Chapter 8 Political Vote – Retrospectives Antipatterns

Chapter 8 Political Vote

. . . in which the team members wait until the last moment to vote in order to game the system, and the facilitator finds a way to make the voting system more fair

Context

Sarah wants to use the retrospective as an opportunity to discuss how the team values the quality of their work. This subject is somewhat delicate, since some of the team members believe that the quality is very low. Sarah knows this because she has talked with some of them offline, but she also knows they never discuss the work quality openly and that the tension around it simmers in the background of each meeting.

This retrospective has to be done online, since some of the team members are working remotely this week.

She decides to use a team radar retrospective (Figure 8.1), also known as a spider web retrospective. She has prepared a Google Drawings diagram and labeled the six spokes Quality, Customer Value, Test Coverage, Internal Communication, External Communication, and Fun.

Figure 8.1 A team radar retrospective with six topics

Using this approach, Sarah can evaluate the team’s thoughts on quality without making it too obvious, because other topics are represented on the spokes as well. The task for the team members is to place a virtual Post-it Note on every spoke, rating these six aspects of the team on a scale from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent), to visually show the group’s collective opinion.

Had it been a retrospective with everyone physically present, Sarah would have asked people to write the numbers on a piece of paper, and she would have read them aloud to protect anonymity. Then everyone would have looked at the votes and discussed whether the results were surprising, whether they were good or bad, and what could be done about them. Since this is an online retrospective, she needs to use online tools, in this case, Google Drawings, which allows people to place their virtual Post-it Notes anonymously. The downside to this voting method is that everyone can see the votes as they are placed and may be influenced by those votes. For example, they might see that the first two votes rated quality as excellent, so to avoid being the reason for discussing quality, they decide to follow the votes of the first two.

General Context

In a retrospective in real life, it is often harder to make things anonymous because we can see where people put their Post-it Notes or we know their handwriting. In an online retrospective, it is easier to maintain anonymity when needed. But in the process, we must make sure that we do not lose other things, such as timing, and that everyone votes without looking at other people’s votes.

Antipattern Solution

The antipattern solution is to let people vote by dragging and dropping virtual Post-it Notes to the place in the image representing their choice or opinion. The timing in this approach can be a problem, though, because people may wait until they see what other people vote for before they cast their own vote. Also, in contrast to an in-person retrospective where you might walk around the room and collect a piece of paper from everyone, it can be difficult in an online retrospective to see whether everyone has voted.

Consequences

When people can see other people’s votes before they themselves vote, they sometimes cast a “political” vote, or a politically correct vote, rather than one that reflects their true opinion. Perhaps they do not feel safe in this team, so even though the votes are anonymous, they do not want their vote to lead to a discussion in which they are obliged to express aloud an opinion that disagrees with that of the majority. This phenomenon might influence everybody to vote in approximately the same way. Consequently, the issue remains an unacknowledged difference of opinion and a source of tension within the team.

Symptoms

The symptoms of the Political Vote antipattern often are easy to spot, if someone says out loud, “I will wait until everyone else votes, and then I’ll vote where it makes the most difference according to what I want to talk about.” If two or more topics were tied, for example, this person could sway the outcome by casting the tiebreaking vote for the topic he or she prefers (even if it wasn’t the person’s first choice). Other people might withhold their vote until they see what others vote for, then vote with the crowd—that is, cast a politically correct vote, as described previously.

Refactored Solution

The refactored solution is to have all the team members vote at the same time. Most online tools support simultaneous voting: you ask everyone to “pick up” their vote, hold it for a count of “1-2-3-vote!” and then drop it into place. When everyone votes at the same time, you get a truer picture of what the majority wants. If your online tool does not support this feature, you can ask people to send you their votes in a private chat, and then you can place all the votes in the radar. Some online retrospective systems, such as Retrium, have voting systems that do not allow you to see the votes of other people before you have voted.

Online Aspect

The context of this antipattern is an online retrospective, but in an offline retrospective, you could solve it by having everybody hand their votes to you, and then you put all the votes on the board yourself.

Personal Anecdote

I was facilitating a retrospective in a team I had been working with for a long time. We knew each other. Our retrospectives were always online and always with the use of Google Drawings as a canvas for the retrospective. This time we held a team radar retrospective, and we wanted to figure out what aspects of their work they wanted to focus on.

The problem was that one of the team members did not want to vote until everybody else had voted. He felt insecure about evaluating aspects of work such as code quality and test coverage because he was worried that his opinion might be unpopular. Even though it was a completely anonymous vote, he knew that if he rated, say, code quality as 1 or 2 when the rest of the team rated it 4 or 5, the ensuing discussion would require him to support and defend his unpopular opinion.

From my point of view, I needed his input and valued his opinion—and so did everybody else on the team. We resolved the problem by using the 1-2-3-vote method every time the team had to vote. When everyone voted simultaneously, no one could base their vote on other people’s votes.