A better future with solution focused retrospectives

Ret­ro­spec­tive meet­ings are a nat­ur­al fit in any work­ing envi­ron­ment and allow teams to improve prac­tices, han­dle issues and focus atten­tion on how they work and inter­act. It’s less impor­tant what kind of agile method the team is cur­rent­ly using, as long as they have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect at the end of every prod­uct incre­ment and iden­ti­fy changes and improve­ments that will increase the qual­i­ty of the prod­uct they are work­ing on but also their life as team mem­bers.

Ret­ro­spec­tives should not be used only to focus on problems.They also afford the oppor­tu­ni­ty to raise aware­ness on what already works well and by this increase team’s moti­va­tion.

I’ve expe­ri­enced so far a lot of ret­ro­spec­tive meet­ings where teams focus too much on the “bad” past and ded­i­cate less time to build a bet­ter future for them­selves. The focus on analysing the exact source of a prob­lem by think­ing about the mis­takes that have been done or by blam­ing, does not itself con­tribute to the def­i­n­i­tion of steps toward improve­ments.

What’s more impor­tant in find­ing a solu­tion is the desired goal for the present and the future. I am also a believ­er that peo­ple can change and can freely choose to do what they did one way yes­ter­day dif­fer­ent­ly today.

Inspired by Marc Löf­flers’ new book on ret­ro­spec­tives (1), I’ve tried out an alter­na­tive and effec­tive way to lead ret­ro­spec­tives: solu­tion focused ret­ro­spec­tives. Rather than focus on analysing prob­lems, this approach directs our atten­tion to a bet­ter future, full of poten­tial solu­tions.

The meet­ing was struc­tured in 5 stages:

  • Open­ing
  • Set goals
  • Find a mean­ing
  • Ini­ti­ate action
  • Check results
Opening

We start the ret­ro­spec­tive by the team mem­bers say­ing some­thing true and pos­i­tive about their work. This will allow the team to con­cen­trate on func­tion­ing aspects that might be help­ful for their future work but also to have a pos­i­tive think­ing dur­ing the whole meet­ing.

We’ve used the chain ques­tion exer­cise to get team mem­bers speak­ing and lis­ten­ing to each oth­er. You start by ask­ing the per­son next to you some­thing true and pos­i­tive about his or her work. After the answer was pro­vid­ed, she will make the same request to the per­son next by, and so on. It was a great open­er not only because of the pos­i­tive atmos­phere cre­at­ed but also because it allowed us to hear and show more inter­est in each other’s opin­ions and thoughts.

Set goals
This stage is the most important part of the retrospective and for us it proved to be also the most difficult one, mostly because we were used to talk more about problems than focusing on solutions.

Hence, the goal we want to achieve should describe how the present future should look like, not how it should not look like. Giv­en the fact that prob­lems are known, we’ve start­ed to find and for­mu­late our goals by ask­ing our­selves what do want to have instead.

On a flipchart paper, I’ve designed two columns: one for the prob­lems and anoth­er one for goals / wish­es. I’ve asked the team to think for a cou­ple of min­utes about cur­rent prob­lems they are expe­ri­enc­ing in their team. After this is com­plet­ed, we’ve ded­i­cat­ed a big­ger amount of time to answer the ques­tion: “What would be achieved by remov­ing these prob­lems?”  I’ve helped the team to come up with most­ly pos­i­tive state­ments.

Hav­ing a list of wish­es, allowed us to for­mu­late a clear and com­pre­hen­sive goal that has been used for the rest of the ret­ro­spec­tive.

When for­mu­lat­ing it, we had the fol­low­ing cri­te­ria in mind:

  • our goal is not a ques­tion, but a pos­i­tive state­ment
  • our goal is not an action but a sit­u­a­tion described in detail, and with the rel­e­vant envi­ron­ment tak­en into account
  • our goal is not a feel­ing but some­thing con­crete
  • our goal is with­in our sphere of influ­ence, it’s prac­ti­cal and mea­sur­able.
Find meaning

Once the goal was for­mu­lat­ed, we had to make sure that we real­ly under­stand the pur­pose of it. Instead of sim­ply ask­ing our­selves Why? we’ve used What for? to find out about the desired future and find also mean­ing.

We have even changed the ini­tial­ly for­mu­lat­ed goal, just to make sure it real­ly makes sense.

Here are oth­er ques­tions that helped us dur­ing the dis­cus­sion:

  • What impact would reach­ing the goal have for you? And what else?
  • What impact would it have on oth­ers? And what else?
  • What will be dif­fer­ent once the goal is reached?
Initiate action

Once the mean­ing­ful goal was cre­at­ed, we start­ed to thing about the steps we need to fol­low in order to reach it. A pop­u­lar inter­ven­tion pro­posed for this kind of sit­u­a­tions is scal­ing.

We’ve imag­ined a scale between 0 and 10 , where 10 is the point when the goal has been reached and 0 means the oppo­site. Every team mem­ber is invit­ed to take posi­tion by answer­ing the ques­tion:

Giv­en the goal, where are you at the moment? What was your con­tri­bu­tion to this?

Next, we used the scale the make the goal more vis­i­ble and con­crete. Again, every team mem­ber is asked to take posi­tion and answer the fol­low­ing ques­tion:

On this scale, where do you want to be so you can say that the sit­u­a­tion has improved suf­fi­cient­ly?

It’s time to bring progress back into focus, so we start­ed to write down some sub­se­quent steps that will allow us to be be clos­er to the goal. We’ve asked our­selves:

Sup­pose we are one step clos­er to the goal, what will we have done to achieve this?

We’ve record­ed this steps in writ­ten form and made them vis­i­ble so that we can relate to them in future ret­ro­spec­tives.

What I loved about this exer­cise is not only that it gave us clar­i­ty about each other’s per­spec­tives and the pos­si­bil­i­ty to dis­cuss dif­fer­ences but it gave us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to have more under­stand­ing for one anoth­er opin­ions and thus reduce con­flicts in the future.

Check results

The final step of the ret­ro­spec­tive is ded­i­cat­ed to increas­ing the com­mit­ment of the team mem­bers in their defined action plan and uncov­er the lit­tle doubts that might still exist. It’s a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to reflect on how cer­tain are we as a team that the mea­sures we came up with will be actu­al­ly realised?

After using the fist of five vot­ing tech­nique it was quite obvi­ous that we are 100% aligned with the goal and its imple­men­ta­tion will be sup­port­ed by the team.

Conclusion

Adopt­ing this alter­na­tive way to lead­ing ret­ro­spec­tive was very ben­e­fi­cial for the team. One of the most impor­tant achieve­ments was the switch of focus to solu­tions think­ing instead of being trapped in dis­cussing the prob­lems.

By hav­ing a com­mon goal, we also did not start to work in dif­fer­ent direc­tions or get­ting lost in the vast amount of top­ics.

For me, as a facil­i­ta­tor, it was a great oppor­tu­ni­ty to learn new coach­ing ques­tions, for which I am grate­ful.

 

Ref­er­ences:

(1) Improv­ing Agile Ret­ro­spec­tives: Help­ing teams become more effi­cient — Marc Löf­fler

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