· retrospectives

Retrospectives: An alternative safety check

At the start of most of the retrospectives I’ve been part of we’ve followed the safety check ritual whereby each person participating has to write a number from 1-5 on a sticky describing how they’ll be participating in the retrospective.

1 means you’ll probably keep quiet and not say much, 5 means you’re perfectly comfortable saying anything and the other numbers fall in between those two extremes.

In my experiences it’s a bit of a fruitless exercise because its viewed that a higher number is ‘better’ and therefore the minimum people will tend to write down is ‘3’ because they don’t want to stand out or cause a problem.

I’ve been in retrospectives where the majority of people were a ‘4’ but then when it came to a contentious topic only 1 or 2 people contributed so I’ve become a bit sceptical of this safety check approach!

Before a retrospective I was facilitating a couple of months ago Phil told me about an alternative that he preferred called ESVP which is described in Agile Retrospectives like so:

Phil pointed out that in this case each of the possible categories describes how people will contribute to the retrospective whereas the traditional safety check is more about their degree of comfort with the environment.

I don’t have enough data points to declare that this is better than the 1-5 approach but from my experiences it seems that there’s less pressure on people to fit in one of the categories since none is ‘better’ than the other, just different.

In a recent retrospective where we used this it led to a conversation where people explained why they had chosen a particular category, which I thought was quite fascinating and something I haven’t seen happen with the numbers approach.

My instinct is that if someone actually felt like a ‘Prisoner’ then they might not actually categorise themselves as that but I haven’t seen this approach used enough to say that for certain!

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