I often encounter mature Agile teams, well trained in Scrum, some of them doing Scrum of Scrums and having already participated in several releases. These teams' retrospectives frequently bring in opportunities for improvement in a number of areas connected to processes, techniques, and, occasionally, impediments at the organizational level. This is very good, but I wonder why personal issues are rarely discussed in retrospectives. This I have learned personally: Teams that do not discuss personal matters openly pay the price of missing considerable opportunities for improving an already good team performance.
In order to help teams solve this, or maybe to open that door, I include in retrospectives a special section to address personal issues. Always after the exercises, all teams remark on the need to achieve three key things: first, trust; second, trust; and last . . . trust.
Taking the first step
I usually start the personal retrospective with an adaptation of the "prisoner's dilemma," which I got to know thanks to Alan Cyment. The purpose of this exercise is to prove to teams that working collaboratively will achieve better results. On the other hand, opposite results are obtained when they choose to compete. Many times the team's level of trust is left exposed, and what becomes clear is the need to create greater openness to allow team members to build more trust among themselves.
Creating the circle
After examining the interpretation of "trust" that teams have, it is time for a new activity to establish greater openness and empathy within teams. Suppose there are three teams participating in a multiteam retrospective and each team member is going to tell a small personal story. The story must cover the following: place of birth, number of siblings, where the person attended kindergarten and a significant memory from that time, where the person attended primary school and a significant memory from that time, first job and a significant experience there, and a current hobby.
Figure 1: Telling a personal story
Once the personal stories are finished, I encourage team members to share thoughts. Did you learn something new you hadn't known about your peers? What caught your attention? Learning new things about our team mates and letting them know more about us helps start new conversations that were nonexistent in the past.
Coming inside the circle
At this point, I recommend a short break. Then we will be prepared to go into the personal retrospective.
But before going straight to feedback, I think it is important — and it delights me — to provide differentiation between what we could define as assertions and personal judgments. From the point of view of ontology, we can say "This is an assertion" when there is a situation or object that has social consensus on its name, attributes, and so on. For example: "This chair is white." No one in our community will argue, in the presence of a white chair, that it is a "chair" and that it is "white."
Personal judgments, however, "always inhabit in the person who makes them," as explained by Rafael Echeverría in his book La Ontología del Lenguaje. In other words, contrary to assertions, personal judgments are interpretations that we humans make when facing a phenomenon, and they have little to do with the phenomenon itself but rather with the type of viewer we happen to be. In the former example, if someone says, "This chair is comfortable," the attribute of "comfortable" belongs primarily to the person who is judging but not to the object itself, since there could be as many comfort levels for this same chair as viewers considered.
When receiving feedback in a retrospective (or in any other situation), this feedback is mostly composed of the judgments the provider has. Why do we need to know this? To remember that feedback has more to do with the person providing it than whoever is receiving. But hold on: The purpose of this observation is not about discharging responsibilities or justifying any situation. The reason this is so important is because it helps identify particular feedback that make strong sense to us because therein lie the personal concerns we would like to address.
I also differentiate between feedback, which is an observation oriented toward the past, and "feedforward," which refers to future-oriented actions. We will be using only feedback at this point ("Don't give advice now"), since there will be a special space for feedforward near the end of the retrospective.
What follows is the very heart of this retrospective. I first got to know this exercise in 2005 through Pep-Talk and then remembered it this year when learning about ontological coaching at Grow Consultora. It consists of mixing up the teams to create a semicircle. Taking turns, each person steps in front of the semicircle and answers the following three questions (scoring the answer on a scale of 1 to 10, and commenting briefly on each score):
- How do you judge your fulfillment of commitments to your team?
- How do you judge your relationships with your teammates?
- How do you judge your learning and growth in this project?
As soon as the person at the front finishes, only people belonging to his or her team give feedback publicly, as follows:
- How do you judge his or her relationship with you and with the rest of the team?
- What do you judge to be his or her greatest virtue?
- What aspects do you judge he or she could improve?
It is extremely important to be specific when giving feedback, because nobody should be at the front for more than four minutes.
Figure 2: Feedback circle
After a short break, teams meet separately and each team member says, explicitly, which feedback made the most sense to him. The next step is designing an action plan for personal improvement, in which each individual, together with the team, decides what actions to take and how to get assistance from his or her teammates.
Making effective requests about everyone's needs is key to success, along with making and accepting offers. This is the way the action plan should be created. Measurable commitments must also exist, preferably lasting no longer than three weeks, maybe four. This exercise can be incorporated as a tool for the team and performed when needed, and trust within the team will increase.
Nothing is as fast as the speed of trust
The primary purpose of the personal retrospective is to address the first dysfunction of teams, according to Patrick Lencioni: lack of trust.
Figure 3: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Patrick Lencioni)
This kind of retrospective, focused on interpersonal issues, creates new opportunities with positive results for team members as individuals and also for the team as a whole. It helps develop three key things: first, trust; second, trust; and last . . . trust.
It is essential to enable genuine mechanisms to foster trust within teams to gain greater transparency and commitment among members. If we don't encourage trust building, communication will be resented; as a result, it will be harder to identify which aspects could be improved and how to do it.
In his book The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey wrote:
There is one thing that is common to every individual, relationship, team, family, organization, nation, economy, and civilization throughout the world — one thing which, if removed, will destroy the most powerful government, the most successful business, the most thriving economy, the most influential leadership, the greatest friendship, the strongest character, the deepest love.
On the other hand, if developed and leveraged, that one thing has the potential to create unparalleled success and prosperity in every dimension of life. Yet, it is the least understood, most neglected, and most underestimated possibility of our time.
That one thing is trust.