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  • Toby Sinclair

How to lead a Transformational Retrospective

Do your retrospectives look like this?

Team members walk into the room reluctantly. The Scrum Master throws out the Post-It notes onto the table and asks the team to write down some thoughts. You only have 3 minutes. You stick the Post-It’s on the wall and you dot vote. The top topics get discussed and you leave with some actions, which you never complete. 

This is a simplification but i’ve found it is often a representation of reality. Most retrospectives fail to achieve any serious and lasting change.

Why is this?

I believe a fundamental problem is that often team retrospectives are transactional rather than transformational.

We are all familiar with the agile manifesto value of individuals and interactions over processes and tools but so often we miss the mark in retrospectives. We focus on the tools and process rather than exploring the beliefs, assumptions and fears that are holding the individuals and team back.

I believe we need to value:

Transformational Retrospectives over Transactional Retrospectives

I’ve previously blogged about my experiences as a coach and the difference between transactional and transformational coaching. The same applies to retrospectives which can be defined as follows:

Transactional retrospectives are focused on actions. They are focused on achieving a certain set of steps to move towards some outcome. They are surface level.Transformational retrospectives are focused on the whole, the individuals, the team, the system.They go below the surface. It helps a team create an awareness of the factors contributing to the achievement of their challenge or goal. Often these contributing factors stem from the teams limiting beliefs, assumptions and values formed from past experiences.

Here are some questions to consider:

  1. When was the last time you explored the teams limiting beliefs, assumptions and fears in a retrospective?

  2. When was the last time your retrospective led to a transformational shift in team performance?

How do you lead a transformational retrospective?

If you are a scrum master, agile coach or team member you are probably wondering how to lead a transformational retrospective.

As a leader, it is your responsibility to help create the conditions for transformational change. These special moments often arise from emotional and uncomfortable situations. If the right conditions do not exist team members might find it difficult to express their emotions and embrace discomfort.

Creating psychological safety starts with you.

How open are you to embrace the emotion and discomfort?

  1. Are you able to ask the powerful and difficult questions that never get asked?

  2. Are you open to be vulnerable?

  3. Are you willing to show who you really are?

The famous google Project Aristotle highlighted the importance of psychological safety. Within the project was an excellent story of leading by example when Matt Sakaguchi shared his secret battle with cancer with his team:

“….to Sakaguchi, it made sense that psychological safety and emotional conversations were related. The behaviors that create psychological safety — conversational turn-taking and empathy — are part of the same unwritten rules we often turn to, as individuals, when we need to establish a bond. And those human bonds matter as much at work as anywhere else. In fact, they sometimes matter more.”

The next time you lead a retrospective try to remember:

Transformational Retrospectives over Transactional Retrospectives


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