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How can I improve engagement in my retrospectives?

Engagement is essential in an effective retrospective

For a Retrium retrospective to be most effective, all of the members of the team need to be engaged. The goal of any retrospective should be to generate insights, discuss what’s most important, and create actionable next steps that drive continuous improvement, but these won’t be nearly as effective without true engagement.  

But what is engagement? How can you tell if your team is actually engaged? And finally, what can you, as the facilitator, do to increase engagement in your next retro?

What is engagement anyway?

If you define engagement as “getting people to pay attention” then you might want to consider learning how to juggle, ride a unicycle, or perform some really stunning magic tricks. There are too many things competing for our attention and getting people to attentively listen without a stake in the game is hard. One of the best ways to get people to truly engage is to create space for active participation.

For an effective retrospective, active participation is expected. Everyone that is involved in the retro should come to the table knowing that their “voice” needs to be heard, their ideas shared, and their opinions openly expressed in order to secure a  meaningful outcome.  Unfortunately, the natural tendency of people is to default to silence, so creating an environment that supports engagement is paramount to having an effective retrospective in Retrium. 

There are  complex and nuanced issues that can negatively affect engagement - such as lack of psychological safety, feeling like nothing you say will matter, overcoming negative past experiences, and lack of commitment to the agile methodology. These are all vitally important to a successful and engaging retro; however, this article assumes the “big ticket” items around engagement are present and focuses on the small tweaks that increase engagement.

Easy Fixes to Improve Engagement

Put the phones away.

Seriously. In order to be fully present, team members must be focused on the retrospective. A phone nearby, or even worse, in someone’s hands, during a retro will be a distraction. One ding. Even if the person receiving the text doesn’t stop and look at the phone, their mind will wander. Who hasn’t had this inner dialogue after hearing an unassuming beep from nearby:  “Who  just texted me? Was it important? Should I check just to be sure? Maybe it was my mom and she needs my help this morning. I better check my phone. No, I’ll wait until after this meeting.  Shoot, what was it Susan just said? I missed it. I’ll just play along like I agree” 

Change the retro format.

Has your team used “What Went Well” for every retrospective this year? It’s time to change it up.  While doing the same thing over and over can help people feel safe and the retrospective feel predictable, it can also breed boredom and disengagement.  Shake things up. Try a new sticky note template at your next retro, such as “Stop, Start, Continue” or “WRAP”.  Retrium offers lots of different techniques and you can even customize your own. Team members won’t be able to simply go through the memorized motions, increasing the possibility for deep thinking and unique insights; they will have to be more fully present in order to understand what is being asked of them, how the meeting is structured, and what types of responses are necessary to fit the new format. 

Involve the team in selecting the topic.

Asking the team what topic is most important to discuss during a retro is key in increasing engagement. Buy-in is essential. Consider using a Team Radar to narrow down the broader topic of “the last sprint” to a more specific and manageable topic.  In doing this, you allow the team to decide what is most pressing, and this gives them the opportunity to dig deeper on one thing instead of focusing on many topics at a surface level. The team will automatically be more engaged because they had a hand in choosing the topic, and going deep on one thing allows the team to focus their attention on one problem instead of many. 

Use breakout rooms

The more people that are in a meeting, the less need exists for each individual to participate. When you find that energy is low, or that only certain people are engaged, consider breaking up into smaller discussion groups, then coming back together to share the most important things that were discussed. Just this small change of pace/structure can help increase engagement. Smaller settings can also help introverted team members feel more comfortable participating. 


For more information about reasons engagement may be low and ways to increase it, check out this chapter of the Ultimate Guide to Agile Retrospectives:  https://www.retrium.com/ultimate-guide-to-agile-retrospectives/increase-engagement-and-participation-in-your-retrospectives or watch this video from our Expert Hot Seat series https://www.retrium.com/blog/how-to-raise-engagement-in-retrospectives

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