Chapter 21 Negative Team
. . . in which the team wants to talk only about the negative things because they think these are the only things they can learn from, and the facilitator shows them that a focus on positive aspects can be equally valuable
The team at Titanic Softwære A/S has now been doing retrospectives for some months. Team members have learned that they can meet some of their challenges and solve some of their problems with retrospectives. They dive right into the problems when they meet for the retrospectives. When gathering data for the retrospectives, it is often the negative Post-it Notes they reach for. When Sarah asks why, the answer is that they are here to solve problems, not to relax in a happy hippie place.
You have a team that tends to focus on the negative issues and events during the retrospectives. Perhaps they have a negative mindset, or because they are developers and thus problem solvers, perhaps they are most comfortable when they are actively resolving issues. Or they might think the sole purpose of retrospectives is to discover what is not working and fix it. Whatever the reason, a glum atmosphere can permeate the retrospectives if all of the negative aspects of the team’s technology, work, and cooperation are emphasized.
It is a human condition to focus on the negative, and we generally have to consistently work with it. This search for “danger” helped our ancestors survive many life-threatening situations, but it can be a burden when we want to focus on and celebrate the good things in life. Bad news sells better than good news.
When the team in a retrospective wants to focus on the negative in order to solve as many problems as possible, you will often be tempted to follow their lead. You do the retrospectives for their sake, after all, and you want them to get out of it what they think they need to get out of it. Therefore, you rush past the positive data to take action on the negative—the problems and the challenges. The positive notes, if there are any, are left behind, almost unnoticed.
It is satisfying, even rewarding, to solve the team’s problems and challenges during retrospectives. We must not forget, however, that retrospectives are about making good teams great, and the team can learn also from the methods and processes that already work. Positives sometimes can be made even better, or you can at least make sure they are not forgotten.
Imagine a distributed team that makes polite small talk on Slack because they recognized in a previous retrospective that it helps them feel connected, as a team should. Their retrospectives are typically peppered with “Good morning,” “Good bye,” and “How are things for you?”—comments that show courtesy and caring for each other.
Now, in the current retrospective, suppose the team discusses how to use Slack, and they agree that they should not be using it for trivial small talk. Suddenly, the polite comments that remind them they are people who care about each other are forgotten, and some people feel they are no longer part of a team. If they are fortunate, perhaps this issue will pop up again at the next retrospective, and they can revisit the purpose of Slack and the benefits of small talk. But this negative blip in the retrospectives would not have occurred in the first place if the team had focused not only on negative but also on positive issues. They might have remembered that small talk on Slack is a deliberate practice for this team because it reinforces respect for and courtesy toward each other.
The symptoms at the retrospective are many negative Post-it Notes, lack of discussion about the positive aspects of the team and its work, and an often negative atmosphere because the team focuses on the things that are not working and that take away their energy. You may sometimes see the facilitator at a retrospective like this trying to brighten things up with jokes and funny stories. But this effort does not work if the baseline is dark. Trust me, I have tried it.
The aim is to help the team focus on the positive parts of their work. This is sometimes easy, and all you have to do is say, for example, “Today we will spend a bit more time on the positive parts of the past. What is already working for you? What do you like about working this way?” It might help to add that even though we appreciate that we learn more from failure than we do from success, there is value in looking at what already works and perhaps could be even better.
However, with some teams—and you might not know whether yours is one of them before you try this solution—you need to be more persuasive. For example, you can plan a positivity retrospective and tell the team that they can talk only about positive events and issues.
A third option is to be rough and simply remove all the negative Post-it Notes after gathering the data. You can read an example of this approach in the anecdote section.
The first option skews the focus in the retrospective toward a more positive mindset, while the second two enforce a retrospective focused solely on positive aspects. Whichever of the three options you choose, you should prepare yourself for pushback. Some people simply do not feel a retrospective was productive if it has not solved some problems. In my experience, though, once they have tried including positive issues in their focus and you have followed through by believing in yourself and the process, the team will see the point and feel happy about it. I would make a fully positivity retrospective with no focus on negative things no more than once every 3 to 6 months, depending on how often you have retrospectives with the team.
This refactored solution often leads to a natural inclusion of the positive along with the negative issues at the “normal” retrospectives.
As a side note, I have often seen negative comments subtly phrased as positive comments, such as “It was great that the build worked a year ago” or “I really like when the manager is working from home.” Be aware of negatives in disguise, and point them out with a smile the moment you notice them. Make a note of such comments, though, for next time, or even place the Post-it Note in a parking lot for the next retrospective.
As with offline retrospectives, the aim is to make the team focus on all the things that are going well and to celebrate and enhance them. The solutions described earlier are equally easy (and hard) in an online retrospective.
(Attributed to Simon Hem Pedersen, one of my braver facilitator colleagues.) For a retrospective with a team that historically wanted to focus solely on the negative aspects of the stories, Simon asked them to make a timeline, and he called a break when all the Post-it Notes were on the board. During the break, he removed all but the green, positive Post-it Notes, so when the team came back, the red and yellow notes were gone. They then decided which cluster of green notes to focus on and did a fishbone exercise to find the reasons behind the green notes. In this way, they focused on all that had gone well and developed experiments on how to make those aspects of their work even better.
Despite Simon’s initial fear that the team would be disappointed that he had thrown away the negative Post-it Notes, it turned out to be one of the best retrospectives Simon had facilitated with that group.