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Scrum Guide tells us to inspect people at retrospectives: http://www.scrumguides.org/scrum-guide.html#events-retro

Inspect how the last Sprint went with regards to people, relationships, process, and tools

The purpose of inspection is later adaptation to what was discovered. But regarding people you can not just say: "John was not performing well during this sprint". You will get a lot of excuses instead of something constructive, which is natural for people.

Needless to say that blaming people in front of other people is not psychologically comfortable.

So what does it mean to "inspect people"?

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So what does it mean to "inspect people"?

I have always seen it as asking people how the sprint went for them. Performance is one perspective, but it's a company-centric one not the only one that matters. Performance will determine how this sprint went, but their personal goals will determine how the next sprints will go (worst case scenario: without them because they went to work for a competitor hating your company).

Ask them what the sprint meant to them, how they felt, what they think can be improved that is not tools or processes. Maybe they want A/C? Maybe they don't like the fact that half the team eats their meals at the desk and the room smells like fish soup all day? Maybe they don't like the technology the current project uses? Maybe they are unhappy with the fire drill last week? Maybe they are unhappy that they were not included in the fire drill last week? You will never know what comes up until you ask them and that is the place ant time to do just that.

  • I marked this answer because it helped me to find questions for my teammates. But for everyone who is reading this I highly recommend to read other answer because they bring a lot of interesting insights – Anton Belonovich Mar 5 '18 at 11:57
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The key with retrospectives is to focus on potential improvements, not on problems.

As you rightly say, "John was not performing well during the sprint" is not great language. However, the team might be saying things like:

  • "We noticed that John got blocked on that first story. Is there some training we can give John to help him out in future sprints?"
  • "John is having trouble with bugs in the API code. Should we be considering more test automation in this area?"
  • "We sensed that John was getting frustrated by the Product Owner in this sprint. John, would you like to talk about this, so that we can better understand the source of this frustration?"

If the tone of the meeting is set correctly, John will see this as positive and feel that the team is supporting them.

This emphasises why a retrospective should be a safe environment and why you should not have managers and people from outside the Scrum team present.

  • 1
    I like your examples. The third-person phrasing is odd and if I heard too much of it in a retro, it'd be a red flag for me, but I'm guessing that phrasing is coming from the example in the question more than anything. – Daniel Feb 20 '18 at 22:45
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Sprint retrospectives are more helpful when team members also do a self-inspection. 3 pillars of Scrum are:

  • Transparency
  • Inspection
  • Adaptation

Being true to my Scrum team, I should be open and transparent about my strength and weakness during the past Sprint. One should reflect back on the performance and find ways to improve upon the weak areas. Discussing those in the retrospectives can bring some better ideas from other team members.

Inspecting people would mean discussing the following:

  • Values (such as commitment, focus, openness)
  • Behaviors (for example a personal habit of mine hampers the team productivity)
  • Mood
  • Team culture
  • Individual skillset

The list may include more points which are not mentioned above.

Blaming or criticizing team members during a retrospective meeting would be counter productive and should be avoided. However, as a team which should share a common vision and commitment, people should take feedback positively and extract action item out of it.

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Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

Reference - Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review

Scrum master monitors sprint retrospective meeting, he ensure that the meeting is positive and productive and that everyone contributes with respect to each other.

Everyone should be open and honest to reveal their own weaknesses or fails. With help of the team, everyone should identify ways to fix the failures and avoid those going forward.

Being humans, naturally we don't feel comfortable discussing our failures within a group, so some types of the questions can be discussed personally with scrum master during 1-to-1 meetings.

  • Which question could you ask to facilitate a person to reveal his or her fails? – Anton Belonovich Feb 27 '18 at 5:53
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It's not really meant to inspect people but to inspect the last iteration with regards to people. It's a subtle but significant difference.

The retrospective is one of the tools - probably the most useful - to regularly inspect and adapt the current process application and the current mindset.

But note that the retrospective targets specifically the team and the process, it is not about the product or the iteration outcomes (for that you have the demo review).
So, it's used by teams to deliberately improve, to make a good team a great team.

The discussion shall focus on the team rather than individuals (and not the entire organisation) and shall output a list of actionable improvements of the team as a whole.
The team itself should come out with insights and suggestions. To kick the discussion off, one possibility could be to ask questions such as:

  • was there any event of interest that you want to discuss?
  • did the result met your expectations?
  • what did surprise you?
  • are you happy working with your teammates?
  • how satisfied are you and why?

Make sure to get the opinion of every team member, including the more introvert ones.

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Mildly surprised none of the other Answers have touched on this yet, but...

There are people who exist outside the Scrum Team, too. Consider the following:

  • Alice from Accounting keeps coming by trying to get us to insert new work mid-Sprint. We should take her aside and explain the Scrum process and values to her.
  • Bob, the Scrum Master of Team B, just came back from an Agile seminar and has been raving about new approaches he wants to try. Should we touch base with him to share what he's learned?
  • Our client, Charlie, expressed concerns that we're not going to meet his company's deadline. How can we reassure him?
  • I heard that Diana, from our branch in City D, has been thinking of moving over here. We do need a web designer - should we approach her about joining our Team?

All other Answers about remaining positive and respectful still apply, of course. A person not being in front of you does not give you license to be rude.

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