Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

Retrospectives: An alternative safety check

with 3 comments

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:

  • Explorers are eager to discover new ideas and insights. They want to learn everything they can about the iteration/release/project.
  • Shoppers will look over all the available information, and will be happy to go home with one useful new idea.
  • Vacationers aren’t interested in the work of the retrospective, but are happy to be away from the daily grind. They may pay attention some of the time, but are mostly glad to be out of the office.
  • Prisoners feel that they’ve been forced to attend and would rather be doing something else.

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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Written by Mark Needham

October 27th, 2012 at 6:21 pm

Posted in Agile

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  • Jason Yip

    ESVP is harder to remember so I’ve typically defaulted to 1-5… I’ll try it out for a bit and see if it’s better

  • Just on a different note, ESVP is about measuring motivation (which I often find is a different dimension from safety). You can choose to run both a safety check and this motivation exercise to learn more about the participants.

  • @twitter-83655566:disqus good point! How do you usually deal with people not feeling comfortable enough to give their real score on the safety check?