Agnostic Agile from the Trenches

Agnostic Agile from the Trenches – 3. Managers and Team Retrospectives

By Shaaron A Alvares & Adrian Lander


Preamble: We believe that everybody can be a leader. Leadership is not a title, nor the prerogative of executives or management only, instead everybody across an organization is a leader, individual team members included. For the purpose of this article, that focuses on roles interaction in agile, we named various roles, team member, manager, leader, but we understand that they all can be leaders.


As I introduced agile or improved agile delivery in various groups in Seattle, I had the opportunity to work with some of the best agile leaders and champions: David Smith and Ashish Suryavanshi at Microsoft, Fernando Cuadra at Expedia, Sally Bauer at BECU, and Thomas McGee at T-Mobile to name a few. They understood agile and its benefits well and lived by the agile values and mindset, which is particularly difficult to do when, as line managers of a large group, they are responsible for their teams’ success and setbacks. They took any opportunity they had to foster the agile mindset, sometimes at the detriment of their relationship capital or at the cost of their career aspiration and stability. These agile leaders shared common traits and common beliefs. As an example, they were very adamant about not inviting managers to attend team retrospectives and if managers crashed retrospectives uninvited, they instructed their scrum masters with the following: “Text my cell phone 911 and the room number where you are and I will come right away”, “Ask them to leave, you have my support”, “let me know if that happens and I will address it”. In some organizations, T-Mobile was one of them, we created a log, confidential to the agile coaching crew only, where we captured manager incidents in order to address these with the appropriate level of support and coaching.

Why is managers attending retrospectives such a big deal in agile? What motivates managers to attend team retrospectives, and what are some of the winning strategies we used in the past to address this difficult situation caused by an important cultural and organizational shift?

Retrospective in agile

Because of the emphasis on continuous improvement and learning, the retrospective is one of the most important events in agile. During retrospectives, the agile delivery team assesses the past sprint; together they dissect their work and processes which can lead to having difficult conversations. They analyze the bottlenecks (these can be themselves) and what they will do differently to get better. They use this forum to talk about team dynamic issues, to air out their “dirty laundry” when needed, which ultimately allows them to grow as a team and strengthen their relationship and team dynamic. Needless to say, how important it is for the team to feel 100% safe during these exercises.

Before we look at why managers don’t attend team retrospectives in agile, let’s make sure we understand what we mean by managers in a traditional set up and what this role entails. Agile managers/leaders will be the topic of another article:

  • A manager generally manages people seen as individual contributors, meaning a group of individuals with or without a common vision, purpose, mission. In agile, managers are understood to support them in reaching their common sprint and product goals and reaching high performance and velocity as a team. A team in agile shares a common vision, culture, goals and fate.
  • Managers are responsible for team members annual performance review, they make recommendations and decisions regarding salary increases, bonuses, rewards, training budget and plan, etc. Most organizations have not yet introduced team based performance reviews and review performance at individual level. Therefore their approach to managing people is individual based, not team based.
  • Managers hold a hierarchical and authoritative role towards individuals, who most often report out to them on status and progress on a weekly, or else, basis during formal one on one. These one on one can be seen as rituals to assert management authority over individual contributors and for this reason some companies, like Boeing, removed these and instead require that individuals or teams schedule meetings Just In Time, as needed.
  • Depending on the organization, managers may or may not be responsible for identifying growth opportunities for their employees – we are moving towards a model where employees are responsible for identifying growth and training opportunities for themselves – training that still need to be approved by managers.
  • Managers are not expected or responsible for training their direct reports – training and coaching are specific competencies better left to internal or external professionals.

2. Why managers are not invited to teams’ retrospectives

It is not just how someone behaves, it is how someone’s presence is perceived and how that perception changes behavior. Adrian Lander


  • Safety is a prerequisite for being able to run effective and productive retrospectives. For this reason, a common activity we do as we set the stage for the retrospectives, is called a Safety Check. It can be done by reviewing the Prime Directive or through various activities. The Prime Directive, although debated, was created by Norm Kerth to help teams define a safe environment for their retrospectives. If a manager attends the retrospective, during the safety check games, team members will most likely not be comfortable sharing whether they truly feel safe or not, because it could be interpreted the wrong way by their manager. Who would volunteer to their manager that they don’t feel safe speaking up or simply being in their presence?
  • With a manager in the room, teams will hold back and even be afraid of speaking and sharing openly genuine feedback about what they can do to get better: it doesn’t foster the right environment for openness, true collaboration, problem solving and innovation. Managers’ presence, reactions to discussions, their feedback, words, and even their body language impact the team dynamics. Instead of focusing on the tasks at hand, the team focuses on mitigating their manager’s reactions.
  • Instead of identifying areas they need to improve, teams focus on the areas that they do well because it is hard to admit what didn’t go well in front of their own manager and take the risk of being seen as under-performing. It may come back to them in the form of a question such as “How did you miss that?” during a one on one meeting.
  • The retrospective turns into a defensive session where team members spend more time explaining and justifying why things didn’t go as planned.
  • Team members wonder why their manager is joining this session and what might have they possibly done wrong for their manager to attend, and the feeling is even worse when they attend unannounced. The same feeling applies to scrum masters who don’t feel empowered or will wonder what happen that justifies a manager’s presence at the team retrospective.

Managers dominate the retrospective

  • Teams don’t speak at all or participate less and managers tend to naturally fill and lead the conversation, because of their dominant leadership role. Managers conclude that there isn’t much efficiency and value in retrospectives, that it is a somewhat a waste of teams’ time and suggest dropping these or spending less time on these and more on development work, especially in an environment where we are at the beginning of our agile journey where team events are not well understood. They end up not understanding or supporting impediments management in agile.
  • Managers will add their comments and point of view, and side track the discussion.
  • We take the risk of making it an accepted practice to have managers attending retrospectives and they start attending even unannounced.
  • In functional organizations, if a manager starts attending team retrospective, other managers, QA, Dev, request to join as well.
  • They take the conversation over because they are used to leading and facilitating conversations and telling people what to do and how to do it.
  • They tend to show control and demonstrate that things are under control, especially when teams identify areas of improvements that are the responsibility of managers, like organizational impediments.
  • They interrupt teams in the middle of brainstorming and conversation to solve problems for them instead of letting them own their thought process and identify the best solutions for themselves.
  • Even if the team has a good rapport with a manager, we need to remember that a team is usually composed of members of various experience. Not all team members may be comfortable and this situation creates division within the team instead of creating unity and team identity. A new team member will go with the flow because they want to fit in and decisions will be made in favor of the manager at the sacrifice of the team identify.

Misalignment with agile values

The reason number one why agile transformations fail is reported to be the culture of an organization being at odds with agile principles. The structures in place are command and control, leading to a lack of trust between employee and generally the lack of true accountability and ownership given to teams. Even if teams are expected to deliver in an agile manner, the structure that has been created around them is repressive and not empowering. Allowing managers to attend a team retrospective encourages an organizational behavior misaligned with the agile mindset and values:

  • When managers attend retrospectives, especially when they are not invited, they override scrum masters mission and positive influence, if they don’t, at times, intimidate or scare the scrum masters. Scrum masters, who are often external contractors, will not feel comfortable telling a manager, generally full-time employees, why they should not attend retrospectives. This creates a lot of confusion in the role of the scrum master and in the level of organizations’ commitment to agile.
  • While the team naturally focuses on their managers’ questions during the retrospective, it alters and undermines the coaching effort of the scrum masters.
  • Scrum masters may feel obligated to document everything that happens during team retrospectives. The only thing that should be artifact-ed as a picture of a whiteboard are the improvements action items that the team decides to take on during the next sprint.
  • Not empowered and disheartened scrum masters become disengaged and leave teams and companies.
  • It denatures the real purpose of the retrospective, which becomes a reporting session, just like the stand ups that turn into a reporting and status session in the presence of managers.
  • Managers may feel encouraged to attend more than just once, which usually happens. Once they have been admitted into the retrospective it is a lot harder to explain to them why they should not attend these sessions.
  • It encourages their command and control belief that that they need to know everything that the team is doing or is sharing among themselves or with the scrum master.
  • Agile purists believe that if managers are entitled to attend team retrospectives, we are no longer being agile, we are maintaining the status quo with the waterfall controlling and often insecure mindset. If differences in hierarchy, authority, status and power influence discussions and outcomes of a retrospective, we can no longer call it an agile team retrospective.

Managers presence at team retrospectives impacts safety, honesty, reflection, improvement, and ultimately the team’s performance.

2. Why do managers want to attend team retrospectives?

Knowing all these negative consequences on teams and culture, it is important to understand the rationale behind managers’ desire to attend team retrospectives. This part is tricky because managers will not share openly and volunteer feelings and behaviors that they may consider vulnerable or embarrassing.

  • In traditional organizations, in opposition to modern agile organizations, managers are expected to be in control and to demonstrate that control across all their sphere of influence, from team to leadership. Most often they don’t understand that this culture is at odds with demonstrating leadership skills in an agile context and that they need to back away to leave the teams self-organize and develop fast and creative decision-making skills. Managers don’t understand how empowering their people not only benefits teams, but benefits themselves and the growth of their companies.
  • Since they have difficulties giving away their power and influence over the team, they recur to strategies such as attending all, and sometimes crashing unannounced, team events, retrospectives included, and influencing these with their directions and conclusions.
  • They feel that they need to compete against the positive influence that the scrum master or agile coach is gaining within the team. They also feel that they need to compete against the knowledge that scrum masters can bring to the organization
  • They use the retrospective as a forum to learn about agile. Retrospectives, and all the agile events, are not a forum for training managers across the organization. Agile events have a defined purpose that needs to be communicated and this purpose not only needs to be respected but also supported and protected by everyone across the organization. Agile events are working sessions for the teams and well-run they deliver great results that benefit products, people and organizations.
  • Managers want to use this forum to observe the interaction between the team members and sometimes between the team and the scrum master. This is a smell and a potentially indecent one. If the team is dysfunctional, the manager should work with the scrum master, because they are the most adequate role to support the team sort through their dynamic issues. If the team agrees to having a manager attend a retrospective, it is recommended to introduce the manager’s participation and designing activities around organizational impediments.

Scrum masters and agile coaches must figure out the real motivations behind why managers want to attend a team retrospective or agile team event and address the problem with leaders before it becomes an organizational and cultural debt that progressively erodes the organization’s commitment to becoming truly agile.

In 2016, at Expedia, as we worked with a new manager (managing a team of 25+ global employees) helping him understand what agile leadership is about, he made the following recommendation (on LinkedIn): “[Shaaron] truly helped me understand the agile mindset and transition from a functional people manager into a lean change agent and lean servant-leader.” How do we do that? How do we support traditional managers in understanding the agile mindset and culture and help them transition smoothly from a commanding management style into an agile and modern leader role?

3. Few strategies to bring managers along

Manager is the most vulnerable role in agile because of the transfer of part of their authority onto self-organizing teams, yet it is the least understood and supported role by companies, agile transformation leaders, or training programs. And this is exactly why managers want to attend retrospectives or any team events; they need to feel relevant and they attempt to demonstrate that they still add value.

Excluding line managers from the retrospectives is not an attempt to impede managers from doing their work, or usurping their authority. Managers still have an important role in agile, and one of them is to create the safety and experimental environment required for their teams to be able to focus on innovation and continuous improvements. Some of the winning strategies we’ve introduced and that delivered great results among managers and teams are:

  • Leadership retrospectives: at Microsoft and at Expedia, we introduced retrospectives with managers and leaders (Directors Product Development) where we presented only the data that the team allowed us to share. It was mostly organizational impediments that required support from managers. We looked at the impediments, leaders prioritized them and volunteered to be accountable to blast through these as fast as possible to help the teams. We also took this opportunity to facilitate activities with the managers to help them understand how gamification and activities help build relationships and collaboration. At Expedia, we set up a Kanban board on the managers’ wall where anybody could see the impediments moving from work in progress to “Done”. Managers were engaged with their own retrospectives and improvement backlog therefore did not think a second about attending teams’ retrospective!
  • Big retrospectives: We scheduled Big retrospectives across groups, enterprise or multiple cross-functional teams where managers and teams together participated in themed activities. These events engaged all levels across the organization, from developers to Sr. Directors and fostered alignment on the agile mindset and the challenges that teams face and need support with.
  • Inspect and adapt events: whether an organization follows team or scaling practices, there are important inspect and adapt events that take place at regular interval of the development. At the program level, in the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) for example, during Inspect and Adapt (I&A) events, program teams pause at the end of a program increment (PI), produce a demo and assess the health of the past release. All program stakeholders, functional managers included, participate with the teams in these Inspect and Adapt workshop. It’s an opportunity for the managers to listen to other teams’ challenges and put their own teams’ challenges into context of a larger program. It’s the opportunity for them to develop a backlog of impediments that they can take accountability for driving to resolution.
  • Manager’s community of practice: We know about scrum masters, product owners, or developer’s communities of practices but we don’t hear about agile manager’s community of practice where managers from the same or other groups meet and share challenges as well as practices to help them transition into an agile leadership role. We introduced these across multiple groups and asked managers to share their findings, new readings, and aha moments with their teams. We then asked these managers to champion the agile mindset across the larger organization.
  • Coaching Practice: Having a structured approach and program to include all managers is important because if we focus on one or a few management trouble makers, they may feel like we are finger pointing at them and will resist the role change even more. Instead we must introduce a structured coaching practice dedicated to bringing all managers along. The manager’s community of practice, mentioned above, can be rolled out as part of the broader coaching practice. The coaching practices we designed and rolled out in the past included agile training, one on one support and coaching, coaching practice library including coaching techniques, articles, shared success stories, presentations, Managers Lean Coffee, etc. We then enlisted agile champion managers to help engage and support other managers.


  • Growing the manager/ scrum master relationship:

As Sally Bauer reminded us: Sometimes controlling behaviors arise out of a lack of trust between the manager and the scrum master.  When that occurs, trust needs to be built or rebuilt through Transparency, Reliability, Competence and Genuine Caring:

  • Transparency – both parties need to know that the other is not hiding anything from the other.
  • Reliability – both parties need to know that the other will always do what they say they will do.
  • Competence – both parties need to know the other is capable of doing what they say they will do.
  • Genuine Caring – both parties need to know that the other genuinely cares about the other, as a person and professionally.


  • Agnostic Agile approach to success:

To manage a system effectively, you might focus on the interactions of the parts rather than their behavior taken separately. Russel L. Ackoff

Most organizations focus on introducing or on improving agile delivery (only) using one framework (only), generally the most commonly known, Scrum. I see three major issues in this approach.

  • First, it focuses only on delivery and separates it from the complexity of organizational systems thinking capabilities.
  • Second, it limits problem solving, continuous improvements and innovation to a limited set of practices prescribed by a single framework or school, generally excluding other practices that can prove extremely valuable to solve the problem at hands and that can work in synergy.
  • Third, considering the complexity of today’s organizational operating models, it seems critical to develop a holistic approach to agile transformation, including methodologies, frameworks , philosophies, schools of thought and practices not necessarily related to agile but that can dramatically contribute to driving greater levels of agility. These practices are people-centric change, lean change management, modern leadership, management coaching, gamification, systems thinking, organizational development, where roles and responsibilities are thoughtfully integrated in the transformation journey, etc. Adopting an agnostic agile approach to agile transformation and delivery ensures that we put the best interest of the people first rather than promoting a single school and its trend, excluding the others.

Closing remarks

If the manager role in organizations defines and decides whether managers can attend retrospectives (invited or not, announced or unannounced), we are probably no longer being agile and these team events should no longer be called retrospectives but just another manager led meeting. Scrum masters and teams must be empowered to make these recommendations to management and managers – servant-leaders must support them and must use these uncomfortable situations to prove their commitment to driving their people towards a modern agile culture of innovation.

During retrospectives, teams figure out complex technical and process problems together and managers should encourage that. If they don’t encourage this safe expression of challenges and problem solving, they potentially impede and block improvement and continuous learning within their group and their organization. Well run retrospectives are a real opportunity to leverage the team’s collective intelligence and find innovative ways to solving problems that can benefit other teams and progressively other groups and the enterprise.

Managers who are too deep in the weeds and not thinking strategically are most likely to fail their people in the digital and agile era we live in because we are shifting decision making onto teams and because the new generations of knowledge workers are coming with decision making will baked in their DNA. As teams progressively take some of the prerogatives that used to belong to managers, managers must adapt and shift their focus onto organizational strategy and lean change management. Their role is to make sure that the teams deliver value timely and help them grow, not to impede them.


If you enjoyed reading this article and would like to learn more about lean agile practices and training for managers, please reach out to Shaaron A Alvares, Adrian Lander, Sam Zawadi, or email us at

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