Team health & the retro

Does your team have the blues? Try a positive retrospective.

Oh, the retrospective. Agile development teams rely on this artifact and the process of airing out what’s going well, what isn’t going well, and what we should do about it. We use retrospectives to identify issues that can make us more efficient, reduce strife, increase communication - all done as a team. Retros have made us all more accountable to the greater good of the agile team. The things we learn from retros and the continuous improvement of our teams is invaluable.

We’ve all been on teams where the blend of personalities, constraints and environment creates a toxic brew. The team can be efficient and do great work, but people may still have negative feelings about the project. If the retrospectives haven’t turned up any actionable or severe problems on the team, maybe it’s time to stop talking every sprint about the things that aren’t working. Maybe that’s the thing that isn’t working. Now, I’m not advocating for the end of the retro - I’m advocating for the birth of the positive retro. One designed to identify issues while building team and fostering positivity.

Tips for a positive retro:

1: Start it off on the right foot.

All positive retrospectives should start by reading out loud 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. At the end of a project everyone knows so much more. Naturally we will discover decisions and actions we wish we could do over. This is wisdom to be celebrated, not judgement used to embarrass.”

Reading this out loud every time (until you have it memorized!) sets the stage for the type of feedback we should be giving in retros, and reminds the team that this is not the place for an “airing of grievances”.

2: Pick a format that promotes positivity.

My favorite positive retro structure is the 4-L’s retro. The four L’s are Liked, Loved, Learned, and Longed for. This format removes the open-ended “what went wrong” question that can attract some unnecessary negativity, and frames all feedback positively. However, if there is something that needed to happen that didn’t, or a new revelation on something that could work better, there is space for that as well.

3: Finish with happiness.

The final tip for a positive retro is something I borrowed from a podcast that I love - Pop Culture Happy Hour from NPR. It’s called “What’s making me happy this week.” This is where everyone from the team goes around the room and says one thing that is giving them life right now - and the one rule is that it can’t be work related. It can be as simple as a song that you can’t get out of your head, a book that you’re reading, your favorite sports team winning a game, your kids being really good this week - anything that is making you happy. This ends the retro on a positive note and fosters connection within the team.

Creating the space for more positive exchanges may seem trivial and maybe even silly, but believe me - it works!

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