Blame-proofing retrospectives

Recently someone asked how to avoid the blame game in retrospectives.

Here are three things you can do.

1) Establish working agreements (sometimes called “ground rules”) at the beginning of the retrospective. These are contracts the group members make with each other about how they’ll interact and work together during the retrospective. Some examples of Working agreements that I’ve seen groups use to stay out of blame are:

  • Use “I” language rather than “you” language when describing issues (e.g., “I was upset when the build broke” rather than “You broke the build!”)
  • No personal attacks
  • Focus on the problem, not on personalities

  • Everyone in the group has responsibility to monitor working agreements, not just the retrospective leader.

    2) Call behavior that violates working agreements. There’s no sense having working agreements if the group ignores them. So if someone violates a working agreement, call them on it. Don’t blame them, just call attention to the behavior. So when John says “If Henry hadn’t been such a big baby we wouldn’t be in this mess,” say something like, “Hey, John, that sounded like a personal attack.” 90% of the time, John will rephrase with out further prompting.

    3) Don’t leave an opening for blame. Use activities that give people a structured and constructive way to discuss issues and problems. Free-for-all discussions are much more likely to devolve into blame (or otherwise get off track), and that doesn’t help anyone.

    Blame erodes trust and groups need to have some level of professional trust to really face and solve problems. There’s lots of other things you can do, and these are a good start.

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