Boost Agile Team Happiness with One Simple Tip

May 6, 2022 Dale Owen

Are you utilizing agile ways of team collaboration? If so, then you may already be aware of the great benefits this brings to team engagements, and how it encourages consistent analysis of optimization and opportunities for improvement. But let’s be honest, working in a high-performing environment is psychologically demanding, especially when our work requires sustained collaboration with others.

While challenging situations are rewarding, they can also easily push the boundaries of our psychological well-being if not managed effectively. Where agile practice places demand on teams to collaborate with the goal of consistent optimization, it can inaccurately assume we are all equally capable individuals at all times, potentially risking individuals’ wellbeing. Since agile sets high expectations on individuals over processes, it is key to nurture team members as much as possible to prevent disruptions in well-being. This can lead to decreased productivity, disruptive conflict, and even failure to meet objectives effectively.

So, how can we prevent or mitigate this? As a consultant for VMware Tanzu Labs, I’ve spent the past few years engaged in many different team environments while working alongside customers, and have been proactively seeking opportunities to improve. I’m going to talk to you about a simple trick we utilized during a recent Tanzu Labs engagement that encouraged team members to celebrate people’s successes to balance affectivity, resulting in a myriad of positive team and project effects!

Reflecting for success

Reflection is a key component of agile, and certainly a key component of team engagements regardless of the defined approach. We reflect on the past in order to improve the future; and so as a team, we look back to learn where we can improve and plan to take action where needed. In agile, this is a retrospective session that is conducted with the team on a regular basis.

The retrospective, or “retro,” concept is designed to create a safe, blameless space to share and discuss feedback about what went well and where things can improve. The outcome is typically a set of small, manageable actions to take into the next sprint or period of collaboration. This is a great opportunity for team members to voice their thoughts and opinions about how things have been proceeding for them and the project. However, when we are deeply engaged with our work, it can be difficult to share your voice without fearing disruption.

With experience of participating in and facilitating retros across many different projects with various teams, I’ve come to realize that typical retro formats in a typical agile engagement seem to be missing the mark. On occasion, I’ve witnessed some team conflict that could have been avoided or solved more effectively. What was wrong? Upon reflection, I noticed that patterns quickly and easily emerged within retros where team members focused primarily on the negatives. This is to be expected, as the concept of agile and retros is to continuously discover where we can do better. With this attitude, it is easy to become engaged in a cycle of negative bias.

Negative bias is actually a result of human evolution; it is simply our brains trying to keep us safe, but it can provoke us to pay more attention to negativity. This also means we naturally dwell on both conversation and memories of “bad things.” Additionally, research suggests that negative bias motivates us toward completing a task. This provides evidence as to why retros work well in producing actions to improve, but also pulls us further away from the benefits of positivity. As we steer away from positive thinking, teams risk conflict where team members in retros can begin to blame individuals for problems that may have occurred. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that team member psychological well-being and safety can suffer.

While agile requires individual voices to be shared in order to succeed, it does not explicitly apply practices that nurture psychological safety. The need for working individuals’ psychological safety is now more critical than ever as more and more evidence surfaces of the ramifications (read examples here and here). We are now well aware of the rewards a business can reap when it cares for its team, including boosted performance and reduced employee turnover. So what’s the solution? There are many ways this can be achieved in agile via creative analysis and effective management. But my experience has led me to believe that an ideal opportunity lies in improved retro sessions. Here, teams can foster consistent positivity with ease and in turn, nurture psychological safety.

The experiment

Recently, I was involved in a short, remote, agile-led project where some team members were struggling to collaborate effectively. This was having an impact on the psychological safety of the team, and productivity was being hampered.

In response to this dynamic, I increased the frequency of retros in an effort to provide a forum for team members to voice concerns, celebrate what worked well, and learn from our experiences. However, the majority of comments made during the initial retros were negative. Also, despite the collaboration challenges, team members were reluctant to share their perspectives, even when we brought in an external facilitator. There was something significant missing during these retros: psychological safety and positivity!

With our tendency towards negative bias, we were failing to note the many positive contributions and achievements that were being made due to the efforts of individual team members. This called for iterating our retro format, which had been comprised of three sections where individuals could contribute their comments: what went well, what we learned, and what we lacked—the latter section being the most popular. Since positivity and individual recognition were lacking, I added a fourth section to be completed at the end of the retro session titled “Shout-outs.” Team members were asked to spend a few minutes thinking about the positive contributions that had been made by individuals (I do not recommend attaching names to negative comments). This is different from the “what went well” section since those comments tend to be higher-level and do not call out the people responsible.

Including Shout-outs during a retro encourages team members to actively reflect on the positive actions and contributions of each other. This fosters positive thinking about other team members and celebrates the value of these individuals. As with the other sections of the retro, each comment made is visible to the team, but also shared via discussion. The results of this positivity hack are often powerful! In this particular instance, simply adding a Shout-Outs section had immediate effects. Team members were smiling, laughing, and even thanking each other. Within just a few minutes, positive connections were reignited. The team even called out their appreciation of the Shout-outs and how much they enjoyed them. Afterwards, I engaged with team members individually to collect feedback. Several team members reported feeling uplifted and better able to manage challenges or conflict. While this did not immediately resolve the conflict, the inclusion of positive thinking quickly fostered resilience.

As collaboration and weekly retros continued, over time, the team became more willing to openly share their thoughts and opinions. Fostering positivity and recognition during retros is one way to help build a culture of psychological safety within a team.

This approach has since been implemented across many teams in similar situations and has consistently led to positive results; teams are happier and more productive. I now include Shout-outs in all retros and encourage others to do the same.

Steps to success

Here are some of the key steps to consider in incorporating Shout-outs into your own team retros:

  1. Create the moment. Encourage your team, or take the initiative, to schedule a regular cadence of team retrospective sessions at the beginning of a project, or ongoing on a weekly to bi-weekly basis. You may consider running them less often if needed, but no less than once per month. Don’t worry if the project has already started, it’s never too late to schedule retros, but it’s definitely best to plan them in advance.

  2. Prepare the agenda. Retrospective sessions may last 45–60 minutes or even longer, but no less. This is to ensure ample time to share, discuss, and log actions. There are many retro formats to utilize (see an example here), but I recommend a maximum of three sections to comfortably fit and an additional fourth section to accommodate Shout-outs. Shout-outs can be included at the latter end of pretty much any retro format so that team members can leave the session on a high. Allow an equal amount of time to be spent sharing and discussing each section, as well as time to create actions at the very end.

  3. Conduct the session. Follow your planned agenda as closely as possible, but ensure that Shout-outs are prioritized the same as other sections to encourage team members to understand the value of noting positive individual contributions. Shout-outs are worth celebrating, so use the opportunity to have fun by using a positive tone when discussing. Try to discuss each Shout-out if possible, or at least one per individual, to ensure as many team members as possible can benefit.

  4. Gather feedback. We don’t always get things right, and it’s easy to assume that a new methodology will work for everyone. It’s important to gather feedback from team members and iterate, if necessary, to get the most benefit out of your processes. This means you may need to consider specific methods or formats for specific teams. Feedback is a huge component of agile so be sure to take advantage of it!

Additional tips

By including Shout-outs in all your future retros, you can make a tremendously positive impact on team psychological safety. Here are some additional tips to power-up team psychological safety with Shout-outs:

  • Make Shout-outs a habit! There are opportunities to call out positive contributions outside of retros, too. Consider spending a few minutes at the end of workshops or discussions to recognize those who did something awesome, regardless of whether you are facilitating or not.

  • Shout-outs can be big or small. In fact, encourage teams to consider the “smaller” contributions first, as this could reveal contributions that previously may not have been recognized.

  • Run team value sessions at the beginning of every team engagement. This aligns team members with each other in advance, in order to prevent any conflict and encourage positive well-being. Take a look at this example, and consider discussing individual team members’ skills and responsibilities.

  • Save a log of engagement Shout-outs in an accessible and visible place to encourage positivity at all times and remind teams of the value of their hard work. Stick them on the walls! Share them by email! Show them off to stakeholders! Celebrate them!

  • Noticing team conflict? Run an ad-hoc retro session including Shout-outs to nurture the team.

  • If, for some reason, there is no capacity to discuss Shout-outs in retros, consider conducting a dedicated separate session. Or at the very least, share them via communication channels afterwards.

  • We don’t all have the ability to manage a retro or introduce a new format. In these cases, reach out to team leaders to suggest it instead. Feel free to share this article to help build your case.

Try the template

To kick-start your next retrospective with Shout-outs, I’ve created a Miro template with instructions and a pre-filled example. This is ideal for remote collaboration, however, it can easily be recreated with sticky notes and surfaces. Check out the template on Miroverse.

Here’s what the activity looks like in Miro.

Final thoughts

As team members, we all crave happiness and success for ourselves and each other. We also all deserve to have a voice. The simple introduction of calling out team members for their positive contributions, whether big or small, can make a major difference to the psychological safety of teams and directly contribute to enhanced project success. The positive impact is clearly evident when utilized in team engagements, as team members are more productive and there is little to no risk involved.

Whether you implement Shout-outs or not, remember to look after yourselves, but also look after your teammates. Negativity is infectious, but positivity is infectious, too. Let others know they are doing well, and they will do the same for you.

I’d love to hear your stories about how you and your teams foster positive psychological safety with success, as well as any of your own feedback on the concept of Shout-outs. Feel free to reach out to me with your thoughts!

Here are some additional resources that can help you and your teams reap the benefits of psychologically safe teams:

How to Create a Culture of DevSecOps

How Communication Makes Agile Development More Effective and Efficient

What are the Benefits of Agile Retrospective Meetings?

Why Psychological Safety at Work Matters and How to Create it

About the Author

Dale is a Welsh product designer with a mission to yield happiness and satisfaction with equitable values within our daily lives via the experience of innovative methodologies, products, and services. He has been designing products and services since school by creating and practicing various agile, lean, and human-centered methods with teams across the world. As a practitioner, he is always excited to share design experiences, skills, and strategies with the community. Dale can currently be found at VMware Tanzu Labs in the UK.

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