The Agile Architect

Safety and The Agile Retrospective

Safety is an important ingredient in any agile retrospective. If team members don't feel safe, they may not be candid and honest with their input, negating the effectiveness of the retro. Our Agile Architect shares some of his techniques for measuring and maintaining safety.

The safety check is an important practice of the agile retrospective. Before the team can reflect on their past, they need to know that everyone participating is comfortable sharing information. If even one individual does not feel safe, then this is the most critical data coming from the retro.

There are many cute ways people have created to measure safety, but the most common and straightforward way is to simply ask people to rate their safety on a scale from one to five, where one is the least safe and five is the most safe.

I've found from experience, however, that it's not enough to simply give a scale. You also need to let the team know the repercussions of different results. Without knowledge of what happens next before they rate themselves, team members can feel betrayed afterwards.

I've done variations, but generally like to use something like this:

Rating

Description

Action based on lowest individual score

5

I feel very safe and am willing to talk about anything.

Continue with the normal retro.

4

I feel moderately safe and will participate within limits.

Consider safety as one possible retro topic, prioritized against other pressing concerns by the team.

3

I feel barely safe and I am willing to talk about why.

Continue with exercises to establish safety.

2

I do not feel safe.

Continue with anonymous exercises only, to help establish safety.

1

I do not feel safe and am extremely uncomfortable.

Cancel the retro. Follow up with each individual.

Before the Retrospective
If you are going to start your retrospective with a safety check, then you need to be prepared to deal with the results. This means you have to be ready to facilitate different exercises depending on the outcome. If you aren't willing to deal with the results of the safety check, you might as well not have one. One option to mitigate this is to perform the anonymous safety check before the retro and early enough to have time to prepare based on the results. For example, ask everyone to drop their rating into a hat before a given deadline.

Conducting the Safety Check
The rules for your safety check should always be stated up front. Is it anonymous? What will you do with the results? How much are you going to share with the team afterwards and what are the possible repercussions based on those results. If someone is feeling unsafe, this can help them make decisions about how much they are willing to share and hopefully feel comfortable sharing more.

My safety checks are always done anonymously. This promise is one I take very seriously. I will have everyone write their safety number on a sticky note, fold it, and hand it to me. I do not look at the results as they come in. Once I've collected everyone's sticky note, I shuffle it, walk away from the team and tally the results. I then put the results in my pocket to be discretely discarded after the retro.

I never share the results with the team other than to say what the lowest safety number is and only in the context of determining what we do next. I will not say how many results are in each category. Some facilitators will share the full results of the safety check with the team as fodder for discussion, claiming that sharing results without names is anonymous. I do not believe this because it gives the team the ability to figure out who gave a low score by knowing who gave a high score. And since the folks that gave a high score feel safe, they are likely to share that fact. I've seen this happen multiple times.

If There Is a Rating of 1:
There is someone on the team that does not feel safe even being in the retrospective. Cancel the retrospective.  This shows that you respect their opinions and feelings. It also ensures that the person isn't pressured into breaking their anonymity by the team or facilitator.

Immediately follow up with the individual team members with one-on-one conversations. Each team member should be given a choice of individuals with whom they can speak confidentially. Don't assume that everyone feels safe with you as the facilitator. You could be the problem! At all points in the process, be careful to provide mechanisms to preserve confidentiality and anonymity.

The confidential conversations should include why the team members feel unsafe, if possible using specific examples, and how to reestablish safety. This information will be used by the team and their leadership to create a plan to move the team forward and reestablish safety.

If There Is a Rating of 2:
In this case, you can proceed with the retrospective but the focus is now on safety. You can preserve safety by asking everyone to write down anonymously, why they do not feel safe. Those that do feel safe can simply write "I feel safe." Note that this should not be speculation about others but truth about their own feelings of safety. They can also write something like "I do not feel safe sharing" in which case you should treat the situation as if someone had given a safety rating of 1.

If There Is a Rating of 3:
You will still want to address team safety in your retrospective. State that there was at least one 3 and follow up with one or more exercises to help facilitate team safety. Since the team member indicated that they are willing to talk about it, you may simply ask them to do so. If no one breaks their anonymity, proceed as though someone rated their safety at 2.

If There Is a Rating of 4:
Introduce safety as a retro topic, to be prioritized against other retro topics.

If There Is a Rating of 5:
If all of the results are 5s, the team feels safe. Proceed with the normal retro. Spending time on the safety check risks the team over-thinking the outcome and may result in the team talking themselves into feeling less safe. It also unnecessarily takes time away from more urgent topics.

Safety Check Don'ts

  • Don't say it's anonymous and then out the person in follow-up exercises.
  • Don't ignore the results during the retro.
  • Don't ask the team why someone else on the team would not feel safe. This leads to inaccurate speculation, wastes the team's time and puts pressure on the people that do feel unsafe to break their anonymity.
  • Don't procrastinate on re-instilling safety.

Final Thoughts
By explaining explicitly what will happen during the safety check and how a given safety rating will impact the retro, you empower the team members to take control of their own retrospective and increase their feeling of safety. This is a necessary foundation for an honest, frank examination of the real issues driving the team members' safety concerns.

About the Author

Dr. Mark Balbes serves as Vice President, Architecture at WWT Asynchrony Labs, and leads multiple Agile projects for Government and Fortune 500 companies. He received his Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics from Duke University in 1992, then continued his research in nuclear astrophysics at Ohio State University. Dr. Balbes has worked in the industrial sector since 1995 applying his scientific expertise to the disciplines of software development. He has led teams as small as a few software developers to as large as a multi-national Engineering department with development centers in the U.S., Canada, and India. Whether serving as product manager, chief scientist, or chief architect, he provides both technical and thought leadership around Agile development, Agile architecture, and Agile project management principles.

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