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Why stakeholders should not be part of a retrospective

As we begin to see the spread of Agile principles across Purdue University, I've noticed an issue crop up where everyone is invited to the retrospective (when the team is following Scrum). An integral part of the continuous improvement process is the retrospective: a ceremony dedicated to reflection and finding ways to enhance team performance. So, let's ask: who should be present during these retrospectives? While the idea of including everyone, from team members to stakeholders, might sound like a step towards transparency, it can present some significant challenges.

1. Inhibited Candidness

One of the foundational elements of a productive retrospective is candidness. Team members need the freedom to express their feelings, raise concerns, and discuss obstacles without any apprehension. This candid conversation can lead to invaluable insights and pave the way for actionable improvements.

However, with stakeholders in the room, team members might become reticent. The presence of external parties can suppress genuine conversations, leading to superficial discussions that skate over the real issues. A retrospective without candidness is, sadly, a missed opportunity for growth. If the supervisor is in the room, this can cause the same problem with the supervisor's "invisible gun." If you can, create a retrospective where it's just the team, the scrum master, and, optionally, the product owner.

2. Diluted Focus

A retrospective aims to address challenges in the team's processes, interactions, and tools. When stakeholders are present, there's a risk that the conversation might drift toward product features, market dynamics, or other business-centric issues. While these topics are undoubtedly vital, they belong in other ceremonies like sprint reviews.

The consequence? A diluted focus, where neither the process nor the product gets the attention they deserve. This muddying of waters can leave teams frustrated and without a clear path forward.

If you can, create a retrospective where it's just the team, the scrum master, and, optionally, the product owner.

3. Time Constraints

Retrospectives are time-boxed, often limited to an hour or so, especially in two-week sprints. This time is precious. Teams need to discuss the good, the bad, and the actionable within this window.

Adding stakeholders to the mix increases the number of voices, potentially leading to longer discussions. When many participants are involved, it becomes challenging to give everyone an opportunity to speak, especially when some voices might dominate the conversation. This constraint can deprive teams of the time they need to delve deep into pressing issues.

4. Potential for Blame

The retrospective is a no-blame zone. It's a place for constructive feedback, not finger-pointing. However, stakeholders, especially those far removed from the day-to-day operations of the team, might not be familiar with this ethos.

There's a tangible risk that stakeholders, out of concern for the product or business, might inadvertently assign blame. This blame culture can erode trust, demotivate team members, and undermine the very essence of Agile, which emphasizes individuals and interactions over processes and tools.


While the idea of including stakeholders in retrospectives emanates from a place of collaboration and openness, it's crucial to weigh the benefits against the potential pitfalls. It might be more productive to keep retrospectives intimate, focusing on the core team, and find alternative avenues to keep stakeholders informed and involved. After all, the retrospective's goal is continuous improvement, and achieving that requires an environment that nurtures open dialogue and trust.

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