The Witch Hunt Retrospective

It’s Halloween night… what better way to celebrate than with a good old fashioned witch hunt?  I’m well aware that agile retrospectives are intended to be collaborative exercises in continuous improvement, or Kaizen if you will.  There are many formats and styles to suit different teams, situations and facilitators.  A well run retro can lead to insights, learning opportunities, and a greater sense of team.  Let’s face it though, sometimes you just want to get in there and blame someone.  So here it is, my guide to singling out that person or team in the guise of a retrospective.

1. Choose a facilitator with a vested, or emotional interest.  Ideal for cross team retros, Particularly important when you need to place blame.  Make sure the facilitator, whose main role is to create an environment that encourages openness, collaboration and thought, wants a particular outcome, or has something significant to gain, or loose.

2. Prepare a timeline upfront. There is nothing more annoying that discovering that other people have a different perception of events.  Presenting your own timeline, and not inviting comment, is a sure path to the outcome you want.  Keep a look out for techniques like Future Backwards, these could easily undermine by revealing things that don’t support your bias.

3. Ambush with data.  Data is a powerful tool, used right you won’t even need to point the finger, you can make it obvious which team, or person is the source of the problem.  Carefully prepare a graph, or visualization, don’t warn anyone, and keep the source data to yourself.

4. Exclude key people. If you include everyone who was involved, or effected, you might find unexpected insights, different opinions, or worse someone might challenge the way you think about things.  Some people have the ability to articulate well, and may challenge.  Exclude these meddlers to ensure a quick conclusion; your conclusion.

5. Ignore the system.  A lot of great thinkers will tell you that often the system, or the environment someone is working in, has a significant impact on behaviour and productivity.  Avoid these blame dilution techniques by keeping the focus firmly on people’s performance and what happened in the moment.

6. Steer Contributions. As a facilitator it’s wise to be impartial, so if you really must get ideas from the group, keep things heading towards the inevitable by judging input.   Praise ideas the same as your own, be scornful of anything different or new.  Pro tip:  If you feel threatened, pretend the glue on a post-it has failed, then conceal the fallen note under your shoe.

7. Publish incomplete or un-reviewed conclusions.   If you haven’t got the outcome you wanted from the retro, there’s another opportunity.   Wash away everything that happened by writing up a  summary.  Describe things as you want people to see it, make sure you are first to publish, and publish widely.  On no account get the summary reviewed in case other people’s ideas or actions creep in.

So that’s how you run a Halloween retrospective witch hunt, it’s a sure way to find someone to blame, and cut out all those awkward learning opportunities.  Off course, all of the above are written in jest, but underneath are what seem to be fairly common retro anti-patterns.  I’ve heard about these, seen them, and probably done them.  Point one, around knowing when to get out of the way, is clincher.  It can be hard to recognize when we’re sleep deprived, over caffeinated, stressed or under inspired.  It is similarly hard to tell, or admit, if we’re too close to a subject.  Luckily there is a simple way to find out: ask.  Just don’t forget to listen.


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