The Scrum approach to agile software development marks a dramatic departure from waterfall management. Scrum and other agile methods were inspired by its shortcomings. Scrum emphasizes collaboration, functioning software, team self management, and the flexibility to adapt to emerging business realities.

Should Scrum Always Require the Product Owner to Attend the Sprint Retrospective Meeting?

Submitted by admin on Tue, 02/05/2013 - 01:38

[Editor's note: this is a guest post from Michael James, not the owner of this blog.  The owner of this blog does not necessarily agree with any or all of the content herein.]


I've been talking with some Scrum trainers who've been working on a new definition of Scrum.  While Scrum already has a few simple non-prescriptive rules, the trainers are falling into the trap of converting their usual preferences into overly prescriptive rules.  For example, it is often beneficial for the team to include the Product Owner in the Sprint Retrospective Meeting.  There are also several circumstances (particularly when we're first switching from traditional command management to Scrum) where this might not be the best thing to do.  After nearly 100 posts in the discussion, one esteemed fellow stated the root misconception:

All the objections that have been brought up seem to me to be trying to work around the rather obvious impediment of someone acting badly.

No, that's not it at all.  I agree if the Product Owner (or anyone) is being a jerk, this is an obvious thing for the Scrum Master (and others) to fix.  My concern is something much less obvious, and (in my experience) more powerful.  As I've written it out below, I realize it's also more complicated to explain than I first thought.

  1. It is normal human nature to overestimate what we are able to perceive about a situation.  We never grasp the full extent of this because we lie to ourselves about the fact we lie to ourselves.
  2. As Keith Johnstone (the father of theater improv) also observes, there are no status-free transactions among humans.  None.  (By the way, learning theater improv is an exciting way to learn how true collaboration really works.)
  3. 99.9% of organizations designate material power to some individuals over others.  I'll call them "bosses" and "subordinates" instead of the various euphemisms.  While most bosses don't enjoy this, they are burdened with deciding which subordinates will be retained in the event of a layoff, which subordinates get promoted, who gets to work on the new sexy projects vs. maintaining the turkeys, etc.  (Some bosses tell me they really hate doing performance appraisals.)  The 0.1% exceptions (maybe Valve?) are probably past the point they need Scrum rules anyway.
  4. The people with the vision, authority, business acumen, and maturity to be good Product Owners are also often burdened by the organization with some boss responsibilities.
  5. It is human nature to assume others are feeling the way we are.  For example, once before I ran a retrospective, a team member told me it was not necessary to waste time on a safety check because they were all very comfortable with each other.  I did one anyway (anonymously, using a hat), which revealed some team members felt quite unsafe.  Confident people overestimate the comfort of others.
  6. Combine all the above and you get the "invisible gun effect."  THE INVISIBLE GUN EFFECT HAPPENS EVEN WITH THE NICEST BOSS IN THE WORLD.  It's not caused by the boss's actual actions, it's caused by the way subordinate behavior is naturally distorted around bosses.  It's normal human nature, not something Scrum Masters can "fix" any more than they can fix gravity.  It's most visible to the lower-status people (which might include newhires, people with less impressive job titles, etc.), less visible to higher-status people (perhaps including senior developers, socially confident people, people with better technical skills than social perception skills, and Scrum consultants), and practically invisible to bosses who haven't done an A/B test yet.  Nearly everyone in the discussion had reduced awareness of the invisible gun effect due to spending the past few years in relatively high-status occupations: trainers, expert consultants, senior developers, Product Owners, business owners, authors, etc.  The fact that all 104 messages in the thread were written by men might also suggest some blind spots.
  7. There is also what my wife calls the "chirping bird effect."  I once read that when a male bird is around, a female bird will feign incompetence at something she'd normally be able to do.  My wife brought this up when I asked her how she was able to solve a problem with her computer -- something she'd been bugging me to fix -- while I was on a business trip.  This effect is gender neutral: when she's gone I have no problem with things I seem less able to do unassisted when she's home, such as finding my car keys or preparing food for our kids.  In class we sometimes get groups that keep asking the trainer for more detailed instructions, or help manage another team member.  That's often a good time for the trainer to leave the room!  We can talk about self organization until we're blue in the face, and they won't really get it until we leave them alone -- temporarily -- to let them do it.  I heard a story of one Scrum coach taking a nap under the table to get a team to step up more, and of Ken Schwaber standing outside the door of the team room during a Daily Scrum.  I've seen teams have breakthroughs in self management when the person traditionally responsible for managing them left the room.  I am inspired by the breakthroughs Scrum led to, especially among the lower status team members who aren't well represented in this discussion.  Team expecting micromanagement?  Try management by leaving the room -- temporarily.  Of course we always hold the team accountable at the Sprint Review Meeting.
  8. Facilitators need to learn that when safety is low, smaller breakout groups often work better.  For example I've noticed some people in Finland aren't inclined to talk in front of a larger group (especially in English), but liven up in small groups.  Once they've discussed some things in their small groups they're more comfortable sharing with the larger group.  The paradox here is that appropriate and temporary boundaries can actually increase transparency.

It seems inevitable that the new Scrum definition will include a rule requiring the Product Owner to attend the Sprint Retrospective, and maybe this will turn out to be a good thing on balance.  The new definition should warn about the downsides of requiring the Product Owner in all circumstances, and offer suggestions to mitigate them.  For example, it should mention safety check procedures and breakout groups.





To learn more about invisible guns and safety checks, see the free Sprint Retrospective Meeting e-learning module:

Invisible Gun in the Sprint Retrospective Meeting



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