An Appreciative Retrospective

©2007, Diana Larsen, FutureWorks Consulting

“Our retrospectives have become so repetitive,” Fran told me over lunch one day. “We seem to cover the same ground no matter what problem-solving approach I try.”

“Have you tried AI yet?” I inquired.

He retorted, “What does artificial intelligence have to do with anything?”

“Sorry for the confusing acronym. Not artificial intelligence. AI stands for Appreciative Inquiry, a different approach. I find that folks can get a lot more out of their retrospectives when they use an approach that focuses on where they’ve added value or felt high energy. Teams often lose energy when they hunker down to confront setbacks, obstacles and mistakes. It’s discouraging.”

“I haven’t heard about your AI. Tell me more.”

Developed by David Cooperrider and colleagues at Case Western Reserve University in the 1980′s, the AI method brings a fresh approach to improving systems and catalyzing change. AI begins with a series of interviews and questions — the inquiry. Cooperrider based his method on the observation that humans learn and change in the direction of their questions. Appreciative inquirers search for the best in people, their organizations and their environments. They ask questions to uncover stories of when their group felt most alive, contributed most effectively, and found itself most capable of adding value—or appreciating. (For fuller definitions, see the links at the end of this article.)

I prefer an appreciative approach in retrospectives and try to build an appreciative focus to all or part of every session I lead. Teams who build on strengths, successes, and positive energy carry that energy and momentum forward. They also accelerate and deepen trust in their team and work relationships.

Retrospective leaders and teams who focus on what went wrong, where the team failed, and who to blame generate a downward spiral of depleting energy. The team often stops holding retrospectives as a result. Putting attention on failure and blame depletes trust among team members—who start to avoid failure more than seek success. Continuous improvement discontinues.

How can a retrospective leader shift to an appreciative inquiry approach?

What would a retrospective that followed an exclusively appreciative model look like?

Follow the retrospective framework from Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great! by Esther Derby and Diana Larsen, then give it an appreciative twist.

Book Cover

Set the Stage:
To begin, welcome team members to the retrospective. State an affirmative goal for
the session. Choose among goals like:

  • During this retrospective, we’ll find ways to amplify our strengths in process and teamwork.
  • In this session, we’ll discover where we added the most value during our last iteration and plan for increasing the value we add during the next iteration.
  • The goal for today’s retrospective is building on our best uses of engineering practices and methods.
  • We’re going to seek out our highest quality working relationships and find ways to expand on them.

Or any goal that sets up an expectation for positive outcomes.

After stating the goal and giving an overview of the agenda for the retrospective, offer a quick round-robin question to each team member, “Which of our working agreements did you see in action during this iteration
(or release)?” This question brings team members’ attention into the retrospective session and reminds the group of their working agreements—by focusing on the times when they followed them.

Gather Data:
Team members ask and answer a series of three or four questions that focus awareness on individual and team strengths and successes.”Tell us a story about a time this week when you felt particularly energized by our work.”"What did you value most about your contributions this week?” (No false modesty allowed. This isn’t bragging or boasting, it’s important data for the team.)

“What did you value most about the work we’ve done together?”

“In what ways did this iteration (release or project) make a unique contribution?” or “What metaphor describes this iteration (release or project) best?”

Keep track of these answers for later. The team will use the responses along with ideas from the next phase to help determine which actions they want to take.

Generate Insights:
Follow the data gathering questions with a question that creates a vision, such as, “Imagine we could time travel to the end of the next release. When we arrive there and converse with our future selves, we hear that it was the most productive, most satisfying effort we’ve ever worked on. What do you see and hear in that future time?”

Wait 2 or 3 minutes for team members to connect with this vision. Then ask: “What changes did we implement now that resulted in such productive and satisfying work in the future?”

Write down all the answers.

Look back over all of the answers the team gave in the last two phases. Pull out common ideas. Look for patterns, common threads, and compelling ideas, then consider why these hold significance for the team.

Decide What to Do:
Based on the data and insights, discuss the implications of different possible actions. Ask: “Which ideas and actions build on our successes, meet the situational (or customer) needs, and tap our greatest energy?” “What are we best positioned to try next?” “What do we really want to try (or sustain)?” Create a list of potential action steps.

Choose no more than three small actions the team can take during the next increment of work. Identify which team members want to lead the follow through effort for each action. Only volunteers with zeal for the action item need apply. No one gets “volunteered.” Ask team members to include the tasks in iteration or release planning and report on the outcomes at the next retrospective, or sooner.

Retrospective leaders can create various activities around affirmative questions by having team members record some key words from answers on sticky notes or index cards for easy sorting. Or record answers on flip charts or white boards. Use dot voting or consensus techniques for selecting final actions.

Close the retrospective:
Reiterate the actions the team chose to undertake. Lead the “Offer Appreciations” activity or hold a full “Temperature Reading,” if you have time. Ask that team members write the thing or things they liked most about this retrospective, so the retrospective leader can incorporate that feedback and design even more satisfying, enjoyable retrospectives.

Voila! A retrospective held entirely with an appreciative inquiry approach.

Keep the lists you’ve created of patterns, common threads and compelling ideas. They will provide a rich source of future retrospective goal topics. Look for other sources of appreciative questions to hone in more specifically to those topics. Sources include:Appreciative Team Building by Whitney, et al, and Encyclopedia of Positive Questions by Whitney, et al.

Teams hold retrospectives to inspect and adapt their processes, methods and teamwork. Taking an appreciative approach to leading retrospectives gives the team a new perspective and renewed energy for implementing actions. Conduct your own experiment. Track the enthusiasm for follow-through you get from a positive core-focused, affirmative retrospective. Compare it to “balanced” and/or obstacle- or vexation-focused ones. Let me know what you find.


For more on Appreciative Inquiry:

“What is Appreciative Inquiry” at http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/intro/whatisai.cfm or visit the Appreciative Inquiry Commons hosted by Case Western Reserve University http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/.

“Appreciative Inquiry” entry at wikipedia

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2 Responses to An Appreciative Retrospective

  1. Pingback: An AI retrospective « Highway 74

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