Organizational Culture of Collaboration and Feedback, the Facilitator, and Creating a “Safe” Environment
Part two in a three-part blog series.
Organizational Culture of Collaboration and Honest Feedback
Among the tenets of the Agile software development approach, its notable emphasis on team collaboration might prove to be a difficult paradigm shift for a group without a history of successful high inter-team participation. In this scenario, the members on the project team have presumably operated in state of atomized individualism: minimal information sharing, the existence of project “silos”, cultural aversion to healthy conflict resolution, and the like. In such a team environment, a spirit of cut-throat competition and an individualized style of work become the prominent cultural norms of the group; the crucial decisions made by the group lack consensus and are typically dictated by an authoritarian approach.
Retrospectives presuppose (and enrich) a highly collaborative team environment, diametrically opposed to the aforementioned type of team culture.
Retrospectives complement the socializing principles (e.g. open workspaces and “pairing” during work activity) of Agile software development, resting on a foundation of open, honest interaction and face-to-face communication. Although the macro-organizational culture encompasses the socializing rights and definition of acceptable behavior, the environment of the Retrospective should be seen as an opportunity to plant the seeds of change, test emerging ideas in the localized space, and ultimately serve as a nursery of change-agent behavior that could have potentially far-reaching application beyond the boundary of the Retrospective.
We need more than a catchy label and a defined structure (involving a set of steps that will be explained later) to guide the team in artfully and effectively reaching a level of high performance during a Retrospective; that is, the emergent traits of the Retrospective—the self-organizing nature of the team, the open and honest style of communication, the spirit of productive collaboration, etc.–require more than simply conducting a meeting that is labeled a “Retrospective”.
The Retrospective Facilitator
Given a team attempting transformation during their first Retrospective, or a mature team continuing their practice of collaboration, both contexts require the stewardship of a facilitative management approach; that is, a person designated to be the team’s facilitator during the Retrospective. The individual designated to assume the role of facilitator, or Retrospective leader, should possess fundamental skills in managing a collaborative process:
“A facilitator is an individual who enables groups and organizations to work more effectively; to collaborate and achieve synergy. She or he is a “content neutral” (my emphasis) party who by not taking sides or expressing or advocating a point of view during the meeting, can advocate for fair, open, and inclusive procedures to accomplish the group’s work. A facilitator can also be a learning or dialogue guide to assist a group in thinking deeply about its assumptions, beliefs and values and about its systemic processes and context.” 
The facilitator can be expected to allow the team (participants) to exercise a sense of ownership in the operating mode of thought, act to remove impediments to the team’s effort to reach targeted goals, foster an environment of trust and thriving collaboration, safely traverse the “Groan Zone” (figure 1), and support the team in a manner that allows the team to achieve its “best thinking” . Ultimately, the facilitator focuses on managing the format and “flow” of the Retrospective, while the participants hone their skills in managing the Retrospective content and maintaining a high-performance, participatory group dynamic in a “safe” environment.
Creating a “Safe” Retrospective Environment
Business Analyst, Software Architect, Software Developer, Tester, Project Manager, Project Sponsor, “The Head Cheese”; the typical casting call for a software development project; roles represented by people with potentially divergent (conflicting) perspectives, needs, goals, experiences, etc.
The cross-functional nature of a project team requires that the members feel safe in conducting open communication, expressing their feelings about the progress of the project, presenting ideas for improvement, working in an environment that values collaborative work, and effectively reaching consensus on actions that should be integrated in the ongoing project. Honest communication and team synergy dictate the difference between a volatile mix of disciplines (personalities, communication styles, qualifications, etc.) and a healthy, communicative cast of team characters. You might say, “Tell us something we don’t know. The importance of honesty and communication? We know this…” Loosely borrowing from the title of a popular book, there is a difference between knowing and doing.
A Retrospective is an example of doing, providing an environment in which the team (specifically, for those that are newly-formed) can “transcend the dichotomy” between conflict (differentiated from the Jungian sense of a healthy form of conflict) and synergistic team formation. This “transcendence” again brings to mind the concept of the “Groan Zone” (figure 1), in which the team moves from a mode of “divergent” thinking to a “Groan Zone” of confused, ambiguous decision making, finally arriving at a point of “convergent” integrated team work.
Similarly, a Retrospective is designed to include various activities that release group tension, increase honest communication, and ultimately inspire the team toward a state of high performance. There are many engaging and varied Retrospective activities (later outlined). The “Create Safety” exercise is a foundational activity, easy to implement and formative in developing an environment of honest, participative teamwork.
“Create Safety”. The term is frequently referenced in the context of group dynamics. Digging just below the surface of the Retrospective landscape, you will find several roots to classic motivational theory. Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?
The second category in the Hierarchy of Needs, “Safety Needs”, served as inspiration for the aforementioned Retrospective activity of “Create Safety”. Norm Kerth, father of the Project Retrospective, defines the “Create Safety” activity in the following excerpt from his seminal work entitled “Project Retrospectives”:
“At the beginning of a Retrospective, people may have many fears that will prevent them from talking openly and honestly about the project. This exercise is designed to create a Retrospective atmosphere that is safe, one in which team members can feel comfortable talking about important issues.”
There are several steps associated with conducting the “Create Safety” activity, such as taking a poll to measure the group’s safety level, establishing ground rules or social norms for team engagement, gathering in “affinity groups” to identify strategies for increasing safety, etc. An interesting, but not surprising recurring theme in establishing/increasing safety is the removal of management-level resources from the Retrospective environment, whose presence is thought to stifle the (necessary) candid discourse among the team members. Ultimately, the “Create Safety” activity should impel all team members–including those that are typically passive observers–toward a state of high unification, equal contribution, and open communication. Applying Maslow’s categorization of “Needs”, the meta-motives of the Retrospective could be represented in the following Maslowian form:
We have reviewed the importance of a collaborative organizational environment, in which honest communication is fostered, feedback is encouraged, and cross-functional team harmony is a natural byproduct; we have emphasized the crucial role of the Facilitator in conducting a successful Retrospective; and we have clarified the prerequisite of creating a “Safe” environment, serving as a foundational aspect of conducting healthy and rewarding Retrospective sessions.
In my next, and final, blog post in this three-part series, we will dissect the anatomy of a Retrospective, analyzing the associated steps, functions, and goals.
— by Ben Haith, firstname.lastname@example.org
1 Norman L. Kerth. Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews. Dorset House Publishers, New York, 2001.
2. Kaner, S. Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making. Jossey-Bass, 2007.
The Blog Series
Part Three: Anatomy of a Retrospective