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13 ways to avoid groupthink during your next retrospective

Tricia Whenham
Posted by Tricia Whenham on Sep 18, 2019 6:00:00 AM
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The sprint retrospective is a cornerstone of the scrum process. Regularly carving out time to reflect and improve is crucial for team cohesion. But could your team become so aligned that new ideas and contrary opinions don’t get voiced? If that’s happening to you, you may have a retrospective groupthink problem.

Groupthink occurs when people set aside their own beliefs to follow the opinions of the majority. When an agile team falls prey to groupthink, you may notice that the first ideas that get shared are the ones that stick. Fewer new ideas are generated, and teams jump to action rather than exploration. Perhaps vigorous discussion has been replaced with silent nodding – leaving people with dissenting views reluctant to interrupt the momentum by taking the conversation in a different direction.

At retrospectives, groupthink is an unwelcome guest. You need everyone’s insights and reflections to improve the process – not people agreeing with the first idea or stifling a response when a strong personality speaks.

Think groupthink could be sneaking into your retros? Don’t let your great team cohesiveness work against you. Here are 13 things to help you tap into everyone’s perspective.

1. Watch your signals

If you’re the scrum master, are you unwittingly sending messages about which ideas are valid and which aren’t? Ask another scrum master or agile coach to watch your retro and give you feedback. These people can tell you if certain team members monopolize the airtime or certain topics never quite get their due. Removing your own blind spots sends your team the signal that all perspectives matter.

2. Ask lots of questions

Questions are essential for getting team members to dig into what happened during the last sprint and frame their individual perspectives – without being swayed by the group. And the right questions can also give developers a boost in making the switch from problem solving to reflection. Looking for new questions to change up your retros? Here are 20 to ask.

3. Try the 5 Whys

If your team has trouble moving from superficial symptoms to root causes, try borrowing the 5 Whys technique (from Six Sigma). How it works: state your problem clearly and then keep asking Why? until you’ve peeled off the layers and reached the underlying issue that must be addressed. For example, if your team missed delivering working product on time, asking Why? five times could help you go beyond quick answers (too much work) to the real issue (flaws in the story estimation process).

4. Share anonymously first

Groupthink is also at work when team members unconsciously give more weight to ideas expressed by senior developers or strong personalities – and not enough to the interns or quieter team members. Avoid that risk by having everyone submit ideas anonymously, using paper sticky notes or digital alternatives. You’ll still need people to claim their ideas and explain them, but not before they’ve been considered without preconceptions.

5. Go digital

If you’re already using sticky notes to create an even playing field, take the next step with a digital visual collaboration tool like Span™ Workspace. By trading markers and paper for devices and displays, every note looks the same and is easy to read. Plus digital tools let you involve remote team members fully in your retrospective process. Here’s how our teams do it.

6. Consider containers, differences and exchanges

Gerie Owen, in her blog post on groupthink in agile, explains how the CDE model helps scrum masters analyze how groups work together. Take a look at how your “containers” (the physical and virtual space you work in), “difference” (the variety of perspectives on your team) and “exchange” (the way people communicate) influence collaboration within your team.

7. Put on a new hat

Structuring your retro carefully saves time and helps you avoid discussions that go nowhere. One format that’s particularly good at combating groupthink is the 6 Thinking Hats retrospective. By wearing different “hats” at different times in the retro – white hat for facts and figures, green for creative thought, black for devil’s advocate – you have a fun framework that can also expand how your team thinks.

8. Shake things up

If things are getting stale and your team is falling back into groupthink habits, you can always shake up your retro even more. Fun Retrospectives is a website full of different ideas and templates to get your team reflecting effectively. Have you tried a Three Little Pigs retro? How about Anchors and Engine? The possibilities are endless.

9. Don’t skip to the end

There’s only so much time in a busy day, so it’s tempting once a problem gets raised to immediately look for a solution. But if team members sense you’re racing toward the finish line, they may avoid slowing down the team by adding their perspective. A focus on problem solving doesn’t leave enough time to get the full picture of what’s really going on – which is essential if you ever want things to change.

10. Make peace with conflict

When you were a kid, you probably heard your mom or teacher tell you to “play nice with others.” For some people, that type of message left an indelible impression and the feeling that any conflict in a group means you aren’t the dream team anymore. But to get better, you need to be open to heated discussion. Set some ground rules for good conduct, and let the team course correct if needed.

11. Tap into remote team members

Do you have team members who work from home or a different office? Because groupthink thrives when a team’s experience becomes insular, people who work at a distance likely have a perspective you need – which is just one reason why it’s crucial that retros are meaningful for them. Choose digital collaboration tools and audio conferencing solutions that ensure they can share their ideas freely and don’t miss out on anything, no matter where they are.

12. Explore asynchronous input

Just because your retro takes place on a Tuesday morning, that doesn’t mean ideas have to be shared then. With a digital canvas or other collaboration tool, team members can add input at any point in the sprint – whenever it occurs to them. This reduces the risk of a team forgetting the bumps along the way because everything ended well. Or letting some big challenges overshadow some small victories. If you try this, make sure that team members can’t see everyone else’s feedback as they contribute (otherwise, you guessed it, groupthink). Here’s how QuickShare in Span Workspace can help.

13. Dive into passions

Retrospectives exist to inspect a sprint and take actions to make the next one better – but that doesn’t mean you can’t also carve out space for team members to share other things that matter. Our scrum team members take a little time in every retro to send vacation photos or pet pics to the shared canvas. Recognizing and valuing individuality can have a spill-over effect when it’s time to tackle more serious subjects.


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Topics: Agile