How to Facilitate an Open Discussion in Retrospective

Ruth Hadari
Ruth Hadari
Agile Advocate, Engineering Ops Expert
Posted on
Apr 20, 2022
Updated on
Jul 24, 2022
Table of Content

According to a 2016 study, open discussions between students and teachers helped enhance the students' self-confidence, encourage participation, and reduce the fear or worry of making mistakes.

The same goes for companies. An open discussion retrospective among members will encourage transparency, creativity, and innovation, helping the company grow. Furthermore, team members won't be afraid to speak their minds and offer their insights and suggestions.

However, this type of discussion retrospective is not always easy to facilitate — there can be instances where some individuals may feel intimidated or too shy to share their thoughts. 

In this article, we will discuss some tips on how you can facilitate an open discussion retrospective in your business.

What Is an Open Discussion Retrospective?

An open discussion retrospective is often done to reflect on the past sprint and identify the good and the bad. This retrospective aims to help a team learn and grow from their experiences to improve their processes and become more effective. This also includes enhancing the team's ability to deliver value to their customers.

The retrospective is usually facilitated by a scrum master or agile coach. Their role is to ensure that everyone shares their thoughts and that the discussion remains on track.

Although an open discussion retrospective is an easy way to get your team members to engage, it can also be challenging to keep the discussion flowing. That's why it’s essential to consider the following:

  • How many times have you been a part of a conversation that spirals down an unneeded rabbit hole, wasting everyone's time?
  • How many times have you listened to someone ramble on and on with no end in sight?
  • How often have you noticed individuals chatting over each other instead of listening to what the other person was saying?

Once you have answered these questions, you will have a better understanding of how to facilitate an open discussion retrospective that is both productive and enjoyable for all participants.

Open Discussion Retrospective vs. Structured Retrospective

While these two retrospectives might seem similar, they have some key differences.

The open discussion retrospective is just that — a discussion. There is no predetermined structure to the meeting, and everyone is free to discuss whatever they want. This type of retrospective can help get everyone's thoughts on the project and identify any potential problems.

For example, if a team is discussing a project that didn't go as planned, the open discussion retrospective would be a good place to brainstorm solutions. Participants can share their ideas and then work together to come up with a plan of action.

This type of retrospective is great for getting everyone on the same page, but it can also be chaotic. If there are too many people talking at once, it's hard to track what's being said. And since there is no set structure, it can be challenging to know where to start or what to focus on.

The structured retrospective, on the other hand, has a predetermined structure. This type of retrospective is often used when specific problems need to be addressed.

The structure might vary depending on the team, but it will typically involve looking at what went well, what didn't go well, and what could be done differently in the future. This type of retrospective helps identify concrete ideas about how to improve the team's process.

However, because it's based on a predetermined structure, the structured retrospective can be less flexible than open discussions. For example, if the team wants to discuss something not covered by the structure, they might have to skip ahead or go back to address it.

There are three types of structured retrospectives that you can look at: the start, stop, Continue template, Sailboat retrospective, and Lean Coffee format.

Start, Stop, Continue Template

If you feel like your meeting goes on and on in circles with ideas that don't seem to work, the Start, Stop, Continue template might be helpful. This type of retrospective is action-oriented, as it is all about breaking the cycle and getting back on track.

The three phases of this template are the following:

1. Start - Participants will come up with a list of tasks or projects they can start working on in the upcoming sprint. 

2. Stop - Participants will detail the things that need to stop happening, including repetitive mistakes and failed projects.

3. Continue - Participants will enumerate the positive things they would like to continue doing for the next sprint.

The format goes like this: the team facilitator will start by asking the team to think about what they want to do; then, once everyone has shared their ideas, the facilitator will help the team develop an action plan to implement the changes.

This type of retrospective is best done when the team feels frustrated and stuck, as it will help get them back on track and move forward.

Sailboat Retrospective

If your team members are mostly visual learners, this retrospective will be the perfect way to get them engaged. The Sailboat retrospective is a visual way to help team members reflect on their past work and plan for the future. It is all about creating a vision for your members and determining the steps needed to achieve it.

The retrospective opens with the team being divided into two groups. While the first group will be in charge of building the sailboat, the second group will be responsible for guiding it. Using a sailboat as a visual representation, the team identifies what slows or weighs them down and what puts them in the right direction.

The Sailboat retrospective's goal is to get the crew to consider the following questions:

  • What have we done well in the past?
  • What could we have done better?
  • What do we want to do in the future?

The Sailboat retrospective is a great way for team members to get engaged and visualize their progress. In this way, they can work together to build a solution that will help them achieve their goals.

Lean Coffee Format

Who says sprint retrospectives can't be fun? There are ways you can spice up your meetings, and the Lean Coffee format is one of the best ways to do it. This retrospective is all about structured and productive communication and discussion.

The Lean Coffee format is perfect for retrospectives because it's simple and easy to follow. All you need is a timer, a whiteboard, and some post-it notes. First, everyone takes turns talking about a topic, and then those post-its get moved around the whiteboard to show how people feel about the discussion.

The key to making this format work is to keep things moving. Don't let people spend too much time talking, and make sure everyone has time to share their thoughts. Using a timer keeps people on track, and if someone starts to ramble, you can always ask them to summarize their thoughts.

The lean coffee format is also a great way to get people to open up. It's a more relaxed setting than a traditional meeting, and it allows people to share their thoughts without feeling like they're being judged. This can help build trust and encourage collaboration.

So, Which Type of Retrospective Is Right for Your Team?

The answer depends on what you're looking for. If you want a more flexible retrospective that allows for a lot of discussions, the open discussion retrospective is a good choice. On the other hand, if you want one that's more methodic and focused, the structured retrospective would be a better option.

How to Facilitate an Open Discussion Retrospective

The open discussion retrospective has five phases. As the facilitator, you must encourage the team to have a free-flowing and open discussion, as well as use techniques to ensure that the retrospective is productive.

Set the Stage

In the first phase of the open discussion retrospective, a productive conversation is unlikely to happen. After all, the first phase is about getting to know one another and establishing a rapport.

The facilitator should take the time to set the stage and ensure that everyone understands the purpose of the retrospective. In addition, the facilitator should remind everyone that a retrospective is a safe space for them to share their thoughts and feelings.

The first phase is also an opportunity for the facilitator to establish the ground rules. These should include how long people can speak, how often people can speak, and what is not allowed in the retrospective.

The facilitator should also make sure that everyone understands the agenda for the retrospective. If there are any changes to the plan, the facilitator should let the team know.

Moreover, the venue for the retrospective must be conducive to open discussion. Therefore, the facilitator should ensure that the team has plenty of room to move around and that there are no distractions. For example, if the team is meeting in a conference room, the facilitator should ensure that the door is closed so that people are not interrupted.

Gather Information

This phase is when the open discussion begins. The facilitator will ask open-ended questions, such as:

  • What went well during the project?
  • What didn't go so well?
  • What were the team's most significant accomplishments?
  • What were the team's biggest challenges?

The facilitator must also ensure that everyone shares their thoughts and ideas. To do this, the facilitator may need to ask follow-up questions or repeat comments so that all participants have a chance to speak.

Some responses might be brief, while others might be elaborate. The facilitator would need to note these down for further discussion in the next phase.

Generate Insights

Once the facilitator has collected all the necessary data, it's time to establish an analysis of the events. This is an opportunity for team members to share their experiences and insights and to understand how their actions contributed to the outcome. The facilitator should ensure that all participants will reach a mutual understanding instead of creating conflicts.

For example, if a team member feels their actions were not given due credit, the facilitator should allow them to share their perspective respectfully. The goal is to help team members see how their actions contributed to their success or failure.

The facilitator should also ensure that the team discusses how it can improve its processes in the future. This includes setting new goals and agreeing on the steps that need to be taken to achieve them.

Make a Decision

After data gathering and analysis, all of the participants must create a solution on which they can all agree. The team must reach a consensus, and everyone should understand and agree to the proposed solution. This can be an arduous process, but it is necessary to ensure that the team can move forward together.

If the team cannot come to a consensus, the facilitator may need to step in and help them decide. In some cases, it may be necessary to make a decision that is not popular with everyone on the team. However, it is important to remember that the team’s goal is to work together to achieve a common goal.

For example, imagine that the team has gathered data about a new product and has determined that it is not meeting customer needs. The team must then decide whether to continue developing the product or abandon it. If the team cannot reach a consensus, the facilitator may need to make the final decision.

Close the Retrospective

Once you have come up with a decision, the facilitator can close the retrospective. This means that the team has decided on a course of action, and everyone is now responsible for carrying it out. The facilitator will summarize the discussion, state the decision, and ask if anyone has questions.

If there are any concerns, the facilitator will work to address them. Once everyone is on board, the retrospective is officially closed. However, if there are any outstanding tasks or action items, the facilitator will assign them to specific team members.

For instance, if the team decided they needed to create a new process document, the facilitator would add that task to the team's to-do list and assign it appropriately.

The Facilitator Role

The facilitator's duty in any open discussion retrospective is to ensure that the meeting proceeds well and that all participants are heard. Therefore, the facilitator should be objective and guarantee that everyone expresses themselves.

The facilitator should also keep the meeting on track by making sure that the agenda is followed and that all participants stick to the topic. They may need to urge participants to keep their remarks short and to the point.

It is essential to understand the fundamentals of open discussion retrospectives in order to be a good facilitator. Understanding the group's objectives, the actions needed in organizing the meeting, and the questions that should be asked are all part of this.

The facilitator should also be knowledgeable about the team's present condition and the problems they are dealing with. This will enable them to ask critical questions and assist the team in identifying viable solutions.

Open Discussion Retrospective Challenges

Almost every open discussion retrospective has challenges you need to overcome as a facilitator:

Monopolizing the Conversation

Participants with dominant personalities would most likely be doing all the talking in the retrospective. Unfortunately, this leaves no room for other participants to share their thoughts and ideas, which is counterproductive to the retrospective process. 

One way to prevent this from happening is by having everyone take turns sharing their thoughts. This will help ensure that everyone is heard, and will also keep the conversation flowing.

You can also acknowledge their point and then ask other participants their thoughts. This will show that you're interested in what everyone has to say while keeping the conversation on track.

Sidebar Conversations

When people have sidebar conversations, they might not hear the discussion that’s going on around the table. This can make it difficult to follow the conversation, and can also be disruptive.

If people are having sidebar conversations, don't directly call them out on their behavior. Instead, ask yourself first why they have them in the first place. In this way, you can better understand the situation and address the underlying issue.

Some reasons people might have sidebar conversations include:

  • They might not hear what's going on around the table
  • They might not feel like they're able to contribute to the discussion
  • They might not understand what's being said
  • They might not feel like they're being heard
  • They might not feel like they're part of the group

Addressing these reasons can help prevent people from having sidebar conversations. If people feel that they are being heard and can contribute to the discussion, they're more likely to stay focused and engaged.

Confusing Statements

When a group member doesn't clarify confusing statements, it could lead to misunderstanding and frustration.

To facilitate an open discussion retrospective, the facilitator must ensure that all statements are clear. This means that group members should not just nod their heads and assume everyone understands what's being said. Instead, if there is any confusion, someone should clarify right away.

This can be done by repeating what was said, asking for clarification, or restating the message differently. By doing this, the facilitator ensures that everyone is on the same page and that the discussion flows smoothly.

Speaking at the Same Time

It's hard to have a coherent conversation when all of the participants are speaking simultaneously. This can happen in retrospective meetings when everyone is eager to share their thoughts. To prevent this, facilitators should enforce a rule that states only one person may talk at a time.

In addition, the facilitator should wait for everyone to finish talking before calling on the next person. This will ensure that everyone is heard and that the discussion remains productive.

For example, if three people are talking at the same time, the facilitator might say something like, "I'm sorry, I can't understand what you're saying. Please take turns speaking."

Lack of Participation

A team that is reluctant to participate could present a problem. After all, the open discussion retrospective relies on team-based learning. If people fear that they won't be heard or that their input won't make a difference, they will probably avoid participating. So, you might need to work on team trust and communication to get the most out of the discussion.

In this situation there's no need to force them into the retrospective. Instead, what you can do is initiate conversation by asking people to share their thoughts on the following questions:

"What went well this sprint? What didn't go well?"

This question is open-ended and non-judgmental, so it's less likely to cause people to feel defensive. It also allows them to share their thoughts without having to take part in a group discussion.

If people are still reluctant to participate after you've asked this question, try a different approach. Ask people to share their thoughts on a specific issue or problem that arose during the sprint. This will help focus the discussion and make it less intimidating.

Not Starting or Ending on Time

An open discussion that starts late and ends late can show a lack of respect to participants who showed up on time. Your team can set rules for handling this, such as having late participants wait outside of the room until the discussion is over, or deducting time from the end of the discussion.

Not every team will handle this the same way, so it’s crucial to reach a consensus on how to handle this before the retrospective begins.

You can also set rules for ending the retrospective on time. This can be done by setting a timer and having everyone share their thoughts within a certain amount of time. If someone goes over, they can save their thoughts for the next retrospective. This way, everyone has a chance to share and the retrospective doesn’t drag on.

Disagreements

As much as possible, avoid having conflicts during the retrospective to maintain a harmonious and productive atmosphere. However, disagreements can still happen despite your efforts. Here are three ways to deal with conflicts:

1. Avoid talking about the issue or not bringing up the issue at the retrospective.

2. Find a middle ground or a way to split the difference.

3. Discuss the issue until a resolution is found or by voting on the issue.

Not Taking the Retrospective Seriously

Retrospectives are critical, and your role as the facilitator is crucial in keeping them on track and ensuring that the team gets the most out of the meeting. If you're not serious about the retrospective, the team will quickly pick up on this, and the meeting will be a waste of time.

The same goes for participants who don't take the conversation seriously. If they're not focused on the meeting or they're only there to complain, the retrospective will quickly spiral out of control.

What you can do for this type of scenario is consider it as a chance to build the gap between the team's current reality and their desired future. And if that doesn't work, then you might need to enforce a set of rules to keep the meeting on track.

Direct Comments

When people talk directly to you instead of addressing the issue to the group, it can generate a feeling of exclusion. Furthermore, it can disrupt the flow of the discussion.

As the facilitator, you want to encourage everyone to participate, so it’s essential to ensure that everyone feels comfortable speaking up. If someone speaks directly to you, try to redirect the comment to the group. For example, you might say, “Let’s all share our thoughts on this issue.”

Another thing you can do when it gets out of hand is to not fall into this trap. This means that you don't take the bait when someone tries to lure you into an argument. So, for example, if someone is trying to call you out on something, and you know that will not get the discussion anywhere, you can just say, “I don’t think this is the time or place for that discussion.”

Retrospective Facilitation Techniques

Facilitating an open discussion retrospective can be a daunting task. Having a few techniques up your sleeve is vital to ensure that the retrospective is productive. Here are a few tips to get you started:

Be at Ease With Silence

People often think that silence in an open discussion means that it is not going well. But in reality, this is not always the case. Silence gives participants time to think and process the information they've just received. It also gives them time to plan their thoughts and come up with questions.

If the facilitator is not at ease with silence, it will be challenging for them to create an open and safe space for participants to share their thoughts and feelings. It will also be difficult for them to feel comfortable expressing themselves.

For facilitators, the best way to overcome silence during the discussion is to count slowly to 10 before saying anything. Then, if the facilitator feels the need to speak, they can ask a question or make a comment that will help move the discussion forward.

Invite Others to Participate

An open discussion requires participants. However, this doesn't mean that you'll force them to join the discussion even if they don't want to. For example, if you directly call out one team member, they may feel singled out and become defensive, leading to a counterproductive discussion.

Instead, try to get the team excited about the retrospective. You can do this by sharing the goals of the retrospective and explaining how everyone can benefit from it. You can also mention that it's a safe space to share any thoughts or concerns.

If you're still having trouble getting people on board, consider using a team charter. This is a document that outlines the team's values and expectations.

You can also hold meetings using online platforms like Slack or Google Hangouts. This way, participants can see how everyone reacts and takes part in the discussion. However, be sure to mute all team members except the one who's talking so that everyone can hear what is being said.

Monitor the Group’s Energy

Having an open discussion is tiring, especially when it's taking too long or when people are getting sidetracked. After all, following various conversation points can be mentally draining. That’s why it’s important to monitor the group’s energy level to ensure the retrospective is effective.

If people seem tired or the discussion is going off track, it’s time to wrap things up. This might mean summarizing the main points, setting time limits for each discussion point, or ending the meeting altogether.

Another thing you can do is create an icebreaker. This will help stimulate the group and get them energized again. A few examples of this would be having everyone share a funny story or something they’re happy or grateful for.

Raise Open-Ended Questions

Most questions asked in an open discussion retrospective tend to only be answered by "yes" or "no." If this continues to happen, the discussion will come to a dead end. Furthermore, this type of exchange would not help the team identify the root causes of their problems nor help them find feasible solutions.

To prevent this, the facilitator should ask open-ended questions that encourage participants to share their views and ideas. As a result, the team will identify the major causes of the problems and potential remedies.

Here are some examples of open-ended questions for facilitators:

  • "What went well?"
  • "What didn't go well?"
  • "What were the causes of the problems?"
  • "What were the potential solutions?"
  • "What should we do differently?"

This way, the team can have a fruitful and productive discussion as well as learn from their experiences.

Maintain Your Neutrality

It's easy to maintain neutrality if you're facilitating another team's discussion. However, if you're facilitating your team's open discussion retrospective, it's hard; you’ll probably feel the need to be vocal about your thoughts and feelings.

Remember, it's not about you — it's about the team. Try your best to be impartial and let the team speak openly. The goal is to get the team's insights and suggestions, not force your own opinions on them.

One thing you can do to maintain neutrality is to write down everyone's thoughts as they're being shared. This will help you keep track of all participants’ opinions and suggestions. That way, you can pinpoint any areas that may need further discussion. 

Aside from that, you should also make sure not to dominate the discussion. Instead, let the participants talk and share their insights. If the discussion is always centered on one person, it will be difficult for the whole team to move forward.

Final Thoughts

Having an open discussion with your team leads to better retrospectives and sprints. By giving everyone a voice, you'll get more valuable feedback and insights. Facilitating these discussions can be tricky, but you can make it a breeze with these tips.

Use the right tools and techniques to help keep the discussion on track, and be sure to make plenty of time for everyone to share their thoughts. By following these tips, you'll be able to create an open and productive retrospective that will help your team improve its work process.

About the author

Ruth Hadari
Agile Advocate, Engineering Ops Expert

Highly experienced in leading multi-organizational teams, groups, in-shore as well as off-shore. The go-to person who is able to simplify the complex. An agile advocate, experienced in all common methodologies. Responsible for the entire software development lifecycle process from development, QA, DevOps, Automation to delivery including overall planning, direction, coordination, execution, implementation, control and completion. Drives execution, and communicates on status, risks, metrics, risk-mitigation and processes across R&D.

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