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Retrospectives - Part 1 Make it safe

I have to admit, when I first became a team leader 10 years ago, I was nervous. I really enjoyed doing the technical elements of the work and was weary of anything that would reduce that. I was also concerned that I wouldn't find leading people particular rewarding. 

I was wrong. A team of people working well together is a joy to behold, a privilege to be part of and much more than the sum of their parts.

For our purposes I'll consider a team as any group of people that are working together, they don't need to share a line manager, and could be grouped for an extended period or just a couple of days. 

Creating stronger teams can help all organisations and one of the most powerful tools I found was running safe, regular, fun, challenging, personal and focused retrospectives.

Retrospectives are a meeting that a team uses on a regular basis to talk with each other about how they are working. It's private, so only members of the team attend. It should generate some useful output, such as an agreement about how the team will work differently in the future, or some specific action items. ("Buy a white board for the office", "Invite the head of department to our next review")

Safe retrospectives

If we want a retrospective to generate useful improvements, then everyone on the team needs to feel like that can talk about the things needed to make improvements. Some of the things might be tricky topics, and involve changes to deep rooted organisational norms, ways of working that haven't been challenged before. 

The feeling that honest conversations about difficult subjects can happen without personal or career risk is called psychological safety


Psychological safety is not something that can be magically sprinkled on a group of individuals, it builds over time. It requires consistency of behaviour and clarity of expectations. 

My number 1 tip for helping to nurture safety is to use the retrospective prime directive.

"Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand."

--Norm Kerth

I have it on screen and read it out loud, slowly, at the start of every retrospective, review, or meeting focused on making things better. It explicitly frames the remaining conversation as a learning experience and allows everyone to detach themselves from blaming individuals or being blamed as an individual. It triggers a growth mindset and generally stops people from being defensive. No one should feel cornered, threatened or at risk during a retrospective.

I also try to adopt the prime directive when I’m having conversations with someone who’s behaviour doesn’t make sense to me. It forces me to be genuinely curious as to the other person’s motivation, thinking, understanding, perception that led them to do what they did. It’s a reminder that no one comes to work with the intention of doing a bad job. It forces me to be open to the reality that it might be my understanding that is faulty. This works just as well outside of a retrospective as within.

About the author

Tom Styles

From over 20 years of crafting digital solutions in both the public and private sectors, Tom has a wealth of experience at delivery and leadership level. Tom’s passion for human-centred innovative use of technology and his ability to communicate with both a technical and business audience help maximise value from technology investments.

Tom blogs about agile, technology, and occasionally DJing or Ultimate Frisbee. 

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash