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Agile working: the ‘appreciative retrospective’

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Natalie Taylor is the transformation manager for the Registered Traveller Service team at the Home Office. Here she suggests some new ways of conducting retrospectives as the team makes their digital transformation journey: the ‘appreciative retrospective’ is about focusing on the positives, maintaining momentum and energising the team.

Just some of the actions agreed during the retrospective, with team member responsible and deadline
Just some of the actions agreed during the retrospective, with team member responsible and deadline

Like all good agile teams, the Registered Traveller exemplar team holds a retrospective session at the end of each sprint: retrospectives are set up so the team can reflect on what worked well and what needs improvement. In our team, we take it in turns to run the retrospective. We’ve tried some different formats to mix it up a bit but, generally speaking, we talk about the good stuff, the not so good stuff and then try and assign some actions.

Recently it was my turn to run the retrospective and I wanted to use the session to give the team a bit of a boost. Often in retrospectives it’s easy to whizz swiftly through the positives and spend the majority of the time dwelling the negatives. Whilst it’s important to recognise where we’ve been challenged, this comes with the risk of leaving everyone feeling a bit flat.  In fact, after most sprints the team should be feeling a real sense of achievement.

We had just reached a major milestone in the project, everyone had been working incredibly hard and I felt that we needed to take a moment to really appreciate and reflect on the effort that everyone had been putting in. So I started doing a bit of research to see if there were any retro templates I could use with this in mind.

Eventually, I came across an entry on the retrospective wiki which was just the sort of thing I was looking for and I used it to help design the retro.

Re-energising the retrospective - simple exercises that make a difference

To start with I asked each member of the team to write a note of appreciation to someone else on the team on a post-it. For example, “I’d like to thank Richard for helping me work through all of the story cards this week.” When everyone had written their notes, I asked them to take it in turns to read it out loud, addressing the person concerned. This simple exercise really helped to set a positive tone for the meeting and got everyone smiling and in a good mood.

Visualisation and mapping future success

The next exercise was a little more difficult. I asked everyone to imagine that we had just completed the next sprint and to write down what strengths and successes the team would have achieved if everyone was doing their best. These were written on post-its and stuck up on the wall. The whole team reviewed the post-its to look for common ideas and themes, then grouped them into organised sections on the wall.

We discussed which areas we wanted to focus on and picked the most popular subject which, on this occasion, was behaviour-driven development. The team were confident about the potential for future success and, based on what we’d predicted as those successes and strengths, I then asked the team what actions we could take to achieve them. These could be in the form of ‘do more of’ or ‘keep doing’ actions. These actions were then written up and assigned to individuals in the room.

I think the team liked this exercise as it really focused everyone on positive outcomes. The discussion was framed in an attitude of ‘how can we do our best?’ rather than ‘what do we need to improve?’.

I found that having an appreciative retrospective discussion encouraged the team to be enthusiastic, think proactively, and feed much more energy into the session than we were used to. We will definitely be repeating these kind of sessions in future.

Natalie tweets about digital service transformation on Twitter. Follow her here.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Mathew Cropper posted on

    This is nice. In one of the retros on the Insolvency Service exemplar we wrote letters to our future selves, to be opened after 5 or 6 iterations (I forget which). In that iteration's retro we opened the letters, read them aloud to the group, and reflected on just how far we'd come. The team's successes were really put into perspective when we heard some of the fears and concerns from just a few months earlier. Very energising.


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