Are you a prisoner of your own Retrospective?

Have you ever felt like if you were forcing other team members to attend a Retrospective meeting?

Have you ever noticed a changed attitude over time and your not sure about how the mood actually changed?

It’s hard to know what happened to our colleagues right before they walk in the room.
The lack of context makes it hard, for a facilitator, to help the team give the right shape to the Retrospective.
We must keep in mind that every meeting can benefit if crafted based on the context at hand and on the mood of the team.

Sensing the team mood in a timely manner with the ESVP tool

Esther Derby and Diana Larsen, in their book: Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams GreatAgile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great, clearly divide a retrospective meeting in 5 phases. They call the first phase: ‘setting the stage’.

Setting the stage activities happens typically at the opening of a meeting or while preparing any significant phase requiring some special effort.

In the book they illustrate a bunch of activities and tools to facilitate the ‘Setting the Stage’ phase. 
I tried most of them but the one I like most is: ESVP.

ESVP is an acronym that stands for: Explorer, Shopper, Vacationer, Prisoner.

Basically the activity is about every participant reporting her/his own attitude toward the meeting that is going to happen. They are required to do it at the very beginning.

This can provide insights about what’s happening to the team and can help the team reason about their course of action.

In the book you can find a description of the four attitudes. Below is my interpretation of them and how I described them to teams (slightly modified from the original):

  • You feel like an Explorer if you are eager to learn and explore ideas and topics together with the team.
  • You feel like a Shopper if you hope to leave this meeting having found some useful idea.
  • You feel like a Vacationer if you don’t care but you are happy to be brought away from routine work.
  • You feel like a Prisoner if you’ve been caught up in the middle of a tough or interesting issue and would have preferred to keep working on it.

The original exercise suggests to keep team members’ choices secret. 
I usually try to minimize the negative meaning of Vacationer and Prisoner so that I can ask to declare own’s attitude transparently.

I usually ask for ‘Explorers’ and count the raised hands. I write down the number on a Flipchart and I repeat for each of the 4 characters.

I recently added a graphic representation of the results. The below cup is filled with colored water levels during the activity.

Help different attitudes to reach the surface

I noticed that the ESVP metaphor adds a little bit of playfulness. This often helps setting a relaxed mood.
Declaring to be a Prisoner happens to be a light way to express one’s aversion to the idea of a Retrospective. Declaring explicitly such attitude is a win in itself.

Many things can be said “above the surface” thanks to this simple tool.

I could not resist the temptation to graph

For a couple of teams I could not resist the temptation to graph the trend over time via a worksheet.

This provided us insights about the appropriateness of the way in which we were evolving our retrospectives over time.
Every now and then we could look at the history of our mood as a team and increase our sense of belonging.

I noticed that this ‘statistical’ approach can help more ‘analytical’ mindsets to take it seriously.

3 Short Stories about the ESVP tool

Are you a Prisoner at your own Retrospective?

I was working with a team who really cared about their own retrospective! They were united as a team but being a distributed and multicultural team made it difficult, sometimes, to grasp the mood during conversations.

Once, they popped up at the Retrospective video-conference and all but one of them were prisoners!!
I stepped back and reminded them that it was not a shame if they consciously agreed that they couldn’t meet at that time. It was their meeting and they were the only ones who could decide for their course of action. 
I then asked them if they would have preferred to stop the meeting and wait for the next one. They decided to go back to the urgent things that were worrying them.
This took less than 5 minutes and their pace did not derail due to this single interruption.

Did you get what you wanted?

I recall a funny episode of a colleague declaring himself to be a Vacationer when entering the room.
We then had an interesting and tough session using ‘Team radar‘ activity.
Upon closing the meeting we reviewed our ESVP declarations and he was upset about not having been a Vacationer.
He got really involved in what he considered a really helpful Retrospective and his initial mood actually changed during the meeting.

Are we ready for Actions?

Last but not least ESVP tool can always help to tailor the current Retrospective.

A session with more ‘Explorers’ could benefit from more time dedicated to looking for Insights and root cause analysis while a session with more ‘Shoppers’ could be more in the need for solution finding and SMART actions generation.

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