Assuming Positive Intent

It all started with a tweet by Tobias Mayer:

“Don’t make assumptions” says one school of wisdom, “Assume positive intent” says another. I choose the first. You?

I’m a card bearing member of the second tribe (at least I thought I was) so I answered:

The second one. Makes me kinder.

Going into difficult conversations assuming positive intent has rarely left me disappointed.

Or as Gitte Klitgaard so beautifully put it:

I find that I get what I expect. So if I expect good, I get good.

My experience is exactly the same. Whenever I don’t manage to assume positive intent and give in to blaming thoughts it leads to more disappointment. My beliefs always always leak into what I say and how I say it.

That’s why I ask someone else to facilitate / mediate in my place when I cannot honestly assume positive intent for each party.

The “don’t assume anything” school of thought has never helped me to prep angry people for constructive conversations. When someone thinks others to be malicious, countering their theories by saying “You don’t know that. Don’t just assume that” only helps for about 2 seconds:

They rake a hand through their hair and say “Yeah, I guess you’re right. I don’t know that for sure.” Pause for effect. “But I swear, they’re just doing that to fuck with us!” Aaaand, back to Square One.

What did help multiple times is giving a couple of scenarios in which the enraging behaviour is a result of good helpful intentions of the other party and doesn’t manifest their evil and / or stupid nature.

Giving examples of how something might have had positive intent opens the door to really talk. I’ve established a possible alternate reality 🙂

What’s really going on is something we can try to find out during the facilitated conversation.

After I laid out these thoughts, Tobias remarked:

Talking “of how this might have had positive intent” is very different to making the assumption, isn’t it?

Huh? Hm, I guess that’s true. Apparently I fall inbetween the two schools of thought and my mindset when preparing to facilitate is:

I assume that positive intent is possible (while not actually assuming any particular motive)

And I can come up with at least two positive intent scenarios for any given situation.

Learned something about myself there. It’s a mindset that has served me well so far. What’s your mindset for facilitating tense conversations?

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books

What’s a good action item?

9 points that make follow-through more likely

tl;dr Small, concrete, team has control over it, clear first step, responsible person, follow-up date, success criteria; there are only a few AIs, visualize


Retrospectives are only meaningful if they result in change. Sometimes this change is sparked just by everyone reaching a better understanding of everyone else’s perspective. More often we reach change through experiments, i. e. by trying something new for a set period of time. Obviously, you would like your experiments to improve things, but they won’t always. You have to try out many things to find the ones that are an improvement and discard the rest.

Experiments come in two flavors:

  • Action Items (AIs) – concrete todos; usually one-time-tasks
Examples: “Invite the devops team to our refinement meeting”
  • Rule changes – how the team handles their interactions, routines, rituals or events; usually on-going and repeating
Examples:
    • “everybody will answer these 3 questions in the daily standup”,
    • “we will groom upcoming stories every Wed 3pm”,
    • “we will prepare the product demo the day before the review”

I’m sloppy and use “action items” to mean both types – yes, also in this post. My recommendations apply to both types.

Okay, so we’re in a retrospective and try to come up with good experiments to try out. But what is a “good” action item?

For me, a good action item is something that has a high chance of actually being implemented by the team. You don’t get brownie points for coming up with ten AIs. You get points for those two AIs that you actually carry out and observe the results of.

Great. And what exactly increases the chances of follow-through for an AI? Glad you’re asking!

Small

Aim for small experiments. Go for the smallest change that could possibly make a difference. Small changes are easier to agree on. They have a higher chance of actually being implemented, because they are not such a big effort. If an experiment works: Great! If it doesn’t you haven’t invested much and can try something else. Rinse and repeat for continuous improvement.

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Raise your hand to speak

For somebody who spends as much time as I do on thinking about what we do at sipgate and why it works, I missed a tiny, big detail for a really long time: Our meetings work much better than at most other places because we raise our hands when we want to speak. And we talk in the order of hands being raised.

I once had plans for a book on how teams facilitate can better their own meetings. And it never occured to me to include raising your hand in the book. I had thought about talking sticks and keeping a visible list for big groups, but not about “queueing” to speak.

After all, isn’t that just how it works in school? Yes and no. Yes, you raise your hand to speak. No, not everybody gets to speak and you are not responsible yourself to figure out the order of speaking. The teacher calls on people to speak.

But if you think about it, not interrupting each other and letting other speak first is the basis for all the other things that work well in our meetings. AFAIR, Richard Sheridan calls stuff like that “kindergarten skills” in his book “Joy, Inc.”. These kindergarten skills, i.e. playing nice with others is the first thing they check for in potential hires.

I only realized this how important the hand raising thing is, because I recently was in a meeting with someone who didn’t wait their turn. It was sooo irritating. It ruined the flow and also made it more likely for others to display bad meeting manners: Interrupting others becomes more frequent because everybody is anxious to get their thoughts out.

Even now that I’m writing it down, I feel like it’s too basic, too obvious to be mentioned. I mean: “You want nicer, fairer meetings, in which people are not talking over each other? Gee, have you tried taking turns by raising your hand to get the word when it’s your turn?” Duh.

But then again, I rarely see the hand raising in other environments and meeting flow is worse for it. So, I’ll be happy to state the obvious, if it helps some team, somewhere.

You’re meetings are going smoothly without hand raising? Great! Maybe it’s because you’ve got a facilitator? Facilitators can often guess who wants to speak, based on body language. And give the floor to that person either explicitly or also using subtle body language. I often give somebody the floor, by raising my open palm towards them or just looking at them with my head cocked.

But facilitators are not mind readers so even then the hand raising bit helps. And when there’s no facilitator it helps a lot! If they know who wants to speak, the more confident team members can give the floor to shyer ones, who wouldn’t just talk over someone else to be heard.

So, yeah, queue to speak and get more orderly meetings with a fairer distribution of “air time”. Peace Out 🙂

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books

Responsive Retromat

Big news: As of March 2021, Retromat.org is responsive and adapts to all screen sizes. We’re a teeny tiny little bit late to the party, but better than never 🥳 🥳 🥳

This is the biggest change since Timon Fiddike rewrote the backend in 2016. It’s been on my ToDo-list for forever. At least 5 years. I mean, mobile devices are not exactly new 😉

Now, I finally, finally get to close this tab in my head and Retromat is much more accessible! In the end, the rewrite was both easier and harder than expected: It was easier because Past-Corinna was pretty smart about decoupling the Java Script logic from the layout. Plus, Flexbox is cool and my SO helped me with grid (CSS). It was also harder because there were many small things I hadn’t thought of. And one big one: Thank you Timon, for setting up a test server!

The Retro Mates’ support gave me the energy to finally tackle this. Shout out to them! And may we all bask in the glorious feeling of finishing something big-ish 🙂

PS: If you want to help make Retromat more awesome, why not become a Retro Mate?

Story Cubes for Retrospectives

In a guest session at one of our Open Fridays Cynthia Hohlstein and Kevin Plechinger hosted an inspiring session on and with Story Cubes. Because neither of them blogs, I get to share their idea with you: Story Cubes are sets of 9 dice with images on them. The images cover a wide range of motives, such as speech bubble, sheep, star, hand, walking stick figure, … The idea is that you roll 3 dice and then tell a story that contains the 3 motives you rolled.

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A Christmas Retro

It’s getting christmassy in my corner of the world. Red, green, glittery. Old bearded men in red overalls 😉

So, just in case you are looking for ideas for a Christmas themed retro to end the year with, here’s the bonus Christmas retro from my new book “Plans for Retrospectives“.

[Disclaimer: This plan is from a chapter on how to create custom activities and it is tailored to German holiday traditions. Adapt to your culture’s storylines as needed.]

A Christmas Retro

Pre-Corona I would have brought ginger bread, fir branches for the smell and flickering light to invoke the holiday spirit. Since Corona numbers are high in Germany, I’ll try to create a cozy background for the video call. I might go with a fireplace or a Christmas tree. Also, there’s one team I might ask to dress up – either truly festive or “Ugly Christmas Sweater” style.

When planning this retro I looked through all activities in “Set the stage” to make one christmassy. None seemed fitting. One search for “Christmas retrospective” later, I see Santa faces and voila:

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Visualize time with TimeTimer

How do you keep track of time when you facilitate a retrospective or other meetings? How do you make sure you keep timeboxes? A timer on a smart phone is one way to do it, but for me it lacks visibility. I forget the timebox and only remember it, when it’s used up. And it’s even less visible for participants.

What works beautifully are TimeTimers. With a TimeTimer you set the timebox by pulling out a red disk. As soon as you let go, the red disk slowly starts retreating back below the white parts. That way you always have a pie chart of the remaining time. Elegant, easy to use and it communicates time very effectively!

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books

New Book: 15 Plans for Retrospectives

A few years ago, someone told me that they had witnessed several newly minted Scrum Masters take a random plan from Retromat and run a retrospective with it. The plan that was displayed when they opened Retromat. Or one they got hitting the “New random retro”-button. The resulting retrospectives had been confusing.

At first, I was unbelieving, that anyone would do that: Just take the five activities that were randomly combined and call it a “plan”? No way!

Then I was shocked: A random combination doth not a plan make. It wasn’t surprising that these retrospectives were trainwrecks.

Upon reflection, I realized that for a beginner it is really hard to see that a random plan will not work. In order to protect new SMs and teams from a terrible first retro experience, I wrote “Retromat is not meant for beginners” and added clarification on the Retromat homepage.

It didn’t feel like enough, because I couldn’t point new facilitators to something readily helpful and applicable. That’s why I came up with the Best Retrospective for Beginners. The name is exaggerated but the plan is solid. The people using it have gotten great feedback from their teams.

But I didn’t stop thinking about how to better support beginners. Because all the books out there contain building blocks, not a finished stable building. Makes sense, because the books (and Retromat) are by experienced facilitators for experienced facilitators. We love to mix and match activities. But how is a beginner supposed to mix and match with the same level of confidence and success?

Today, four years later, I finally improved on that single plan: I assembled 15 plans for retrospectives + 1 bonus plan so that newly minted facilitators can hit the ground running. The plans cover a variety of common situations in agile teams: Dealing with reluctant participants; helping complainy teams take responsibility; working on better stories and requirements; talking about expectations; increasing follow-through; …

Maybe you can spread the word among the budding facilitators in your life 🙂

PS: There’s also a bundle for this book + the book with all 135+ activities in Retromat.

Give feedback to new team members with SaMoLo (#17)

Many of the activities in Retromat are also useful outside of retrospectives in other meetings or workshops. Point in turn: SaMoLo (#17) is how we first started giving feedback to new colleagues at sipgate.

It’s helpful for newbies to hear how they’re doing in order to adjust to their new workspace. In traditional companies this might be done by a team lead or superior. At sipgate, this is the team’s job.

Although new members tend to come up as a topic in the team retrospective, it’s usually as a side note and only when they’ve just started. We felt that onboarding new colleagues is important enough to give each their own dedicated meeting with the following structure:

All team members except the new one meet and collect feedback in 3 categories:  “Behavior we’d like to see the same amount of”, “More of” and “Less of” (SaMoLo). They discuss the issues, group them and decide who will present the feedback. Then the new colleague joins to hear and discuss what they’re doing great and where they can improve.

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