I’m a staunch advocate of the practice of reflection. The benefits are extraordinary: greater ability in sense making; developing a better understanding of yourself and others; recognising connections between people and practices; creating and maintaining space and reducing cognitive load. It’s such an obvious thing to do that even when it becomes a habit it’s easy to drop it under times of pressure, but that tends to be when it has the greatest value.
I had the chance last week to facilitate a retrospective session with a team I’m not a part of. This is a huge learning opportunity as a coach. The less personal investment you have in the outcome of a discussion, the greater the chance to observe dynamics objectively.
We used a new format to frame this discussion - coming up with a bold assertion and asking everyone for examples of their experience that challenged or supported it. We supplemented this with a ‘magic wand’ category, asking what instant change you would make to improve the current situation. At first sight this looks to have worked well, giving attendees the space to discuss their own experience without over personalising. Not everyone chose to use their magic wand, and those that did used it many times. There is something to learn about individuals feeling empowered to bring their ideas to the wider group, or to hold on to some of them until there has been a broader contribution.
Depersonalising is key to effective team reflection. I shared Norm Kerth’s prime directive for retrospectives before the conversation started:
“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
I followed this with a personal observation. We make this statement to avoid a finger pointing session. I asked everyone not only to avoid blaming others for any current failings in ways of working, but also to avoid blaming themselves. I steered everyone to consider the team, not themselves as individuals. The intention was to create a safe environment for everyone to express themselves.
Having had some time to reflect on the session further, I now think this was the wrong steer. In aspiring for safety I may have asked people to edit their authentic response - if people are ascribing individual responsibilty for an issue, then it’s healthier to bring that into the open and address it rather than suppress it. Asking people to edit their responses may have been partly responsible for some team members not being ready to wield their ‘magic wand’. A mistake I can try to avoid in the future.