then how do managers find out what happened during the retrospective?  I asked Esther Derby the same question.  The answer was simple, ask the facilitator.  It’s disappointing to me that the many times I’ve passed this on to managers and only been asked once.  I can only assume they think know already or don’t really need to know what happened in the retrospective.  But what about the good notes we take at every retrospective?  Notes, just like emails, only tell half the story.

Who makes the final decision?

The best thing to do is for management to get in a room and make that decision without any input from their teams. /TROLL.

In order to answer this, I think we need to ask ourselves why we are doing retrospectives in the first place.  Take it to the team.  There is a level of comfort and maturity that must be attained before a team can accept managers in a retrospective. Every member of the team must be at that level.  Your teammates and managers are all human


Posted on April 5, 2013, in Agile Teams and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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