5 tips for using Retrospectives as a tool for dissent

I recently shared this article on twitter from HBR, True Leaders Believe Dissent is an Obligation – the spirit of which I wholeheartedly agree. Effective leaders should not be surrounding themselves with yes-people because you need a diverse set of opinions, perspectives, skills and experiences to effectively problem solve. You can read more about How Diversity Makes Us Smarter, Research on how a Diverse group is the best solution for problem-solving tasks and Kellogs’ perspectives on Better Decisions Through Diversity.

Celebrate Dissent Photo
Photo from Vipez’s Flickr photostream

A challenge with many leaders is creating the right environment to allow dissent. I draw upon Retrospectives as a useful tool and here are some tips if you are a leader looking to use it effectively.

  1. Be clear about your motives – I can see some types of leaders who want to use retrospectives as a way to get to blame (which is definitely not the point). It helps to be explicit upfront about what you expect from people and to let people know if there will be consequences. If people feel like retrospectives are being used to “find dirt” or for blame, people will refuse to actively participate in future sessions or simply lie.
  2. Find an independent facilitator – I address a number of the trade-offs of an independent facilitator in The Retrospective Handbook and when you’re a leader running a session, there will be times you will want to participate. Playing dual roles (participant + facilitator) can be really confusing for those simply participating, so I recommend at least starting retrospectives with an independent facilitator.
  3. Allows others to talk first – Leaders often come with a level of explicit or implicit level of authority. Different cultures treat authority differently and it pays for a leader to be aware of the significance that is automatically added to your words by holding back and allowing others to speak. Focus on listening first and foremost, and ask clarifying questions rather than being the first to put your opinion on the table.
  4. Pick a topic that affects all participants – When choosing participants, make sure that the topic is relevant and that everyone can contribute different perspectives for. Although outside opinions about a particular topic are often welcomed, retrospectives are best when people can share their experiences. If, as a leader, you are gathering a group of people who don’t regularly work together around a common topic, reconsider if a focused retrospective is a good solution.
  5. Keep an open mind – There is no point in gathering a group of people if the leader is going to follow through on an action they thought of previously to a retrospective. Consider scheduling a retrospective early on, very focused on information gathering and generating insights as a first part, and then a second part with a smaller, focused group on the next steps. By having time to digest the new information, you may find you end up with very different solutions than what you first had in mind.

When used well, retrospectives can create a safe space to invite people to dissent and create an ongoing culture of challenging the status quo.

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