Why Sprint Retrospective feedback can be far from enlightening

Alexandra Cory
Alexandra Cory
Scrum Master
Posted on
Feb 8, 2022
Updated on
Apr 23, 2023
Table of Content

It can be difficult to extract valuable feedback from a Scrum Team when it comes to the Sprint Retrospective itself. Did they enjoy the activities? Were they engaged? Did they get what they needed from it? On occasion, I’ve found the response to these questions to be underwhelming. 

You can observe the team’s behavior during the session, of course, but that doesn’t always give you a clear picture of how team members feel about it. They might not be in the right frame of mind for a retrospective; maybe they’re tired or preoccupied with the work they were doing beforehand.

There’s no shortage of retrospective activities you can try to encourage feedback on the event, but for these to be effective, participants must be open to sharing their thoughts and feelings. You may need to take some actions to encourage openness.

Signs openness is lacking 

Do you find that requests for feedback only produce the bare minimum response? If you ask for a rating and suggestions, do you find most people stop at the rating stage? Does feedback suggest complete satisfaction when you’re sure there must be room for improvement somewhere?

I’ve noticed team members declare themselves Explorers during the ESVP exercise (highly enthusiastic) or maybe Shoppers (positive and happy if there is one decent outcome) but then proceed to behave more like Vacationers (not interested in the meeting but happy to get a break from work) or Prisoners (feeling forced to attend and would rather not). Vacationers are likely to be seen doodling on their pad or gazing out of the window, while Prisoners would appear subdued and reluctant to participate. 

You may need to do some groundwork to identify apathy or artificial harmony and work out the causes. Once you’re armed with this knowledge, you can work with the team to overcome barriers and create a safe environment for them to share their thoughts. 

Why might team members withhold feedback on the Sprint Retrospective?

There could be a variety of reasons for why team members are reluctant to share feedback. I’ll describe the main ones I’ve experienced, many of which have the potential to not only limit feedback on the event itself, but also limit inspection and adaptation during. For now, I'll focus on the feedback Scrum Masters need to inspect retrospectives, and offer some suggestions for improving them.

Poor timing

It’s common to ask for feedback on the event as the concluding activity. This can require being pretty militant about timekeeping though, otherwise you risk missing the opportunity to ask. This can be challenging, and you want to avoid cutting valuable discussions short. 

Even with time on your side, you may find feedback shared during this final activity to be disappointingly brief. Could team members be taking the fastest route through the activity in order to get back to work, take their lunch break or head home? It reminds me of the last minutes of university lectures (the particularly long ones) when the lecturer asks if there are any questions. The majority of the students are itching to leave and silently pray there won’t be. Those with questions keep quiet, not wanting to be the person who extends everyone’s confinement.  

You can read the room before choosing a feedback-generating activity. If people are yawning or checking their watches, opt for collecting a quick score as people exit. While this may not be very insightful, you can catch up with people separately afterwards and ask if they can elaborate further.

Team dynamics

Generally speaking, relationships between team members can play a part in limiting feedback, and more so when there’s hierarchy involved. Ideally, within the Scrum Team, members should feel safe to share their thoughts and feelings without fearing judgement. 

Ideally, Scrum teams should be hierarchy free, but I've worked on a few where this wasn’t the case. There have often been Lead Developers who’ve had line management responsibility for other team members. It’s highly conceivable that someone would rather not admit, in front of their line manager, to finding a retrospective disengaging. They’d probably prefer to portray themselves as enthusiastic. On the flip side, those who were engaged and enjoyed the retrospective might be very open with their positive feedback as it showcases their enthusiasm and hopefully impresses their leader. 

Even in the absence of such a hierarchy, some HR practices can have a similar effect. Managers might ask Scrum Team members to provide feedback on each other to form part of performance appraisals. With this in mind, team members could withhold feedback for fear they might be perceived negatively by someone who has a say in their appraisal (thus limiting their chances at a promotion or pay rise). 

There are actions you can take to alleviate the situation. Facilitate team discussions around:

  • The Scrum values - reiterate the importance of being open and respecting each other as individuals. 
  • The purpose of feedback is to help the self-managing team inspect and adapt, not appraise individuals.  
  • How the team gives and receives feedback currently and how they can improve it. The agreed-upon approach can be added to the team charter if they have one (if not, consider creating one).

This should help create an environment in which the team feels free to share feedback, safe in the knowledge that it will be used constructively to make improvements rather than to influence performance reviews. 

You could try to challenge department structures that conflict with Scrum. Perhaps line management within the Scrum Team is something that can be changed, creating a flat structure.

Trying to please others

In most Scrum Teams, it’s the Scrum Master who organizes the retrospective, putting a lot of thought and preparation into planning the event. I’ve often wondered whether team members have withheld negative feedback from me out of politeness, perhaps not wishing to appear ungrateful or rude. 

This also goes for other members of the team. When one person doesn’t enjoy something but is surrounded by others that seem to, they might not want to be the one person who objects to it.

You could circumvent team members’ reluctance to be open with their own opinions by asking each of them to suggest what the team member next to them might think about the retrospective and why. Their colleague will then get the chance to respond, clarifying whether or not it was accurate.  

Accepting the status quo

It could be that you’ve been a bit stuck in a rut, running variations of the same activities for a while. The team may get used to the usual formats and if they have neither tried nor investigated alternatives, they might find it difficult to make suggestions. Maybe you have creatures of habit on the team, who don’t want to be pushed out of their comfort zone. Their lack of feedback might reflect a reluctance to try new things. 

Encourage the team to try new activities. Perhaps give them a few new options to choose from in each retrospective. Ask them to vote on which one they want to try and keep a tally of votes per activity to inform your future choices. 

What retrospective activities would the team choose if they were left to their own devices? The choices made in the absence of a Scrum Master could give you good insights into their preferences. I’ve previously asked for a volunteer to facilitate in my absence and it’s been interesting to find out what they tried and how they thought it went. Sometimes they chose the activities I least expected. It can be difficult for Scrum Masters to tailor retrospectives to the different personalities on a team. In the past I have made inaccurate assumptions about the activities team members would like, needlessly limiting the range of activities we used. 

Scrum Masters don’t need to be absent for other team members to facilitate a retrospective. That doesn’t mean they have to be the facilitator; however, they are accountable for making sure the retrospective is “positive, productive, and kept within the timebox(The Scrum Guide 2020). Remind the team that the activity they choose needs to serve the purpose of inspection and adaptation. 

Lack of response to previous feedback 

One organization I worked for circulated a monthly feedback questionnaire to all employees, and consistently received very little response. When employees were asked why they didn’t complete it, the majority said they didn’t see the point as nothing changed as a result. This is worth considering in relation to retrospectives too. Has feedback been collected previously that hasn’t amounted to anything? 

Let the team know that you will give their feedback proper consideration and keep them updated on what you plan to change. Explain that it’s difficult to please everyone as one person may love an activity that another person hates, but you can aim to strike a good balance. If you can plan ahead, there may be opportunities to tailor activities to the team members who will be there. For example, one person’s least favourite activity could be one to do when they are on holiday. 

When a Scrum Team fully commits to Scrum and enacts the five Scrum values - Courage, Openness, Focus, Commitment and Respect - this provides the conditions in which all members trust each other and freely share any feedback. 

Once feedback is shared, it’s important to follow it up, inspecting and adapting accordingly to close the feedback loop and encourage further feedback in the future.

About the author

Alexandra Cory
Scrum Master

Experienced Scrum Master with a varied background working with software development teams in a number of sectors including digital agencies, finance, publishing and eCommerce. Helping teams to transition from Waterfall to Agile, implement Scrum and successfully scale Scrum in rapidly growing organizations. Passionate about empowering teams to self-manage, build trust and optimize their ways of working to become high performing teams.

Related Posts

Contact Us
Thank you! Your message has been sent!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

Join thousands of companies

Start for free - update any time
Joining as an organisation? Contact sales