Three Breaths

Musings on code, management, and life

An Active Listening Retrospective

Posted at — Oct 5, 2012

The team I am on holds a retrospective at the end of each week-long iteration.  I am a huge fan of retrospectives as they can help teams improve their processes and nip developing problems in the bud.

Our team has a lot of Agile experience and we typically trade off the facilitator role, so the retrospectives have a nice variety of styles and everyone gets a chance to improve their facilitating skills. Our retrospectives normally gravitate towards process improvements or specific technologies that we can improve as a group.  This week however, I wanted to experiment with a new format that I came up with influenced by some meditation and mindfulness practices that I have learned over the years.  One of the techniques I wanted to use in the retrospective was active-listening.

Some of the questions that were on my mind…

Laying the Groundwork

This style of retrospective needs to be held in a quiet place like a conference room, with enough room for team members to spread out in pairs without distracting one another.

At the start of the retrospective I reminded the team that we had all probably come from working on some challenging task, and our minds may still on those tasks to some extent.  To be fully present at the retrospective, I asked everyone to take a moment to clear their minds and focus on being present.  Next time I may try a short breathing exercise to help that process, but sometimes just reminding people to be present is enough for them to realize the distractions that may be going on for them and to put them aside.

The Mechanics

I asked everyone to take a few minutes, in silence, to think about what happened in the last retrospective.  What went well, what could have been improved, what pleased them, what frustrated or challenged them, whatever came to mind from the iteration.

I then asked people to pair up.  I chose names out of a hat because I wanted the pairs to be random and possibly have people pair up with someone that they might not normally seek out.  Also it eliminates the stress of “choosing” someone.  If there is an even number of people at the retrospective, the facilitator can participate, otherwise they focus solely on facilitating.

I then instructed the pairs to find some space away from the others, and for a few minutes (3 minutes in our case) one of the people would be the speaker and the other would be the listener.  I encouraged the listener to pay close attention to what the speaker was saying, and try not to form responses in their minds.  If the conversation lagged the listener could ask open-ended questions, but ideally they would focus only on listening to what the person was saying.

After the 3 minutes was up, I asked each of the listeners to tell the group what they heard from their speaker.  Everyone did a great job recalling what was said.  After each “listener” spoke I asked the “speaker” if the listener accurately relayed their conversation and if anything had been left out, which gave them a chance to fill in the gaps or clarify something that was said.

We then repeated the process changing speaker and listener roles.

After everyone had a chance at the “speaker” and “listener” roles.  I went around the room and asked each person if they heard anything that stood out in particular or that surprised them.  I made a conscious effort to allow each person to say what was on their mind, without getting a conversation started with the whole group.  If others chimed in I asked them to please wait until everyone had a chance to speak before we turned it into an open discussion.

A few common themes emerged from the individual observations, and after everyone had a chance to speak individually we discussed the common issues for a bit and came up with some actions to address them coming out of the meeting.  I wrapped up the meeting reminding everyone that we are often hyper-focused on the problems in front of us and may not give one another our full attention, but that we should be mindful of that and try our best to listen to one another.  I hope we can build on that as a team.

The Take-Away

One of the coolest things about the format, that I didn’t realize until it was happening, was that everyone got a voice through someone else telling their story about the iteration.  It is inevitable on any team that some people are more outspoken than others (I am no shrinking violet), but this way everyone got the floor.

I think it was also an opportunity to remind everyone that we each have our own perspectives and we should respect and try to understand each other, even when we may not agree.

Total time for the retrospective, with 6 participants, was 45 minutes.

Further Reading/Watching

If you are new to retrospectives, I highly recommend Esther Derby and Diane Larsen’s book Agile Retrospectives - Making Good Teams Great.  It has great techniques for organizing and facilitating retrospectives so that they are most effective.  They also have formats that are designed to address specific issues that may be a concern for your team.

If you are interested in mindfulness, I recommend that you check out the Center for Mindfulness at the UMass Medical School or take a look at these videos with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness, speaking at Google.

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