How to Run a (Truly) Blameless Sprint Retrospective

Ruth Hadari
Agile Advocate, Engineering Ops Expert
Posted on
Apr 29, 2021
Updated on
May 23, 2022
Table of Content

It's a truth almost as universal as time itself: where there’s a sprint retrospective, there’s going to be blame. 

We’ve all been there: something (or a few things) haven’t turned out the way they should have, or (in the worst case scenario), have gone horribly wrong. Which leads to the ultimate shame: finger pointing and blame. 

But...retros really don’t have to be that way. Here’s GoRetro’s quick-start guide for running truly blameless retrospective

What is a blameless retro? 

Just as sprint retrospectives and sprint reviews aren't one and the same things, blameless retro might be something you've only ever dreamed of partaking in. 

Because the postmortem/retro is a part of every sprint cycle, it's almost inevitable that some blame will be cast. 

But...it really doesn't have to be that way. Although it's a natural human reaction to seek blame where things haven't turned out as they should, a truly blameless post mortem will still achieve all of the necessary outcomes, no aspersions or bad feelings in sight. 

Tips and tricks: how to run an effective, blameless retro

Firstly, to understand the hows, you need to understand the whys: retros are there to focus the team (and the sprint), to make the next one even better, faster and stronger. 

However, as with most things with a human element, this can often devolve to being afraid to stick your neck out, for fear of looking stupid among your peers, having other fallout, and ultimately, even losing your job as a result of something that may (or may not ) have been your fault. 

With blameless retrospectives, the way to ensure that the situation never deteriorates to these (highly triggering) emotions is: 

  • Focus on the underlying issue, not the reaction. Rather than trying to work out who was to blame (.e.g, ‘X should have done A instead of B, but Y should have caught this’), focus on why the mistake was made in the first place (‘the documentation X was following was confusingly worded. We should have better documentation’)
  • Walk through processes, to see where points of confusion/inadequacies might lie. This will help you to understand where the main sources of tension/potential fail points are and can be in future sprints. 
  • Set - and stick to - checks and balances to prevent any failures as and when they might happen. The easiest way to stop the blame game is prevention at the source of the incident. 
  • Begin the retro with fun, but not time-consuming, ice breakers. This will foster a sense of openness, communication and trust among the team. 

Strengthen your team culture: prep for blameless retros before and after

As with the retrospective itself, most, if not all of the cultural work has to be done before and after your step into the retro. 

That means, there are several things you can all do to ensure that every retro from this point on is productive, open and ultimately, blameless for everyone involved! 

  • Create a solid team culture (with outside teams too). You can have a look at these fun retrospective ideas, or come up with something yourself. 
  • Recognize and prevent any thinking that could lead to blame, watch out for ‘you’ statements (‘you should have done’, ‘you seemed to’) and immediately reword them to ‘I’ statements (‘I felt’, ‘I could have’). Better yet, bring this style of thinking to the team’s attention and make them aware of it as it happens. 
  • Move away from micromanagement. Some managers feel that the best way to ensure everything goes to plan is to watch their team’s every step. This will only increase pressure on team members, and take the focus off them completing their task, putting it on making sure their manager is pleased. This is the area where mistakes are bound to happen...and then be cause to be blamed. 
  • Focus on constant communication, before, during and after the sprint. Communication is absolutely key to prevent mistakes, and to move away from blame in general. 

Running a successful, blameless retro: we choose YOU

The truth is, anyone and everyone can run a highly successful blameless retro: all it takes is understanding how and where the desire to blame comes from, and then being acutely aware of it, to ensure your next retro is completely blameless! 

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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