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Building Trust With Retrospectives

Retrospectives are discussions held after a project, feature, sprint or other unit of work is completed. These meetings dive into what went well, as well as opportunities to learn from and avoid in the future. They can be incredibly effective at uncovering challenges faced by a team, diagnosing why a team was able to push through adversity to deliver an effective solution or how team dynamics swayed the outcome of a project toward success.

There are four concepts of executing effective retrospectives:

  • Obtaining blameless dialogue
  • Creating a sense of vulnerability
  • Ensuring that the outcomes of the meetings are leveraged in future efforts
  • Making sure everyone has a voice

Implementing blameless retrospectives is the most important factor in effective discussions. How many times have you been in a meeting regarding an incident or failed effort and it felt impossible to get the team to talk about what went wrong? Or where team members blame others for the reason their team didn’t perform as expected? These are all signs of a culture in which failure is often punished, instead of teams who are able to take advantage of failure as learning opportunities.

The other end of the spectrum is when conflict is avoided by teams. Conflict can feel awkward and uncomfortable, but with the right facilitation skills and a sense of trust, constructive conflict becomes a powerful tool toward breaking down barriers, increasing velocity and increasing the quality of your product or service.

The key to enabling a blameless retrospective begins with the facilitator. Trust and open communication are two core values that must be instilled in the team, and that begins and ends with the facilitator. In order for a team to have the open and honest communication needed to get the answers necessary to double down on successes and prevent future failures, members need to feel safe to voice their feedback without retribution, blame or punishment.

Facilitators are on the front line toward creating the trust needed for these behaviors, understanding the climate of the room, ensuring that outside influences are minimized and assuring that those who uncover failures are praised and not shunned. The facilitator must create a space in which the team feels safe to speak freely, admit to failures and praise the actions of others.

A key trait of building trust for leaders and team members is to demonstrate a sense of vulnerability. Team members rally around each other when they hear relatable stories and see others show emotion. These events build rapport, strengthen the team and help create open and honest communication channels needed for effective retros. Facilitators should sense and encourage these scenarios as they arise, not brush over or shut down during what might seem like a tense moment. Whether that is opening up about a fear during a near-miss event or opening up about a time in which a team member felt like they let their peers down, these moments of vulnerability bring teams together and give room for others to feel safe to share their stories.

The core purpose of retrospectives is to gain valuable feedback on team performance, create a culture of continuous improvement and to ensure past mistakes are well known so they can be avoided in the future. The key to this is not only uncovering opportunities and understanding why success was realized, but also to take action on these findings.

There are three steps toward creating a repeatable process that takes advantage of the discussions:

  • Document – This step is to ensure that feedback is documented as it is received, understanding how to dive into key nuggets as they are uncovered, when to use breakout sessions and other offline methods to bring back additional detail from these events and ensure that they are well covered and easy to understand for the future. Knowledge base (KB) articles, updated solution documentation, communication to impacted teams, root cause analysis (RCA) documentation and other tools can be effective in these situations. Build this into your process and your team will see the rewards of fewer challenges and smoother projects.
  • Diagnose – In the case where the problem isn’t well known or the reason why something was a resounding success isn’t immediately clear, further diagnoses and discussion is necessary. You may have to bring in outside opinions and expertise, tools that help gather additional data points or focused teams that are able to spend the time needed to understand the inputs and outcomes. As a facilitator, you will need to ensure that key team members have the autonomy and dedicated time to follow up on these causes.
  • Swarm – If the feedback is a bottleneck, bug, problem or other opportunity for improvement, a key technique is for the team to swarm the problem with all hands on deck. Gather up as many team members as possible, prioritize the solution above new features and get to the root cause solution as soon as possible.

The last component of executing effective retrospectives is ensuring that all avenues of feedback are uncovered. Every team has different dynamics and will often have team members with stronger voices or opinions than others. The key is to understand that the strongest voices are not always directing the team down the correct path. Even while taking all of the steps needed in building trust, creating safe spaces and expressing vulnerability, it may not be enough to derive all of the valuable knowledge from team members who are uncomfortable providing it in larger groups. This could be because of seniority or personality traits, but it is really difficult to understand the complete picture without gaining the feedback from those closest to the problem. Techniques to help gather feedback from all angles include breaking into smaller groups, using written communication methods or to seek feedback from team members who haven’t offered their stories over the course of a retrospective.

Blameless retrospectives can be powerful tools for teams to improve performance. Remembering these core concepts can help you run more effective discussions and reap the rewards of shared knowledge.