Observing Changing Team Behaviour

Recently I was facilitating a retrospective session with a strong team that I have a close bond with. This was my 20th retrospective with the team and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Soon before the start of the retrospective a friend and fellow scrum master asked to sit in on the session as a spectator. The team had met him before and previously he had helped facilitate a previous retrospective with them, albeit a while back. As such I didn’t hesitate to agree.

So the team sat down, the spectating scrum master sat quietly adjacent to the team and the retrospective began. After a few minutes of starting, the team became increasingly more and more disruptive. Focus and concentration diminished rapidly and defensive, disruptive behaviour started to emerge. This accelerated over a 40 minute period which made the facilitation of the session more and more difficult and even prompted the spectating scrum master to interject where disruptive behaviour emerged. I certainly wasn’t comfortable with the way the session had turned out and this was sure to be obvious to others.

After about 50 minutes into the retrospective, the spectator had to leave the session at which point I thought all was lost and this retrospective was a complete right off. I felt disappointed with myself and I have to say a little let down by the team. I was going to right this off as one of the worst retrospectives I had been involved with.

A few minutes after the guest had left the room something happened which I never expected; the team settled down and became focused. Not only did the team regain focus, but the level of engagement was one of the best I had seen to date, with the majority of the team becoming physically involved with capturing improvements. The result was we chose to extended the retrospective and identify issues of significant value to move forward with. Some of which should have a substantial impact to the working practices.

After the session had finished I was perplexed to what had just happened. I couldn’t get over the transformation from the team and sure that the spectator sitting in wouldn’t believe me if I explained it. To try and identify the reason I spoke with some of the team members on a one to one level after session with aim to discover any hidden reasoning. They acknowledged there was a change in behaviour, but didn’t have clear reasoning why. Some joked with the question that the observing scrum master was checking up on the team, which might have contributed to a defensive behaviour. I struggled with this reasoning due to them having previously engaged with him and worked with him on the same project. Maybe I was projecting that assumption from my own personal relationship. Anyway I continued observing feedback and made the team aware of the behavioural change.

Although I don’t have a definitive answer to the behavioural change I had witnessed, I have my suspicions. Some of the reasons I identified included external influences and environmental pressures, a recent product release affecting workflow and the secluded room providing the team with a safe space in which to relax which may have adversely affected concentration as a result of pressure. However the strongest reason I could find due to the immediate change in behaviour was to do with the very personal nature of retrospectives. A good team looking to improve will openly discuss vulnerabilities with each other. When putting weaknesses on the table, it takes a great amount of team trust. Although they may have personally trusted and liked the other scrum master, discussing the teams personal issues may require a different form of trust from the team.

Retrospectives are essential sessions which allow the team to inspect and adapt. They are the heartbeat of progress for any team. By their very nature they can be delicate due to their intimate nature. What I learnt from this is to treat them with a little more care and understand their vulnerability. Although I can’t be sure of the reasoning to explain the above, I will be more reluctant to agree to say yes to changes in the format without evaluating the impact on the team which is not restricted to spectators. A valuable lesson learnt.

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