Improve Together, Continuous Improvement Community
Discover Improve Together, the Slack community dedicated to continuous improvement.
Join our Slack
< Back to Neatro's Blog

What's the Role of the Manager in Sprint Retrospectives?

Manager in Retros

Conducting Agile retrospectives with your team helps establish a culture of continuous improvement within the group.

By following a strong principle of self-organization, the team retraces the events of the last Sprint or project and inspects what worked well… and what didn't work too well. Then the group decides on the areas it wishes to improve upon by collectively constructing an action plan. This action plan materializes the tasks needed to be accomplished to achieve greater efficiency.

However, a burning question comes up regularly on forums and virtual communities dedicated to Agility: are managers welcome in Sprint retrospectives?

Are you part of a team, and your manager asks you to make room for them for the next retro? Do you feel confused by this request and want to gather valuable advice to fuel your thinking? Then, you are in the right place!

Oppositely, you are a team manager and wonder if you would do well to participate in their next retro? Make yourself comfortable; this blog post is also for you.

Here, we will not fall into any extremist or dogmatic position. Instead, in this article, I'll do my best to provide you with a tangible and reasoned answer on the manager's participation in a team retrospective.

In this article, we will review the following questions:

  1. What is a retrospective for?

  2. Why would the manager want to participate in retrospectives?

  3. What does the Scrum guide say about involving managers in retros?

  4. What's wrong with the manager's involvement?

  5. Are there special cases or exceptions?

  6. How to meet the manager's needs without integrating them into our retrospectives?

What is the purpose of a retrospective?

Indeed. It would seem counterproductive to me to tackle the question of the manager's participation in a retrospective without remembering why teams conduct retrospectives.

The retrospective, whether attached to a Sprint or a project, is a team meeting intended to help the group learn from this experience and tackle the next initiative more effectively.

'A retrospective is a chance for a team to reflect and learn from the past within a structured meeting. The main aim is to inspect the situation and adapt to the reality.'

- Aino Vonge Corry, Retrospectives Antipatterns

But be careful. It's not just about doing a retrospective once every semester - you can't expect to improve sustainably by doing this. Instead, the retrospective is a tool to support your culture of continuous improvement, so it should be conducted frequently to help the team continually gain efficiency.

The Agile Manifesto also emphasizes the idea that retrospectives should be run frequently:

'At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.'

- Manifesto for Agile Software Development

In a nutshell, the purpose of the retrospective is to help the team continually improve.

I invite the most curious among you to consult our Introduction to the Agile Retrospective for a much more complete definition of this team event.

Why would the manager want to participate in retrospectives?

Thanks to Neatro, I have the chance to discuss retrospective best practices & challenges with many Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches… and even managers.

My experience and my research on the subject have allowed me to identify several reasons that could motivate a manager to participate in a Sprint retrospective:

  • The manager wants to better understand how the team works,

  • The manager wants to create a stronger bond between them and the team,

  • The manager wants to suggest ways to improve the functioning of the team (because their experience will save time for the group by focusing on the right things),

  • The manager wishes to take time to highlight and celebrate the successes of the team,

  • The manager is curious and just desires to know how a team retrospective works.

Of course, all of these ideas seem well-intentioned.

After all, a manager generally views themself as a servant leader, so why deny participation in a team event designed to help the team grow?

What does the Scrum guide say?

It looks impossible to talk about a Sprint retrospective without relying on the content of the Scrum Guide, right? ;)

The Scrum Guide simply indicates that 'the Scrum Team' participates in the Sprint retrospective.

'The Scrum Team consists of one Scrum Master, one Product Owner, and Developers. Within a Scrum Team, there are no sub-teams or hierarchies.'

- Scrum Guide, 2020 edition

According to this definition of the Scrum Team, the manager should not participate in Sprint retrospectives.

Consequently, we can draw a first answer exclusively based on the Scrum Guide - and therefore 100% theoretical. The manager has no place in Sprint retrospectives.

That's a wrap! See you soon for new studies on the Neatro blog! 👋

...

Okay. If you're still around, I take it you've learned that the theoretical framework offered by Scrum can sometimes clash harshly with the company's reality.

Let's try to see more clearly why the manager's presence in retrospectives can really be a problem.

What's wrong with the presence of a manager?

We can summarize the blocking points dealing with the manager's presence at the retrospective in two concrete facts.

Fact #1: the team is self-organizing

As we mentioned in the Introduction, a Scrum team is basically self-organizing. The team must have the autonomy and the resources to carry out its work and provide continuous value.

But the self-organization of the group does not stop at the value delivered. It also applies to how the team will support its inspection and adaptation work to aim for greater efficiency.

We see a first obvious argument: how can the team improve on its own if the manager decides what to do?

Can we sincerely believe that trust prevails between the manager and the team in this case?

Fact #2: the level of psychological safety can be significantly affected

At Neatro, we firmly believe that the best retrospectives are a question of honesty and transparency.

The most open and genuine conversations are the best drivers of retrospectives. When you feel confident in the group, you can open up authentically - without fear of any kind. This is where the concept of psychological safety comes in.

Do you wonder why the presence of a manager could threaten the group's psychological security? Let's think about that for a moment.

Imagine that you are a member of a team. Your manager has the authority (and responsibility!) to conduct your annual performance review, which will happen a few weeks from now. This could mean you're about to get a potential promotion or a raise. Last but not least, your manager also has the power to fire a team member (directly or indirectly).

Let's assume that you don't always get along very well with your manager.

It's time for the Sprint retrospective, and your manager is there. You have suggestions for improvement for the team, and your manager ostensibly disagrees with you. Are you really going to try to defend your point of view - at the risk of placing yourself in a compromising situation with your superior?

'If you can hire or fire, stay out of the team's retrospective.'

- Aino Vonge Corry, Retrospectives Antipatterns

The psychological safety of the team is an extremely serious matter. If you are a manager willing to help your team improve, then you must understand that your presence at a retrospective can prevent members from expressing themselves freely.

It has nothing to do with who you are as a person; it's just about the hierarchical ascendancy you have on the team. Yup. As simple as it looks.

Are there special cases or exceptions?

We have seen that the manager's participation in a Sprint retrospective can threaten the team's ability to express itself authentically. It can also have an impact on the team's self-organizing principle.

Now let's look at the questions that might persist (both from the manager's and the team's perspectives).

As a manager, I simply want to position myself as an observer of the retrospective. I don't want to influence anything!

We have previously detailed how the manager's presence can affect the team's psychological safety level.

Whether a manager participates in the activity or positions themselves as a 'neutral' observer does not change anything.

As a manager, I agree not to participate in retrospectives. But I want to have a full report of the discussions that took place there.

By positioning themselves as a servant leader, the manager makes every effort to put the team in the best conditions that will allow it to perform and thrive.

The retrospective must remain a safe space for conversation reserved exclusively for the team. If the members know that the manager will have access to everything that has been said, then the level of psychological security will be mortally threatened.

And without psychological safety... there is no point in hoping that fruitful discussions will emerge from your retrospectives.

As a manager, you shouldn't request a full retrospective report. On the other hand, the team must communicate transparently and rigorously on the action plan built to support its continuous improvement. Note that this action plan must be visible to the entire organization.

The team wishes to have our manager present at the next retrospective. As a Scrum Master, what should I do?

A good relationship between the manager and the team members is a necessary ingredient for the success of the group.

Let's say the team comes up with the idea that the manager's presence at the next retrospective might help them be more effective.

For example, the team identifies a tension with a stakeholder. Team members believe the manager could use their influence to appease the conflict and restore a healthy and peaceful collaboration between the team and this stakeholder.

In this case, it seems evident that the manager's presence is necessary since it is motivated by the team's honest and sincere will.

Don't fall for a dogmatic approach to the Scrum Guide or any other framework: if the team members really want to invite their manager to the next retrospective, they obviously should be able to do so. Moreover, the same would apply to inviting anyone else outside the team (a stakeholder, for instance).

A word of advice: make sure that each team member fully agrees to invite the manager. Indeed, all it would take is one person not feeling comfortable welcoming the manager into the session to reconsider the matter entirely. Using a way to collect reviews anonymously can help you know if the whole team agrees with the manager's attendance at the next retrospective.

I am both a manager AND a team member (example: manager and developer). Can I participate in team retrospectives?

Unfortunately, there is no right answer to this question. However, combining the responsibilities of both a manager and a team member into a single person seems extremely counterproductive by default.

This case, however, is far from being exceptional. For example, many so-called Scrum teams welcome a manager + Scrum team member at some point. However, this situation ultimately becomes a conflict against the principle of non-hierarchy expected within a Scrum team.

The problem here seems to me to be much larger. As a manager and team member at the same time, how can you ensure that the team is comfortable enough to open up and discuss sensitive topics in your presence?

Of course, the ideal would be to review your role and responsibilities in the team. A discussion with your human resources department on this subject would be interesting, by the way.

But let's get back to the question of your presence in the retrospectives: I suggest that you start a dialogue with the team. As seen in the previous question, using an anonymous voting tool to check if your attendance at retrospectives is acceptable to the team may seem appropriate.

How to meet the manager's needs without integrating them into our retrospectives?

If you operate with Scrum, there is another event that helps strengthen collaboration between stakeholders and the Scrum team: I am talking about the Sprint Review.

In a Sprint Review, people can bring any discussion around the deliverable or the team's objectives.

To provide a more general answer, do not hesitate to trigger ad-hoc meetings between the manager and the team to clarify any subject.

Does the manager want to take time to highlight the team's successes? Then take the opportunity to launch a team event to celebrate!

Does the manager want to create a stronger bond with the team? Launching a team retreat for a few days in the forest or mountains may be interesting.

Remember that an effective and trust-based collaboration must occur between the manager and the team. The fact that the manager does not participate in the retrospectives must not affect this relationship.

In the end, it's all about psychological safety...

We'll never say it enough: without psychological security, there can be no successful team.

Asking about the impact of the manager's presence in a team retrospective shows that YOU have a sensitivity for the psychological safety of the group.

At Neatro, we have built a retrospective experience that elevates the level of psychological safety of teams to the best we can.

Here are two of our key ingredients:

  • We avoid groupthink at all costs: when participants write comments and suggest ideas, they do so individually first. Thus, no one can be influenced by other team members. The same logic applies during the dot-voting stage, where team members vote individually and prioritize the most important topics.

  • We authorize anonymity: it is sometimes difficult to raise a delicate point. Yet the team must be able to feel free to do so - without fear. That's why we offer every participant the opportunity to share ideas anonymously.

The best way to judge the Neatro experience is to test it ;)

So don't hesitate to try Neatro for free - you don't even need to provide any credit card information.

We wish you excellent retrospectives!

Discover Neatro's retrospective templates