How To Run Anonymous Retrospectives

Jamie Hanratty, Founder
February 3, 2023

Helping people speak out in a retrospective

It can be difficult for individuals to speak out about problems in a team retrospective. This might be because some people are too shy or others might be too bossy. There could also be a fear of retribution or being singled out.

To encourage honest and open participation, you can try running an anonymous retrospective where names and identities are hidden so feedback cannot be tied to anyone. As a bonus, this also helps negate the effect of decision making biases like group-think or HIPPOs (Highest Paid Person's Opinion).

While this sounds great, there are pros and cons to making a retrospective anonymous. We've covered these below, along with a guide on how to run an anonymous retro in Metro Retro.

Running an anonymous retrospective

Before you start, here's a few guidelines for structuring an anonymous retrospective:

  1. Check in with the team - is everyone happy to participate anonymously?
  2. Establish ground rules - no personal attacks.
  3. Don't just complain - continue to follow the retrospective process as usual.
  4. Use sparingly - do not rely on anonymity for every retro as it may hinder the team dynamics.

It can be difficult to make an in-person retrospective truly anonymous, but there are a couple of things you can do:

  • Collect information via anonymous survey before the retro
  • Have everyone write their sticky notes in uppercase
  • Mix the sticky notes into a pile and present them back to the team

It is easier to use a retrospective tool with anonymity built-in, so you can focus on the goals of the session.

Using Metro Retro for an anonymous retrospective

All retrospectives in Metro Retro can be run anonymously. When Anonymous mode is activated on your retro board:

  • you can’t tell who is who - all names and avatars are hidden
  • you can’t tell who wrote each sticky note
  • votes are made anonymously

To use Anonymous mode:

  1. Setup up your board using one of the 50+ retrospective templates.
  2. Share the board link with your team.
  3. Start a 'Meeting' and turn Anonymous mode on.
Turn on Anonymous mode in the meeting controls

The technical bit

Your team may question whether the retro tool you're using is actually anonymous, and there is no way to tie what they say back to them.

In regular mode, Metro Retro tracks who wrote each sticky note and what each person voted on. This information is sent back to the server and shared in real-time with the other users.

However, in Anonymous mode, this data is never sent back to the server, so anything written or voted on during anonymous mode stays that way, forever. Nothing can ever be tied back to an individual. Only the person writing the sticky note will see it is theirs, and even that is deleted from the browser's local storage once they close the session.

Watch - enable Anonymous mode to give your participants anonymous avatars:

Tips for running an anonymous retrospective

Follow these tips to ensure your retro goes as planned and the team understand their responsibilities.

1. Check-in first

If you’re thinking of using anonymous mode in your retro, there’s probably a good reason. Start by using a check-in activity to ask people how open and comfortable they’re feeling about sharing their opinion: 

"On a scale of 1 to 10 how comfortable are we to express ourselves, 1 being least comfortable and 10 being most comfortable?"

You can then ask the team if they feel an anonymous retrospective would help them.

2. Establish Guidelines

The facilitator must ensure that all team members feel safe and respected. Establish clear guidelines at the start of the retrospective. Make it clear that anonymous contributions should be respectful and constructive, and not used to attack or criticize individual team members. For example, you could say something like:

"We're here to attack the process, not the people."

If you see anonymous contributions used in the wrong way, address it directly. You can say something like:

"I'm noticing that some contributions are being used to criticize specific team members. Can we please refrain from this and focus on constructive feedback instead?"

3. Use Sparingly

Generally, it's important to use anonymous contributions sparingly and for a good reason. If anonymity is misused or is not helping to improve team dynamics, it may be best to refrain from using it. It will only harm your team's collective feeling of psychological safety.

We suggest experimenting with anonymous retrospectives once or twice. You should rely less on anonymous mode as your team grows in maturity together.

Free retrospective templates

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