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Using Catharsis and the Silent Sprint Retrospective

June 6, 2023


Silent Retrospective

The Scrum framework has transformed how teams approach complex work by creating an environment where teams use structured collaboration to deliver value sooner and focus on continuous improvement.  The framework’s Sprint Retrospective event serves as a pivotal moment for teams to reflect on their progress, identify areas for improvement and plan for enhanced productivity in future sprints. While this meeting typically focuses on analytical discussions and actionable insights, there is a hidden potential that often remains untapped—the power of catharsis. In this article, we explore the concept of catharsis and how its intentional, occasional integration into the Sprint Retrospective can foster emotional release, team bonding and ultimately drive higher team performance. We’ll also look at a practice that supports catharsis called the silent retrospective.

Understanding catharsis

Catharsis, rooted in ancient Greek drama, refers to purging or cleansing emotions through dramatic expression. It offers a psychological release, relieving individuals of pent-up emotions and tensions.  On agile teams, catharsis allows team members to openly express their thoughts, frustrations, and concerns in a safe and supportive environment. By embracing catharsis during the Sprint Retrospective, teams can unlock insights and unspoken sentiments that can significantly impact their collective growth and effectiveness.

Creating a safe space

To facilitate catharsis during the Sprint Retrospective, it is vital to establish a safe and non-judgmental space where team members feel comfortable expressing themselves authentically. The Scrum Master is crucial in setting the tone for open communication and ensuring confidentiality. Encouraging vulnerability and active listening among team members cultivates trust, fostering genuine emotional release and creating a stronger foundation for collaboration.

Expressing frustrations and celebrating successes

During the cathartic phase of the Sprint Retrospective, team members share their frustrations, challenges, and disappointments from the previous Sprint. This open dialogue allows for a collective venting of emotions, enabling individuals to release built-up tensions. By acknowledging and addressing these frustrations, teams can identify underlying causes, implement necessary improvements, and prevent recurring issues.

Equally important is the recognition and celebration of successes. Taking the time to acknowledge achievements and milestones reached during the Sprint nurtures a positive emotional release. Expressing gratitude and highlighting individual and team accomplishments boosts morale and strengthens the bond among team members, reinforcing their shared commitment to excellence.

Supporting emotional intelligence and empathy

Integrating catharsis into the Sprint Retrospective enhances emotional intelligence and empathy within the team. By openly expressing emotions and listening to others, team members gain a deeper understanding of their colleagues' perspectives as well as their own. This increased emotional awareness enables more effective communication, empathy-driven problem-solving, and stronger camaraderie. Through catharsis, individuals become more attuned to the emotional well-being of their teammates, fostering a supportive and collaborative environment that transcends the boundaries of the Sprint Retrospective.

A cathartic experience: the silent retrospective

Michelle Brud, a leading executive agile coach, recently spearheaded a unique approach by facilitating a silent retrospective. This innovative session aimed to enhance the team’s adoption of the 5 Scrum values.  By delving into the questions posed during this silent retrospective, we can explore the transformative power of catharsis to help teams move forward positively and improve their collaborative dynamics.

The silent retrospective experience

Michelle Brud's silent retrospective challenged the Sprint Retrospective event’s conventional, verbal, analytical format by encouraging team members to express themselves around more “soft” questions (such as, “How do we encourage thought diversity”) using a shared electronic whiteboard—in this case, Mural. Participants shared their thoughts by writing them down on sticky notes and posting them on the board.  Participants had access to the shared electronic whiteboard in real-time so that everyone could see the sticky notes and content posted by every other participant as it happened.

This process encourages participants to delve deeper into their thoughts and reflect on what they most want to convey. Unlike traditional verbal communication, which often relies on immediate responses, writing allows individuals to craft their messages carefully, selecting their words thoughtfully and considering the impact they wish to have.

Moreover, embracing written feedback provides a valuable platform for individuals who may be more introverted or hesitant to express themselves verbally. It creates a safe and inclusive environment where these individuals can contribute their perspectives without the pressure of speaking up in a group setting. This approach ensures that all team members have an equal opportunity to engage and share their insights, fostering a more diverse range of ideas and viewpoints.

Michelle Brud's silent retrospective challenged the typical format of a Sprint Retrospective event. Team members could share their thoughts on “soft” questions without voicing them, encouraging thought diversity. This unique approach offered a fresh perspective, promoting thoughtful responses and deeper reflection.

Furthermore, the real-time visibility of team members' comments on the shared whiteboard facilitated dynamic interaction. Participants could respond to each other's thoughts, build upon ideas, and engage in meaningful discussions. This collaborative process fostered a sense of collective ownership and encouraged the team to work together towards finding innovative solutions.

It is important to note that the purpose of this exercise was not simply to vent frustrations but to create a focused opportunity for the Scrum Team to express their thoughts constructively. By providing a structured platform for feedback and reflection, this approach enabled the team to identify areas for improvement and find effective ways to enhance their collaboration, ultimately driving their collective success.

The questions 

During the silent retrospective, Michelle posed several thought-provoking questions about key aspects of the 5 Scrum values and team dynamics. These questions served as catalysts for reflection and self-expression. Some of the questions were:

  • Provide an overview of the five Scrum values.
  • How do you interpret the Scrum Guide and gain agreement on a stance?
  • How much attention have you paid to the Agile Manifesto?
  • Based on your sentiment, please describe your experience as candidly and respectfully as possible regarding the team gaining alignment on issues and resolving them together.
  • How might we encourage thought diversity, ideas, and engagement?
  • What is missing for you, and what is the impact on you or how you get work done as a team?
The Transformative Outcome

The silent retrospective guided the Scrum Team on a transformative journey, allowing for catharsis and emotional release. Team members reported moments of revelation which helped them understand the impact that their actions and statements were having on other team members.  Others requested additional coaching as a result of the activity.  And others reported feeling heard and validated.  

Driving continuous improvement

Catharsis is a catalyst for the growth and continuous improvement of agile teams. Allowing team members to express their emotions freely unlocks valuable insights and unspoken concerns that might have hindered progress. This emotional release fuels innovation and creativity, as individuals feel empowered to propose new ideas without fear of judgment. The cathartic experience creates a fertile ground for brainstorming, problem-solving, and generating fresh perspectives, ultimately leading to more effective action plans for future Sprints.

Moving Forward

Michelle Brud's silent retrospective illustrates how integrating catharsis can elevate the Sprint Retrospective’s effectiveness. This approach focuses on self-reflection and collaboration, enabling the team to address challenges, improve work dynamics, and forge a path toward continuous growth. Embracing catharsis in retrospectives can help realize the full potential of agile teams, propelling them towards heightened productivity, innovation, and success.



Scrum Day Madison 2023

Interested in learning more about to improve the success of your Scrum team?  Signup for the upcoming Scrum Day conference scheduled for September 14, 2023, at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wisconsin.  The theme for this year's event is 'Scrum is a team sport'.

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