Retrospective: The Safety Exercise


In many teams the retrospective has always the same format where the team members are asking these 3 questions over and over again:

What went well? What didn’t went well? What are we going to change?

They probably don’t get the most out of that. They end up with telling the standard things, maybe even those things that managers want them to change instead of the things that really help them move forward. Just asking these 3 questions, wont let them think deeply enough to really improve their work. Another option is that they end up with a gigantic list of impediments, not prioritized, not taken action upon. Doing the same meeting over and over again will even get them bored! And maybe they will question if they still need to do the boring retrospective meeting.

That said I would like to refer to the book “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great” by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. The book describes a set of practices that you can apply in your retrospectives to make them better.

In our retrospectives we apply practices such as the TimeLine, Prioritize with Dots, Mad-Sad-Glad,… All practices described in the book.

In our latest retrospective we tried a new practice “The Safety Exercise”. One which is not in the book, but talked about on the Agile Toolkit Podcast.

The Safety Exercise is really important with a new team. It's a way to loosen up, or at least assess how comfortable a team feels.

Especially where there are managers in the room or their Scrum Master is their former Project Manager. Team members are not sure of their place, they're not sure how much they can really say. And you don't know how safe people feel.

A way to do it, is passing out index cards to each team member, and let them put a score 1 to 5 on the card indicating how safe they feel.

The Safety Exercise gets a temperature reading on that, the numbers meaning:

  • 5 Oh well, I'll talk about anything!
  • 4 I'll talk about most things, but there are a few things I wont talk about.
  • 3 I'll talk about the easy, non controversial stuff. Nothing negative.
  • 2 I'll agree with what everybody else says.
  • 1 I just don't want to talk!

One of the team members will thereafter collect the cards, shuffle them and read the numbers out loud. Write them on the board. Throw the cards away. You can also make an average number if you want to.

It gives a really anonymous reading how comfortable the group feels.

If you've got a lot of fours and fives, you probably got a group that feels rather comfortable with each other.
If you have a lot of twos and threes, it will probably be hard to talk about a lot of the stuff. Probably for good reasons for things that happened in the past.

If it’s really bad, maybe you need to have a retrospective without having the managers around. Be aware: the feelings of the managers can be hurt. :-) Why are they hiding from us? Why are they afraid from us? Do I allow my team to be self-organising?

Maybe it just needs some time. The good thing is that it creates awareness by the managers and the team.

In our retrospective, we got a lot of fours, a couple of fives, and a few threes. And we will apply the practice again in one of our next retrospectives.


3 opmerkingen:

  1. I find this a good technique, but then what do you do with twos and threes (or ones!)? How do you identify what the problem is and why some people aren't comfortable talking out loud?
    You can't talk to the people who wrote down the low scores, because it was written anonymously. Unless it's very clear who wrote the low score. And that could be a problem in itself, because that person might be afraid to write the low score again the next time.

  2. Pascal,

    I used this exercise to poll about the group's feeling about the project in general. A recent book I read has some other great excersises that can perfecty be used in retrospectives. See my book review on InfoQ If you like, you can lend my copy.