Should Managers Be In Retrospectives?

Any time you add a new person or group to the meeting, how that impacts that trust is unpredictable… If you’re inviting someone with management authority, that’s adds an even more difficult variable, since there may now be a power imbalance among participants.

In this episode, Richard and Peter answer the question: “What are your thoughts on including managers in retrospectives?” Even if a manger wants to be helpful, the answer is complicated…

Resources Mentioned

Facilitating Effective Retrospectives Course
The Three Jobs of Management Episode
No Events

Episode Transcription

Richard Lawrence

Welcome to the Humanizing Work Mailbag, where we answer questions from the Humanizing Work Community!

Peter Green

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Peter Green

This week’s question is, “What are your thoughts on including managers in retrospectives?” The person asking this question added a little bit of context: “Our managers want to be involved in retros because they’re concerned ‘HR issues’ may come up that the team wouldn’t be equipped to handle on their own.” So, this is a case of managers wanting to be included to be helpful for the team, not to somehow micromanage the team’s improvement.


Our answer to this question has three parts: First, the baseline way to think about who participates in retrospectives, second, when to consider including anyone outside the team in a retro, and third, some advice for managers who feel this desire to get involved in a team’s retros because they’re  trying to help them out.


So, part 1, who participates in retros? In Scrum, the default participants for a Sprint Retrospective are the whole Scrum team—Product Owner, ScrumMaster, and developers—and no one else. The retro is a place for the Scrum team to reflect on how they’re working and look for ways to improve their work system. This means, the official Scrum Guide answer to, “Should managers join our team’s retro?” is “No, it’s just for the team.”


This brings us to part 2, when might you consider including someone else from outside the Scrum team?

While the retro, by default, is for the Scrum team and the Scrum team alone, retros are most useful when you focus on the most important constraint the team is facing. What’s the thing holding us back from maximizing the impact of our work and maximizing the ease and flow in doing the work? And sometimes that biggest constraint is a relationship or process that extends outside the team.

Far too often, we’ve seen teams spend a whole retro talking about, for example, how challenging their interactions with the support team have become, how much the support team is interrupting their work. The predictable outcome of that meeting is “Let’s have another meeting with people from the support team,” basically another, larger, more focused retro. So, if, as a ScrumMaster, you can anticipate that outcome—maybe everyone has been complaining about the support interruptions—just get your team’s permission to use your retro to focus on that issue, and invite the people from the support team to that retro so they can help you solve the problem together.

Not every retro has to be the same. Sometimes, a larger group gives you a chance to talk about larger systems, cross-team relationships, and bigger impact you’re trying to have together. Of course facilitating a larger group is different. We have a module on this in our Facilitating Effective Retrospectives online course which describes several techniques we use when the group gets larger and especially for large, distributed groups. We’ll link to that course in the show notes.


Anytime we invite someone outside of the team to a retrospective, the dynamic of the meeting will change. A healthy team builds a high level of trust and safety over time. Any time you add a new person or group to the meeting, how that impacts that level of  trust is kind of unpredictable. Inviting another team like the support team example Richard mentioned, you may have to deal with an “us versus them” low trust starting point. If you’re inviting someone with management authority, that adds an even more difficult variable, since there may now be a power imbalance among participants.

I remember facilitating a multi-team retrospective for a big new business initiative a few years ago. Several teams were participating, and the executive in charge of that initiative wanted to participate. That exec had been a great sponsor for the project and was someone that I trusted. But as a facilitator, I had no idea what kind of history, power dynamics, and cross-team dynamics would be present in the room. I was also aware that my positive relationship with the VP could make me pretty blind to how the group interacted with them. So, I used something called a Safety Check, which we also describe in the Retrospective Course Richard mentioned.

The way we did the Safety Check  in that retro, which was in-person, was I passed out small squares of paper and pens to all participants, and asked them to rate their personal sense of safety in the meeting from 0-4 and write it on the paper, where 0 meant “I don’t really feel safe talking about anything that happened on this initiative,” and 4 meant “I feel very safe talking about anything and everything that happened on this initiative.” Then people wrote their number down, folded their papers up and I collected them in a basket. I had someone go to a flipchart to tally the responses per number as I read them out and ceremoniously crumpled up and threw away the individual squares to reinforce that this really was an anonymous poll.

This is the photo from the actual retro, where most people were neutral to very safe, but there were three people at a 1, and one person at a 0.

Now, the labels that we used on these, in a slide that we shared to show what each number meant, a one was “dangerous,” and for zero, the label was “treacherous.”  So, if you’re wondering, that’s not a good score as far as safety goes. If everyone is at a 2 or above, everybody is either neutral or feeling pretty safe, we can still make good progress on a retrospective. If there is anyone at a 1 or a 0, that’s a sign that people are not feeling safe– so we are unlikely to be able to dig into any of the tough topics. So, given the score, I passed out index cards to everyone and said something like “Our goal is not to try to guess who is at a lower number and convince them to feel safer. Instead, let’s just accept that as the data. I’d like everyone to write down one suggestion for a decision we could make or an action we could take right now that might increase the level of safety for the overall group.” Then I had them fold the cards and I collected them. I called a ten minute break and read through the cards, and there were multiple cards that said something like “Ask the vice president to leave the room,” or “Reconvene the retrospective at another time when the vice president can’t be there;” so clearly there were some issues of safety with the VP present.

I was pretty surprised, since that vice president had always seemed like a really helpful and supportive presence. But I called the VP over, and asked if they’d be willing to let the teams do the retro on their own. The VP was disappointed but, understood and agreed. I told the VP at the end of the retro I’d have the group decide what they wanted to share out to the full org.  They headed out, we did another check, and the new numbers looked much better, with everyone at a 2 or above.

So, if managers want to attend a retro, even if the manager’s intent is to be helpful, it might be useful to somehow gauge the safety of the other participants, with the manager there. People feel the way they do. We’re not going to change that by pleading or advocating for them to just feel safer. And, the less safe people feel, the less likely they are to bring it up. Use a safety check or something similar to make sure the helpful manager is actually helping.


We’ve talked about who participates in retros and when and how you might include others. Part 3 of our answer is some advice for managers with Agile teams.

As organizations try to empower individuals and teams more, using approaches like Agile software development, managers are often unclear how their role changes. Clearly, if you want to have empowered teams, managers shouldn’t be doing the work or directing the details of the work. But, how do they contribute, especially if they became managers because they were good at doing the work or directing the work. 

We believe it comes down to three jobs: If you’re a manager, your three  jobs are to Create Clarity, Increase Capability, and Improve the System. We talk a lot more about this in our episode on our Three Jobs of Management model and go deep on the model in our Three Jobs of Management workshop, and we’ll link to both of those

So, if you’re a manager, ask your teams to give you feedback from their retros on how you can do the three jobs better to help them. It’s a source of useful  information for you about how you can do your job. You might ask, “Did anything come up in your retro that suggests I can give you more clarity about our vision, customers, strategy, etc.? Anything that suggests a need to grow the team’s capability with more skills or resources? Any system improvements that would benefit from my help?”

And if you’re that manager who wants to get involved in your teams’ retrospectives to try to help them, you can use that intuition as a trigger to ask, “What focus areas in the Three Jobs model should I address so that my inclusion in the retrospective isn’t actually necessary?” Maybe the team needs some more capability on the human side to be able to have challenging conversations. Maybe the facilitator needs specific training on how to deal with those so-called ‘HR issues,’ like the original questioner mentioned. Maybe the team needs more clarity about the impact they exist to create, so they can reason better about what’s constraining that.  Maybe they need a better understanding of the authority they have to change things or what resources they have available.

By using the Three Jobs model in this way, you can level up your team’s ability to have their own retros without you, and produce better outcomes, even than those they might produce with you in the room.


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