Ask Humanizing Work: When the Observation Part of Focused Conversation Gets Boring

The Focused Conversation method asks us to start with observations before assigning labels – good, bad, effective, worthwhile, motivating, etc. In real-life facilitation, it can feel a little slow to start a retrospective with a simple “What happened this sprint?”

But if we start with “What went well?” we are already solidly in judgement territory and miss creating a list of neutral shared data.

Likewise, when starting with “What went well and what didn’t?” team members with an opposite perspective may disagree with each others’ assessments such that we start off with contrary attitudes rather than conversation about differing perspectives.


—Nicole, Iowa City, IA

Great question!

As many of my clients know, I’m not a fan of the “What worked? What didn’t? What should we try?” retrospective approach (sometimes called +/-/∆) because it goes to interpretation too quickly. This works in the beginning, when the constraints are obvious to everyone and when you have more ideas to try than you’ve had time to try them. But about 3 or 4 sprints in, you’ve dealt with the low hanging fruit, and now the constraints are below the surface. At this point, you need more shared data before you can see what’s really going on.

The Focused Conversation approach is a nice way to address this. You get a pool of shared data, then you interpret it to look for strengths to build on and constraints to address. However, as you’ve discovered, in a retrospective for a short time period like a sprint, talking too much about observations can feel slow and redundant. So, how do you still get the shared data while keeping it interesting for everyone?

Here’s the secret: You don’t need to talk about everything. The Focused Conversation book, not surprisingly, presents all the examples as conversations. The facilitator asks a question; the participants answer.

The important thing, though, is the outcome—the shared facts—not the means by which you get there. For a single sprint, you can find ways to make many of the facts visible without having to ask a question about them. Bring and post your:

  • Sprint backlog, including what was added, dropped, completed, and not completed
  • Cumulative flow diagram
  • Key takeaways from the last retrospective
  • Calendar with holidays, meetings, vacations, team membership changes, etc.
  • List of impediments you ran into during the sprint
  • Feedback collected from stakeholders
  • Etc.

Then, with all these bits of data on the wall, ask, “What else happened during the last sprint that we should add to this? What isn’t accurate that we should fix?” Walking the wall and making a few necessary changes should only take about 5 minutes.

Now, you’re ready to move into the reflection part of the conversation.

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