Thursday, June 7, 2012

Retrospective safety, we've got it backwards

When we talk about sprint retrospectives we talk about them as a safe place for team members to discuss their issues. This safety is normally from people external to the team, often management. This isn't what it's about, it's about having a safe environment to express your own personal views without fear no matter who is in the room.

Let's start with the normal suggested practice of safety from management. This is an anti-pattern. If your teams feel that they can't be open and honest then there's something seriously wrong and that needs to be worked on. Transparency and honesty are hallmarks of agile. Your agile coach, ScrumMaster or agile manager should protect the team from outside interference. If teams don't feel that they are protected from repercussions they won't be open and honest.

My previous company had two important values; say the hard things and hear the hard things. This went a long way to helping build a culture where honesty was tantamount. Did it happen all the time? No, but changing culture can take time.

It's all comes down to personal safety. That doesn't mean being closed off and hiding your feelings.  Quite the opposite, you should feel safe to share without repercussions. This can be especially important for team members who find it hard to discuss what's on their mind. This can be caused by a number of things. Confidence/self-doubt, fear of conflict, bad experiences, having one or more dominant people on the team amongst other things.

Setting up a place where being open and honest is required, helps create a safe environment for all team members to open up. It's not quite that easy though. You *need* have a dedicated facilitator who is neutral and impartial. The facilitator is there to make sure everyone's voice is heard and to navigate conflict. This helps build up confidence so that team members can share freely in the retrospective, eventually going as far as sharing issues at any time which is the ultimate goal.

Sharing issues never go away. Team members can revert to not sharing if the team goes back into a storming mode. That said, my own experience is that if you've done your job right, they still feel that the retrospective is a safe place. This is why it's so important to continue it as a practice even if teams feel they no longer need it.

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