One Simple Change to Revolutionize Your Retros and Build Trust
June 9, 2020
Whether you have always worked with your team remotely or are exploring the option for the first time, you will not build a high-performing agile team without trust. Although trust is possible within distributed teams, it takes a different approach to develop trust remotely.
The retro is one tool that can be used to your advantage. Within teams where trust is low, retros can be a place to blame others for the team’s failures. As a result, team members can feel misunderstood and less motivated to perform. But with one simple change, the focus can change to one of continuous improvement, empathy, and collaboration. Before we dive into the solution, let’s understand why there’s a problem.
Challenges of Building Trust Remotely
In a colocated environment—defined by Marty Cagan as “mean(ing) that the product manager, product designer, and the engineers all sit right next to each other”—trust is developed through shared experiences, side conversations, and proximity. When you go online, you miss out on some of the key elements of in-person interactions: body language, voice, tone, and silences. We overestimate our ability to correctly interpret sarcasm, humor, or sincerity over text communication. Missing all this real-time feedback makes misunderstandings much more common, empathy harder to feel, and trust much harder to build.
So let’s focus on the primary element we still have access to even during COVID-19-enforced remote work: language.
Research has shown that language influences how we think, how we reason, and what we remember. A well-known concept in clinical psychology is that of “I-messages,” which are an assertion about the feelings, beliefs, values, etc. of the person speaking and generally expressed as a sentence beginning with the word “I”. I-messages are often used with the intent to be assertive without putting the listener on the defensive by avoiding accusations. They are also used to take ownership for one’s feelings, rather than implying that they are caused by another person.
It sounds simple, but it makes a huge difference in helping us empathize with our team members and work together to resolve issues. Here’s one way to use this knowledge to improve your retros and your working relationships.
When trust on the team is low, it helps to focus on small actions to show progress. As you may know, retros on a team with low trust can turn into a venue to vent and blame others, without focusing on constructive criticism and resolutions. Which is why remote retros need their own rules.
- Use a remote retro tool (such as FunRetro or Reetro) to gather feedback anonymously *before* the meeting.
- Explain the technique ahead of time.
- Each item will be read by someone who did not write it. There are several ways to do this, but if you already know your team fairly well you will have a general sense of who has written what.
- Each reader will “claim” the item as their own, and repeat it in first person using an “I-message”. For example: “The backlog needs to be ready before iteration planning” becomes “I did not prepare the backlog before iteration planning”. It will take a few minutes to get this right, and if the trust level is low you may get questions about why you are doing this.
- The reader will then suggest the action item, a small task that can be done towards the goal.
- The last ¼ of the retro can be used to group, prioritize, and discuss action items.
You will immediately see a shift in the energy of the group (though you may have to be more attentive to perceive it in a virtual setting), and notice the diversity of solutions increase as the thought process changes.
There is no quick fix to building trust on a team. But if you start with this small change and follow up on small changes each sprint, you will see both immediate and lasting benefits that lead you and your team to build better products.
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