Updated: Feb 25
Have you ever worked with a team that was too... nice? Retrospectives on one of my clients’ pilot suffered from an eerie silence. The organization was new to Agile and had just launched a major digital transformation. The pilot team was relatively new and still in the process of welcoming new team members. Daily stand-ups were running well with focus on task progression and removing the impediments. The retrospectives were another story - they had come to pass as mere formalities.
During my individual chit-chats, the team members had wonderful insights, improvement opportunities and innovative ideas. Yet, when they came together for the retrospective, they did not feel comfortable sharing their thoughts with the group. The team had not formed the personal trust and rapport required at this point for an open and criticism-filled productive retrospective. With the brisk pace this pilot required, I worried that this behaviour will negatively impact the pilot; plaguing it with missed opportunities to course-correct and hidden risks becoming issues at a later time. As Adam Grant said,
“people are more creative in groups where criticism is welcomed. It raises the bar. Psychological safety doesn’t mean that everything is all warm and fuzzy. You still need to have standards.” - Adam Grant
My wishful thinking at this point included: what I wouldn’t give to see these people fight over something at the next retrospective! That is when the ‘(non)Fight Club Rules’ were born, to facilitate burstiness into those dull sessions the team dreaded:
If something isn’t right, you must talk about it.
If something isn’t right, you MUST talk about it.
If someone says “stop” or has something to add, stop talking and listen. Then, rebut.
Only one topic at a time.
One person talking at a time.
No personal attacks, no verbal weapons (be direct and problem focused).
Talk as long as you need to get the point across (retrospectives are not an afterthought or a formality).
If it’s your first time at the retrospective, you HAVE to talk.
When encouraging the teams to share more openly in this manner, special attention is required to identify each team’s unique collective personality, tastes and boundaries. In this instance, the team members interrupting each other was not an issue - the problem was quite the opposite. This was also an all-male team familiar with the movie. My goal here was to be intentionally inclusive and form a short-term communication strategy that worked for this group specifically, while avoiding alienation or cliques. The team grew more diverse with new additions and by then the effective retrospectives were becoming a second nature. We abandoned the (non)Fight Club Rules and adopted other methods that worked with the evolved team.
It is important to assess what intended and unintended impact such conversation dynamics will have on the morphing organization culture during a transformation. In this case, the leaders heavily encouraged transparency and free exchange of ideas. With their support, I experimented with many approaches across the organization and pivoted to account for existing subcultures, until we saw evidence of emerging open communication. To engage with people effectively, it is important to look for trends and identify what resonates with them as individuals, as well as a team. Sounds like a job for the nomadic trusted partners.
What helps your teams interact openly and with transparency?
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