Always look on the bright side of life …

I like to look at things from a positive angle since I find the opposite to be very … ehrrr … negative. This is not the same as being naive but at times it might look like that. Nor does it imply disregarding risks, negative aspects or criticizing, even though it might look like that as well.

No, it’s just that I like my default mode to be positive, so to speak.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked to facilitate a retrospective and since I like to build on the positives of a situation I started to look around. Also I had been talking to a colleague who happens to like to amplify the positive rather than dampen the negative. Since I’m a firm believer in that as well it made me more determined in my search for a good way to hold a retrospective. Having vague memories about appreciative inquiry, it didn’t take very long before I found something I liked.

What’s AI then?

From Wikipedia November 2009:
(Appreciative Inquiry) is an organizational development process or philosophy that engages individuals within an organizational system in its renewal, change and focused performance. AI is based on the assumption that organizations change in the way they inquire and the claim that an organization which inquires into problems or difficult situations will keep finding more of the same but an organization which tries to appreciate what is best in itself will find/discover more and more of what is good.

How about An AI retrospective then?

Yes, it has been done before. Diana Larsen describes the concept here.  It’s fine to read that later, or you could do it now if you’d like.

Basically a retrospect consists of five parts:

  • Set the stage
  • Gather data
  • Generate insights
  • Decide what to do
  • Close the retrospective

How we did it

Me and another colleague ran this retrospect as a pair, stepping back and forth as the facilitator. One of us was managing the present at a detailed level while the other one looked slightly ahead as we went through each stage. I wouldn’t recommend this unless you know each other very well and have done a fair amount of pair work previously.

Stepping back and letting the other take over the facilitation requires a pretty high level of trust. Especially if you like being in control.

Setting the Stage

First, since I was pretty sure no-one in this crowd, beside me and my colleague [the facilitators], knew about AI we explained very briefly what AI is and then ran a round of ‘Appreciations’. The mechanics of an appreciation can be described as follows:

  • Think of someone, you honestly appreciate, for doing something
  • Face that person and express that. I.e ‘Tom, I appreciate you for helping me find the problem with that tricky threaded design last Monday’
  • Tom should acknowledge the appreciation by simply saying ‘Thank you’ or something like that.

The mechanics of an appreciation is as simple as it sounds. The tricky part is being direct, finding things you appreciate and last but not least muster some courage to say it out loud … when you’re sitting in a room with 10 other colleagues. It becomes easier after doing it a dozen times though.

The appreciation round got the group in the right mood. After that we asked the group my favorite question in order to stimulate some abstract thinking around a specific topic.

If this [iteration] was an Ice cream, what would it be like?

I believe that abstract thinking helps a lot later during the ‘Generate Insights’ part and to this day I haven’t met anyone that doesn’t have something to say about Ice Cream. It’s not political, it’s abstract enough, it’s fun and people open themselves up just a little bit more.

Ice Cream … we got a perfect start. The first person really hit the head of the nail by summing up the iteration as a cone of ice cream with three different flavors. Brilliant! The others tagged along and off we went!

Gather Data

Now it was time to start asking some questions to stimulate the data gathering. We asked 4 questions and asked the participants to try to relate those to either a ‘Strength’ the team had, a ‘Success’ or an ‘Event’ that had occurred since the last retrospective.

  1. ‘Tell a story or about a time when you where in a flow’
  2. ‘Say something that you are particularly proud of achieving’
  3. ‘What unique thing did this iteration add’
  4. ‘At what time did you feel like you where part of a team the most’

As we asked those questions people told stories and commented while they and the others wrote down their answers and notes on stickies. Small paper notes that can be stuck on a whiteboard.

Generate insights

After that we told the group to close their eyes, imagine they were in the same room only three weeks in the future. While pretending they where in the future, we again asked the same questions and they wrote down their answers. After this round of questions each participant read all their answers out loud and we helped them put the stickies up on a wall.

Now the time had come to prepare for the next stage and in order to do that we wanted to reach some sort of agreement on what to do. We asked the participants to look for patterns and then group the stickies. All this had to be done while remaining completely silent. No talking allowed.

We weren’t quite sure how they would tackle this but the group once again astonished us. In complete silence they had grouped the stickies in less than 5 minutes and they enjoyed it.

Decide that to do

Thinking about their strength as a team and looking at the groups of stickies we then asked them to vote for what area to look into. After a simple dot-voting with a total of 6 dots, 3-2-1, they had come to the conclusion that two areas needed their attention the most. They split up in two groups, talked for a while and then presented two plans on how to achieve their goals. They decided that they would put up those goals where everyone could see them and follow up on that.

Closing the retrospective

We had plans on running a full ‘Temperature Reading’ as a closing activity. However, we ran out of time and opted for ‘Hopes and Wishes’. By this time the group was steaming with positive energy and really going. Despite the fact that we had been going for pretty much 90 minutes straight.

Hopes and wishes are stuff that the participants would like see or happen in the future. Like, ‘I would really like to pair program more’ or ‘I wish I could visit our customer more often’. This closed the retrospective and kept that positive note right to the end.

I will definitely do this again.

About Ola Ellnestam

Agile Coach, Systems developer, Agile Practitioner and father of three.

8 responses »

  1. MrHuddle says:

    Best topics in agile_development for 2009-11-12…

    Best topics in agile_development for 2009-11-12…

  2. Louis-Gabriel says:

    Thanks for sharing that! I think the “ice cream” question really is a good idea to set the right mood.

    I also have trouble running the “find patterns” part. I’ll try your suggestion in my next retro.

    • Ola Ellnestam says:

      Hi Louis-Gabriel,

      When you’ve done that please tell me how it went. I’m always keen on improving how I do it, and other peoples experiences usually help me a lot.


  3. […] spørsmålene etter inspirasjon fra “Appreciative Inquiry”. Ola Ellnestams blogpost om Appreciative Inquiry Retrospectives var en viktig kilde til […]

  4. Mette Johanne Jacobsen says:

    Hi Ola,

    This sounds great and I’m going to try it in the next retro. I’m not quite sure how you did the Gather Data – you say in the paper “As we asked those questions people told stories and commented while they and the others wrote down their answers and notes on stickies…”

    Did they have to put their own answers down on stickies or did someone else do it for them while the told stories or did they write first and then told the story later – i’m not quite sure that you mean?

    Regards Mette

    • Ola Ellnestam says:

      Hi Mette,

      Some of them told their stories first, and then wrote on stickies. Others wrote the note first and then told the story. Some got inspired from other peoples stories and wrote their own note. Good luck with your own AI-adventures.


  5. […] […]

  6. […] spørsmålene etter inspirasjon fra “Appreciative Inquiry”. Ola Ellnestams blogpost om Appreciative Inquiry Retrospectives var en viktig kilde til […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s