We don't always appreciate the power of taking a moment to reflect on past performance. Find out how real change can happen when a team invests in time together.
In his book, Project Retrospectives , Norm Kerth describes a simple exercise called Offer Appreciations. When he first told me about it, I thought it might be a good experiment, since I was just learning about retrospectives. However, way back in the mid-‘90s, my focus was on mining best practices from our agile development projects, so I didn’t get excited about the exercise. It seemed a little too “fluffy” for me, and it didn’t hold much promise for capturing pattern insights. It took years of experience with this exercise before I finally saw what powerful results it produced.
In the exercise, team members sit in a circle so everyone can see everyone else. The exercise uses a protocol: Person A says to Person B, “B, I just want to say thanks for [describe something that B did for the team].” B can only reply with “You’re welcome” or say nothing (a common response). I typically demonstrate the protocol by making up something and “appreciating” someone in the group, and then I remove myself from the circle to avoid having the team members tell me about what happened. It’s interesting that this tendency is so strong, especially in technical people. It’s difficult to look someone in the eye and say what we are feeling.
Initially, I thought that teams would like the exercise. It’s always good to recognize accomplishments; it makes people feel better.
Then, slowly, over time, with many different teams, in many different organizations, I began to notice things. Teams that had been dysfunctional, with team members who were flippant about everyone and everything, late to the meeting, making jokes (even though I have guidelines about that), and sitting together in little sub-groups—such that I had begun to despair that nothing useful would come out of the experience—began to get close, look at one another in a different way, smile, cry (yep, I’ve seen it), and be unable to finish a sentence because of rising emotion.
At first, I thought that what I was seeing was an anomaly. I made excuses instead of learning from it. In fact, what I saw was that, as a result of doing Offer Appreciations, things got better.
Here are some specific examples. The day started off with half of the team arriving very late. When the tardy members showed up, it was clear that they were the younger, less experienced members of the team and that they knew they hadn’t accomplished as much as they had hoped. They weren’t failures, but since it was their first assignment on their first job, they had wished for success—and not just success but a shining, startling success that they could hold up through their careers and that would keep them going.
Instead, their project had failed and they didn’t know what to do with that failure. So they made a lot of jokes and perhaps thought, “If I don’t take this too seriously, then it can’t really hurt me.”
Progress during the retrospective was painfully slow, so it was more out of desperation than anything else that I thought about Offer Appreciations. I almost didn’t do it because I thought they would end up poking fun at each other and at the exercise, which would just make things worse. When I suggested that team members sit in a circle so they could see each other, they began to make faces and didn’t show any signs of settling down. I gave my example of the protocol and then stepped aside, not expecting much. The appreciations began immediately.
One of the young upstarts said to one of the
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