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What Mistakes did you Make This Sprint?

2 min read · December 11, 2020

Category: General MusingsTagged with: ScrumTeam HealthPsychological SafetyVulnerability

Photo by Adi Goldstein

It's time for the Sprint Retrospective and people are submitting their thoughts on what went well and what to improve. As the team submits their ideas, the what to improve column remains minimal if populated at all. Are things going so well that there is nothing to improve? This seems statistically unlikely; how can we seek a more balanced retrospective?

Before we can do anything we should first examine if the group has a shared sense of psychological safety. This is the foundation for healthy discussions within the group. Without it, the group is unlikely to engage in sharing obstacles to overcome for fear of retribution or appearing incompetent. A tell-tale sign that the group lacks psychological safety is if people are afraid to say they made a mistake. If your team is in this state, focus on building the team's psychological safety first.

Assuming we have some base of psychological safety, the following prompt can help rebalance the retrospective; "What risks or mistakes did you make in the past sprint?" The purpose of this exercise is to analyze risks and mistakes, identifying what caused them to succeed or fail, and see how the team can approach situations like these in the future. This is how the team engages in learning behaviors to adapt and evolve their ability to solve problems in the future. Here are some example team lessons extracted from real retros:

  • Sync up on an experiment before diving down a rabbit hole because someone else may have partially explored it and have valuable context.
  • An experiment may have benefitted from a stricter time boxing, because it took up too much time and endangered the sprint goal.
  • Perhaps the experiment was successful, but there wasn't enough time to fully inform the team of the results and implications. Now can be a time to learn together and identify ways to fill that communication gap in the future.

If this is the first time running this experiment in your retrospective, I would recommend a leader within the team be the first to share. This is an important step to establishing the vulnerability loop. Jeff Polzer describes this process as, "sending a really clear signal that you have weaknesses, that you could use help. And if that behavior becomes a model for others, then you can set the insecurities aside and get to work, start to trust each other and help each other." So why is it important for the leader of a team to initiate this process? By engaging in this behavior, the leader signals to the group that they too are fallible; by sharing our fallibilities openly we can work together to resolve them and ultimately have a higher level of safety.

There may be certain retrospectives where there is not much in the to improve column. However, a pattern of only talking about what went well may indicate there is more below the surface to investigate. If people don't feel safe, that should definitely be addressed first. A leader being vulnerable in the retrospective may help to kick start this as well. If the team already feels safe to share when things go wrong, a prompt can help prime the conversation.

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