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Retrospective: Building Psychological Safety

Sharing tools that we should all know and be prepared to use

What should you do when psychological safety is missing? What’s your options?

Photo by FuYong Hua on Unsplash

When the situation happened to me for the first time, I was in dismay. Sure, I made up something on the spot but that was less than ideal.

I deeply regretted not to have the solution at hand in my facilitator’s toolbox.

And then some day, following one of the many interesting discussions on the ‘Hands-On Agile’ Slack community, I stumbled by chance on the Safety check and Creating safety retrospectives activities. They are hosted on http://www.funretrospectives.com/, one of many great ressources for Retrospective activities.

Safety check

Ask participants to choose a number between 1 and 5 that indicates how safe they feel within the group. Below is the…

www.funretrospectives.com

Creating safety

This activity allows the participants to bring up whatever was making them uncomfortable on the safety check. Running…

www.funretrospectives.com

It’s only recently, though, that I had an opportunity to use these tools.

Let me share how it went and some advices on how to use them.

How it to use these activities

The main idea is to use the Safety check as the Retrospective opening activity. Depending on the result of the check, your either follow with the Retrospective as planned, or you change the plan on the fly to perform the Creating safety activity.

If you perform the Creating safety activity, perform another Safety check afterwards to make sure it has helped improve the situation.

Finally, depending on the remaining time and on the participants energy, stop there or put back the Retrospective on its original track.

Vote anonymously!

One important thing must be pointed out: Safety checks must be performed anonymously!

Anonymous voting may sound silly, but that’s actually essential to get the feedback we are looking for.

Indeed, people feeling unable to speak openly won’t say it out loud unless they are given the protection of anonymity.

How it went

I won’t rehash the details of the activities in this post. I recommend you have a look at the original Safety check and Creating safety activities by yourself instead.

However, I’d like to share what the activities look like through the artefacts created during this Retrospective. Then in the next section I’ll share thoughts and feedbacks on how to run the activities smoothly.

Artefacts created during this Retrospective

Result of the Safety check & Creating safety Retrospective activities

You can notice in the picture:

  • On the top left are the results of the Safety check.
  • To the left of the numbers is the result of the opening Safety check. With two 3 and one 1, it seemed that running the Creating safety activity was a good idea.
  • To the right of the numbers is the result of the new Safety check performed once the Creating safety activity has been run. Safety clearly improved, as we have then only one 4 and one 3, all the other participants giving a 5.
  • The remaining of the whiteboard is filled with reasons why somebody would feel uneasy speaking freely and openly.
  • In addition, each reason has been associated a number of actions that could counter it. These actions are identified with a big ‘A’ marked on them.

Did it work?

Yes! As it can be seen, the second Safety check is better than the first one. Furthermore Creating safety did not take too much time, leaving room to run an expedited Retrospective.

A little less than two weeks later, the team is noticeably running better. It’s a success!

Advices

Following the activities guidelines

There are things that I did not get right:

  • The Safety check anonymous vote was not 100% anonymous as everyone had a different color pen. This seems like a minor issue as the participants were not able to see them, yet what would happen if the lack of safety were caused by the facilitator, by myself? Then they might lie just to avoid me tracing back their votes.
  • When running the Creating safety activity, we did not force ourselves to use two different post-it colors: one color for the reasons why somebody would feel unable to speak freely, and another color for the actions that could counter it. As a result, the picture is a mess and hardly readable. We tried marking a big ‘A’ on the actions but that did not help much.

In short… I should have followed the guidelines given in the activities.

Thoughts on anonymous voting

We are not used to run anonymous votes during Retrospective and other workshops but I’m starting to feel that we should be always ready for it, because the need can be raised unexpectedly.

So it might be a good idea to include anonymous voting material in your facilitator’s toolbox.

Namely:

  • A small bag to collect anonymous votes
  • Small sheets of papers, as post-its get sticky and just make the vote counting awkward and unnecessarily long

Get ready to run these activities!

Overall it’s a good thing to get acquainted with these activities anytime, as the situations requiring it may and will occur unexpectedly.

You should study these activities and maybe even rehearse the few powerful sentences that are at the heart of them. Hence, when I said them without true preparation, I felt like I was re-reading it multiple times before babbling something that was remotely resembling to the expected sentences.

These powerful sentences are hard to say. It’s a good idea to train!

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