A Retrospective on Listening (and Talking)

Photo by Britt Reints

Photo by Britt Reints

Do you know how to design a retrospective to be engaging, produce new thinking, and lead to clear actions for the next sprint?  I find it to be an exciting challenge to facilitate great retrospective, so much so that one of my friends refers to me as the “Retrospective Diva.”

This week I had the opportunity to design and facilitate a retrospective for one of my teams, and I wanted to share not just what I did but how and why.

Context

The team is working on a very large and important project, which has kept them feeling busy and overwhelmed.  In meetings, team members are often multitasking to keep up with the workload.  Talking to team members one-on-one, I found that they have ideas about how to address some of the project challenges better and feel like they talk about the same problems in retrospectives only to find that nothing changes.  Team members are ready to adopt changes, but there are some destructive conflict behaviors (both active and passive) that need to be addressed.

Defining the Retrospective Goal

After talking to individual team members about what they wanted to address in a retrospective, I found it difficult to identify a common theme.  I reflected on the situation more and realized that they were talking to their manager and me… and I wondered what it was like to not talk as a team about how things were going.  I recognized the indicators of unhappiness present in their body language and tone of voice, and I realized that they were too distracted in meetings to recognize what was being said and not said.  It was clear: the team needed to think about listening and talking more openly.

Designing the Retrospective Agenda

Now that I had selected the goal, it was time to outline the retrospective itself.  How could I provide safety for everyone to participate?  What activities should I use?  Where did the team need to look for future actions?

Set the Stage - 5 minutes

I would only have one hour for the retrospective, so I had to plan my time wisely; knowing how important it would be to have everyone participating, I wanted to engage them within the first five minutes.  In Set the Stage, I would explain the retrospective goal and how I selected it to gain their buy-in and approval to explore it for the hour.  To establish a light tone and invite participation, I decided to open with a quick show of hands--who liked to talk?  Who liked to listen?  Who liked to work alone so they didn't have to talk or listen?  I made sure to laugh as I said the last one.  

Gather Data - 10 minutes

As I thought about what kind of data I wanted to have the team reflect upon, I kept coming back to the question: what is it like to not talk as a team about how things are going?  I wanted them to recognize the differences between the open flow of communication and the communication they’d been experiencing.  The metaphor of a traffic light came to mind.

  • Green – Speaking honestly and fully what’s on your mind / hearing what is being said and how it is being said
  • Yellow – Guarded or cautious in what you say / hearing the words being said but distracted as a listener
  • Red – Not speaking at all or advocating strongly for your ideas / checking out or being closed to other ideas

To gather data, I described the red/yellow/green metaphor and gave each team member a piece of paper with a traffic light image on it.  They indicated on the paper which color best represented the last sprint for them and collected them; I shared the overall results on the whiteboard at the front of the room by putting a check mark next to the color indicated on each paper.  What did they notice about the results?  Were there any surprises?  

Generate Insights - 15 minutes

To generate insights, I wanted them to discuss in pairs what it was like to be in a particular color—red, then yellow, then green.  This way each person would be encouraged to participate and speak more openly.  Rather than let the pairs discuss all of the colors for a long timebox, I wanted to break it down into separate timeboxes for each color with some group sharing in between.  

Decide What to Do - 20 minutes

After reflecting on what it felt like to be in a particular color and what caused them to be in that place, the group could brainstorm options on how to get more green in the next sprint (decide what to do).  I made a note to myself to be prepared to ask questions so it would be clear what the actions are, who the owner is, and how the team would know they succeeded at the end of the sprint.  

Close the Retrospective - 5 minutes

To wrap up, I would recap the action items and how they would be reviewed periodically during the sprint and in the next retrospective, thank everyone for their participation, and invite them to give me feedback outside of the meeting.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Embracing Silence as a Tool

Photo by Evan Moss

Photo by Evan Moss

For those who don’t know, the photo is a reference to Doctor Who, a British sci-fi show that I enjoy watching.  It's a picture of the Silence; their existence is a secret because anyone who sees them immediately forgets about them after looking away, but retains suggestions made to them by the Silence.  Do you remember what it was like to have silence in your life?

I watch a lot of TV.  To be more accurate, I multitask frequently with a TV on in the background.  I like the noise.  But as this video* shows, silence can be powerful:

I sometimes carve out time for silence when I really want to savor something I’m reading or want to inspire creativity.  What does silence do for you? 

*Thanks to @coridrew for sharing this video with me

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

More Clever Ways to Practice Listening

Photo by gfpeck

Photo by gfpeck

Ever feel like the world is trying to get your attention by putting certain messages in front of you?  The world is trying to teach me to listen.  

I came across a TED video on 5 ways to listen better and procrastinated in watching it.  In fact, I didn't watch it at all the first time I decided to press play--I listened to it while driving.  And I listened to it a second time during the same drive.  Later I watched it with distractions in the background once I got home.  Finally, a few days later, I watched it in a quiet living room.  Now I'm posting about it, aware of the rain falling outside that provides a comforting and gentle background noise.

Watch to learn 5 ways to practice listening:

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

A Clever Way to Practice Active Listening

Photo by Hina Ichigo

Photo by Hina Ichigo

How often do you listen intently to what someone else is saying without thinking about your own reply?  Or thinking about something else entirely?  I find it hard to focus sometimes, and in our world of constant interruptions and updates, I am probably not the only one.  In an article called How to Radically Improve Your Life with Just 1 Hour a Week, I was excited to find a new idea of how to practice active listening: Actively listen to a top podcast.

What a clever idea!  A way to practice active listening without the temptation to respond, which will help develop your ability to focus.  Once you're able to listen intently to podcasts, doing the same during conversations will be easier.

I did something similar last year when I realized that I was multitasking at home by watching TV and doing tasks on my computer; I wasn't being very productive or allowing myself to relax, and I had time to do both if I separated my activities.  I picked one show that I would not allow myself to multitask during, and I had to put down the laptop and ignore the urge to check emails on my phone.  By doing so, I noticed more--the character development, the foreshadowing, the use of colors and costumes... I had forgotten how rich Mad Men could be!

Are you looking to increase your active listening skills in 2015?  I'm curious to hear more ideas on how to practice.

 

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Thank you for showing up

Photo by Terrie Schweitzer

Photo by Terrie Schweitzer

This week I found myself telling someone, “thank you for showing up," and while it made perfect sense in my head, it didn’t come out quite right. The person and those nearby didn’t know that I’ve been practicing being present.  Staying in level 2 and 3 listening with individuals and teams.  Ignoring electronics during meetings.  Thinking about what I need to do and be before I attend meetings.  Working on self-management and care.  Trying to discover “Allison” and let the masks down more.

Showing up is a BIG DEAL!

In the workplace, it’s become harder to get people’s time, let alone their attention.  Commitments are becoming weaker or missing entirely because there’s so much to do.  Emotions run higher than normal because of the stress.  Meetings are less effective because key people are not present.  Folks are reactive rather than proactive.  Dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

Ok, maybe not the last part.  Organizations are complex, and the pace of business is super-fast.  It is all too easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of work, and we need more steadfast individuals to remind us to slow down.  The only way to go fast is to go well.

So I sincerely meant thank you for showing up, for being present, for making good on a committed action and letting people see you as a leader and a person.  That’s no easy feat.

What would it say about your character and values if you put aside all distractions to be present with someone for an hour today?  

Show up. 

We need you.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Practicing Level 3 Listening – Energy Awareness

Photo by Nancy Regan

Photo by Nancy Regan

I had the pleasure recently to assist ACI’s 3-day Coaching Agile Teams class in Dallas with my friend Long.  It had been a little over a year since we attended the class as students, and it was a great refresher for us both.  I recognized similarities between the class and the Coaching Training Institute (CTI) classes that I have been taking in Austin, which helped reinforce some concepts for me.  And Long and I practiced our level 3 listening.

Level 3 listening is also known as global listening—awareness of the energy between you and others.  Awareness of how that energy is changing.  You notice shifts in attitude. You are aware of whatever is going on in the environment. You are conscious of the underlying mood, tone, or impact of the conversation—where it is taking you and the person you are talking to.   

The role of the assistant is to hold the space for learning.  Making sure materials are available, being ready to participate in activities, and providing feedback to the instructors at the end of the day are the easy parts.  There’s something else, and I’m not entirely sure how to describe it: you shape the environment to provide a fun, positive, and safe learning experience for the students.  Assisting the class means sitting behind the students, so you end up facing people’s backs for hours.  With the instructors at the front of the room and the assistants at the back, a container is created around the students.  And we each contribute to the energy of the room--we form a force field of sorts.

Graphic from heartmath.org

Graphic from heartmath.org

So what did I do in the back of the room to practice level 3 listening?  I listened to what was being said and how it was said.  I watched people’s body language.  During group activities, I listened to the overall noise and noticed energy shifts.  I felt happy and tried to radiate that.  I loved the moments when my eyes met an instructor’s gaze, and I contributed something good in that instant.  I relished in the activities when Long and I could share observations and ask one another questions.  Most of all, I was present.

Level 3 listening requires practice since it is not how we listen normally.  It takes real effort; I found myself ready to fall asleep earlier than usual on class days.  It is a key skill in coaching, and I am delighted that I was able to practice it amongst friends in the CAT class.  What a lovely way to spend 3 days!

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.