The “Blame” Retrospective

(wait for it…)

In my opinion, the most important feedback loop that we can provide for our teams is the opportunity to retrospect often. Similarly, when we are frequently retrospecting it is important to not allow those retrospectives to fall into the “rut” category. I attempt to do this by constantly varying the format of our retrospectives (over 47 iterations, I think we’ve only had two instances where we repeated a format).

Recently, my teams had been through a somewhat contentious sprint. No chairs had been thrown (not even by myself) but there was definitely an air of confrontation and frustration, mostly centered around bottlenecks and queue wait times and accusations of “not following the process”. It was an interesting time on the team to say the least.

So I facilitated I retrospective which I entitled “Blame”.

From the moment the title slide made its appearance, the murmur in the room was “finally I get to tell those jokers how I feel about what they did that was such a problem” and “oh excellent, The Blame Game”. Dear reader, they were in for surprise!

I further continued the ruse on the introductory slide, where I included a quote from a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss Show:

“The only way serious problems are going to get solved is if we have very uncomfortable conversations …. and right now people are too afraid of being labeled or called out to have these conversations.”

Murmur….”Yep…finally I’m going to get to have that conversation…”

And of course the Prime Directive:

Regardless of what we discover, we understand and fully believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

Murmur…”yeah yeah, whatever…” :)

Talk about an energizer! But even though there was some buzz in the room already, I had already drawn the thermometer for a Temperature Reading activity that would get the team up and moving a bit:

After a few minutes of discussion around the “why’s” for some of the outliers, we moved on to an introduction to the day’s activity. I started with a wonderful video in which Brené Brown discusses the tendency to blame:

If you’ve watched it, you can probably guess that the faces in the room started to change as they realized that maybe, just maybe, they weren’t going to get to blame their team mates.

The next video was about empathy, the important counter-point to blame and a great video alongside the Prime Directive. It’s both hilarious and very helpful:

OK. Now they were really starting to catch on. Something’s up here…

On to the next slide and a description of the activity, which was called If I Were You: What could sub-groups improve when interacting with others?

In this activity, we first made sure that everyone understood the guidelines and the various groups involved: developers, database folks (also developers, but this group is shared among the feature area teams), qa, and business analysts/product owners. Then each person individually recalls and writes down actions their group took (or failed to take) that negatively impacted another group.

Now they got it…it’s not “The Blame Game” it’s actually “The Reverse Blame Game”!

After a ten minutes or so of individual writing, I invited volunteers to share what they had written, and for a member of the affected group to rate the impact of that item on their group.

It was amazing to see the engagement that resulted as people had these difficult conversations. Even more amazing were the times when two groups recognized that there were mutual & opposite “bad actions” that affected the other team.

Most “bad actions” are the result of a lack of “shared abstractions” (I stole that from Amitai Schleier), and that’s a two-way street: it’s as much my responsibility to ensure that you understand my process as it is for you to understand that process. If not, then communication hasn’t actually occurred. Our action item from this revelation was that we needed to be cognizant of communicating early and often and ensuring common understanding had taken place.

Here are a few of the self-blame stickies. The leftmost two in the top row illustrate the two-way street:

Having experienced this activity and the debriefs that followed, I think everyone has more fully embraced the Prime Directive. Positive engagement has greatly increased. We’ve started opening the doors on team rooms (doors which were previously closed almost all of the time). Suddenly the three floors and elevator that separates our teams is no longer a barrier.

One of the teams even self-organized an “Emotional Investment” contest wherein they would track positive interactions with members of other teams.

Another team began to track their individual “moods” on a Temperature Reading chart. They came to the realization that by advertising this and knowing where their team mates were mentally, they could better interact with each other.

I had planned to end with My Team is Awesome, but unfortunately we ran out of time. And, honestly, the discussions among the groups led to this realization anyway.

So, if your teams are experiencing contentions or lack of common understandings, give this retrospective a try and let me know how it goes!




Entrepreneur, agile coach, and software artisan. We believe that every one, every where, is filled with potential.

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Craig Eddy

Craig Eddy

Entrepreneur, agile coach, and software artisan. We believe that every one, every where, is filled with potential.

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