How to use solutions-focused scaling for Agile Retrospectives

Most Agile retrospectives are about how the team is feeling e.g. happy, sad, confused etc. We then try and understand the cause of the problem so that we can fix it, in the same way that we try to debug an issue with a software program. This approach makes sense when dealing with complicated problems, such as software, which have direct cause effect relationships. However, when working with team dynamics, people interactions and feelings, we are working with, and within, a complex system that doesn’t have a direct cause and effect relationships.

Trying to understand the root cause of something in a complex system can take a lot of time, and isn’t necessarily helpful in finding the desired solution. In complex systems, there is no direct relationship between a problem and the desired solution – this is one of the things that defines a complex system

Solutions-focused approaches to change[1] have shown that a more direct approach for complex systems is to investigate for clues of where evidence of the solution you want is happening already and do more of it. In addition you can also identify small actions to take, like mini-experiments, to see if these actions nudge the complex system in the direction of the desired solution.

The following retro format uses one of the tools from a solutions-focused approach called scaling. The retro outline is based on the Retrospective Patterns template.

Usage: Good to help a team understand what they are doing right, should do more of, and feel optimistic about continuous improvement.

Short Description: Use a scale to determine how well the team is doing, what is working even a little bit, what incremental improvements would look like, and what small actions would improve things. This is not a problem solving exercise but a solutions finding exercise.

Length of time: 60 minutes

Materials:

  • White-board large enough to draw a long horizontal scale.
  • Post-it notes
  • Markers/Pens
  • Optional: Flip-chart paper

Preparation:
Write the questions from step 5 on one piece of flip-chart paper, and the questions from step 8 on another page and leave covered until they are needed.

Process:

  1. Draw a large horizontal line on the white-board. Mark the start of the line with 0, the end of the line with 10 and the middle of the line with 5. Mark evenly spaced dashes vertically across the line for the other numbers 1-9.
    blank scale from 0 - 10
  2. Hand out post-it notes and pens to all team members. Make sure they have plenty of post-it notes each.
  3. Explain to the attendees that 10 is the most ideal period of work that you could of had (since the last retro) and 0 is ‘Nothing being done’. Leave the details of what 10 and 0 are as relatively blurry since they will mean something different to each person – and that’s OK.
  4. Ask the attendees to write down where they rate the last fortnight on the scale. The number is subjective and need not necessarily be shared with the group. The number on the scale is not actually that important from an objective perspective but is important for the questions that we will ask next.

    Variation: Ask the team to pick a number on the scale that represents how the last fortnight was for them personally versus how it was for the whole team. Have them apply the questions in step 5 to this number as well.

    If you use the retro format for a number of sessions, don’t insist that the number participants come up with each time is higher than in the previous retro. The rating is a subjective number and depends on what has happened in the period of time to which the retro applies.

  5. It is important that you ask the following questions exactly as phrased to get the most out of this exercise. Have participants write each answer that they come up with on a separate post-it note. Ask each participant to come up with at least 8-12 ideas from across all the questions. Give the participants 10-15 minutes to do this. If you have previously written these questions on flip-chart paper you can show them now.Why are we this high as opposed to zero?

    Q1. “Write down as many things that you can think of that made your number that HIGH as opposed to zero.”
    (We specifically want to know what is happening that makes the score as high as it is. This is a deliberately different question to “Why is the score not 10?”)

    Q2. “Are there any times since the last retro, when the number was higher than now? What was happening at those times that made the number higher than the one you chose today?”

    Q3. “Who or what helped you in giving a number that high?”

    Q4. “What else made your number that high? What else? What else?”

  6. Have the participants come up to the white-board and stick their post-it notes below the scale line but anywhere along the scale. They don’t have to put up the number they chose and they can put the post-it notes anywhere on the scale they just need to be visible.
  7. Spend 10-15 minutes going through the notes and expanding out what each note meant and understanding what was happening and HOW we did it. We want to know what’s working, and how to do more of it, and what resources we used to make it happen. Resource may include qualities, skills, co-operation, friends, others, opportunities, money, time, attitudes – absolutely anything that helps. Stay away from unwrapping the problem to try and understand it. The focus is on understanding how we are making the things we want to happen occur and how to do more of it.
  8. It is important to ask the following question as written to get the most out of this exercise. Have participants write each answer that they come up with on a separate post-it note. Participants can probably come up with 3-5 options each. If you have previously written these questions on flip-chart paper you can show them now.What's happening at +1 on the scale?

    Q1. “What would you notice was different for your to give a number one step higher on this scale e.g. if you’re now at a 6, what would be different for your to give a 7? This is not about what action you would need to take but just what would be different.”

    Q2. “What might others notice if you were at +1 on your scale?”

  9. Have the participants stick their post-it notes above the scale line and towards the 10 end of the scale.
  10. Spend time going through the +1 ideas to understand what they are and also to check if they are actually a small step up the scale rather than trying to go from say a 6 to a 9. If they are a larger step, ask “What would be the first small sign that this was happening?”
  11. Sometimes, the above is enough, and, if you have time, ask the question “What tiny steps do you have in mind that would help you move forward? Something that you can do in the next few days.” The answers to this question may or may not get you to +1 but they will help you make progress.

    I don’t necessarily capture the action items because, as the next few days unfold, there may be other tiny steps that participants come up with that will move them up on the scale and it’s OK if they take those actions instead.

  12. End the session by thanking everyone for participating. Capture the output of the session it whatever way is convenient.

References:

1. Jackson, Paul Z. and McKergow, Mark. The Solutions Focus: Making Coaching and Change SIMPLE, Nicholas Brealey Publishing; Second Edition edition (December 14, 2006)1

  • Great exercise Rod, thanks for sharing this!

    The questioning style that you described is a great way to discover strengths. Recognizing them and seeing the results will help people to do more of that to become better, as you mentioned in your blog post.

    I’m a big fan of positive approaches, like Solution Focused. I’ve written an exercise called Strengths Based Retrospective (see http://www.benlinders.com/2013/using-solution-focused-in-a-strengths-based-retrospective/ ) which is also based on solution focused concepts.

    Another exercise that you may like is the Perfection Game Retrospective (see http://www.benlinders.com/2014/getting-feedback-with-the-perfection-game/ ). In this exercise you ask people to score how things are going and provide suggestions what they would to make it perfect.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on these exercises?

    • Victoria Schiffer

      Ben, great links, thanks for sharing. I’ve used the Perfection Game Retro lately in a retro on people management, which worked well, too. Some good positive approaches to running retros. I’ll check out the Strengths Based Retro, too.

      P.S. Your links don’t work, as the link contains the closing bracket. Not sure you can change this. Will also let the team know to look into fixing that so it doesn’t happen again.

      • Thanks Victoria, happy to see that you like the exercises.

        I’v edited the links, looks like they are working now.

    • Hi Ben, thanks for sharing your approaches. In the Strengths Based Retro you mention Appreciative Inquiry which is a cousin to the SF approach. The subtle differences between SF and AI is mostly from their historical focus, with SF coming from the Solutions Focused Brief Therapy (de Shazer & Berg) and one-on-one work, and AI coming from large organisational change management approach.

      The Perfection Game Retro one is an interesting one that I have experienced before. The question about “What can we do to make it perfect?” would be like trying to go from say a 6 to a 10 on a scale. Large jumps such as this tend to invoke fear and resistance which much of change management techniques work to overcome. What I like about the SF scaling approach, focusing on the +1 and tiny actions, is that you try to identify actions so small that taking them feels easy and natural and invokes no resistance.

      • Indeed, SF and AI are related. Both focus on strengths which is what makes them valuable.

        Taking large steps can be challenging, fully agree with that. By making the feedback very specific when using the perfection game, the step for improvement becomes smaller and hence more feasible to do. Of course you can still do that in small steps. This somewhat resembles the Delta method from Alistair Cockburn that I referenced in a Dutch blog veranderen vanuit je sterkte: http://www.benlinders.com/2011/veranderen-vanuit-je-sterktes-das-anders/

        • And now we come full circle as Cockburn’s Delta method was his write-up of a discussion he had about the Solutions-focused approach with Mark McKergow, one of the authors of the book I referenced in the article 🙂

          • Now the circle has been closed, the main thing left is to use what we know and help teams to discover their strengths and become better in what they are good at. Let’s do it!

          • While strengths are important there may be additional resources that have helped a team get this high on a scale e.g. qualities, skills, co-operation, friends, others, opportunities, money, time, attitudes, professional networks. Look for anything at all that helps!

  • Victoria Schiffer

    Good retro approach Rod. Will try it out in one of our next retros. I really like the +1 approach, focussing on the smallest next step possible, as this is more likely to be acted on.

    • That +1 is interesting because you can investigate what +1 would look like without thinking about how to get there, focusing on the outcome vs. the how-to, and then investigate small actions that improve things and these may or may not take you all the way to the +1 that you identified. My personal preference is to investigate the outcome vs. the actions as it then allows actions to be taken in the moment rather than having the action carved in stone and losing the focus on the outcome.

      • Victoria Schiffer

        I like the “What tiny actions can we take in the next few days to improve things?” idea. It will change the way people approach the “actions” question.

  • Jason Yip
  • Rae

    I really love trying new/different style retrospectives as it almost always leads to a slightly different result but sometimes..something much bigger (think ‘a-ha’ moments). Keen to understand if you attempt this style of retrospective between different locations/teams & how you would change things up? or would you keep whiteboards & sticky notes but on both sides of a skype video call?

    • Hi Rae, I haven’t yet tried this with virtual teams or over video. Maybe you could use something like and online document or online whiteboard that can be seen from both sides. I’m sure there are some great virtual tools out there to do this. Maybe even using a Trello wall with a couple of columns for “What made out score this high?” and “What would +1 look like?” and every could create virtual sticky notes in the columns.

      If you do try it out, let me know how you go.