Safety Exercise

In my recent posting on Separate Retrospectives, I mentioned sometimes performing a Safety Exercise at the beginning of a retrospective where the situation was unknown or seemed a bit charged with emotion. I was asked about that exercise.

I use a simple poll of how safe people feel. I got this from Norm Kerth’s book, Project Retrospectives (page 110). Norm describes this as part of an exercise to increase the sense of safety in the room and promote honest and open speech. In the context of a day-long-or-more end-of-project retrospective, then I can see the value of such an exercise. For an heartbeat retrospective, I don’t attempt this. I’m not optimistic about significantly raising the level of trust in a short period of time. There will be other retrospectives, and there will be time to work on trust issues in between. It’s often helpful, though, to bring the issue of trust and safety to the surface.

For getting a sense of the safety in the room, I’ll ask people to rate their feeling using this scale:

1.    I’ll just keep my mouth shut
2.    I’ll agree with whatever the group says
3.    I’ll discuss the non-controversial topics
4.    I’ll discuss almost anything
5.    I’m willing to talk about anything

I have everyone write a number on an index card or sticky note as a private ballot, and fold it so the number is not visible. I will then collect the ballots (or delegate to someone who seems both trusted and without power over others) and count the number of each value. On a whiteboard or flip chart I’ll record these with hashmarks. This gives a simple obvious view of the reported safety.

Sometime I’ll point out that this is only the reported level of safety. After all, if someone doesn’t feel safe, they may not feel safe enough to answer this question openly, either. They may give then number that they think is expected, or the one they think others will give.

Retrospectives are difficult in low-trust situations. They’re also a great tool for building trust over time.

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