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:
- Set goals
- Find a meaning
- Initiate action
- Check results
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
(1) Improving Agile Retrospectives: Helping teams become more efficient — Marc Löffler