Every new team goes through a storming phase.
These are times when nerves are tight and you can feel the tension in the air. As a retrospective facilitator, it is important to recognize this and plan your retrospective accordingly. How? Let’s start at the end and work our way up.
1. What do we want as a result?
As a facilitator I want the team to agree on actions they will take in order to improve the situation. This may be too optimistic for one retrospective, but at least I want them to express their true feelings and look for root causes together. If the team gets to that point, a big step has been taken.
This may be culture specific, but it’s not easy to share your feelings when it comes to a group dysfunction. Many prefer not to talk about a dysfunction because of the possibility of conflict.
2. How will I help the team to achieve the result?
First of all, your most important task as a facilitator is to create an open atmosphere. I bet you all know 2 kind of meetings. The meeting where only one person at a time is talking and others nod or remain silent AND the meeting where everybody talks to each other, with energy and passion, where in the end you have the feeling you did something together. If you’re able to create this second type of meeting, people will participate quicker and are more willing to speak up.
There are different exercises and techniques you can use at the start of your retrospective to work towards this. For instance, start as you always do, by going over the retrospective rules and purpose. Then choose an exercise to get input on dysfunctions. For instance the Hopes & Concerns exercise. Group the hopes and concerns by topic and try to find a root cause by using the 5 why’s technique or some other root cause analysis exercise. As soon as you can agree as a team on a possible root cause, you need an appropriate exercise for the team to work on this dysfunction.
The following exercise is a good match: “How can we make things worse?”
It sounds stupid, but it works amazingly well. As a team you start by defining your topic. Suppose we all agreed that there is too little communication amongst team members, then the facilitator writes that down on a flip chart. Then he invites everyone to write down ideas on some post-its on how we can make this situation worse. That’s right, worse! So in this case: “How can we communicate less?”
You will notice that people find it amusing, thinking about how they can sabotage things… When everybody is finished, ask them to group their post-its on the flip chart and start discussing. Let the team make some fun. It helps to create an opening for what we need to do next, which is to generate insights.
Slowly turn it back around. Go over each cluster of ideas and discuss in group whether it gives you ideas to make things better. For instance, if we have a cluster called “Work at different locations”, and we start discussing it, people will turn the idea upside down quite easily.
Facilitator : “Guys, can we use this idea for the better?”.
John : “Sure, we could do the exact opposite and move our desks closer together”.
Mary : “Maybe we can create a big square, so we face each other and can easily share ideas”.
Kanye : “Why is the tester not sitting in our room?”
Make sure you’re not only focussing on the search for actions. If you want to get out of the storming phase, people also need to get insights. We need to learn the other’s point of view and have to work on a shared framework of understanding. Actions are fine, but don’t worry if it takes 2 retrospectives to get them. The hardest part is building the understanding.
3. How do I prepare for this?
As soon as you feel the team transitioning into a storming phase, it’s time for you as a facilitator to change your retrospective format. Focus less on finding new ideas to improve, and more on creating shared understanding. It’s important that you create a plan on how to approach this delicate topic. Picture how you will introduce the exercises and what timing you need to facilitate them. I always create a short schema just to make sure I don’t skip a step during the retrospective. If you set the frame and guide the team through, the rest will happen by itself!