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Agile retrospective benefits from positivity, insight

An Agile retrospective can be improved by rephrasing negative comments as positive analysis, but banning them altogether may be going too far.

In the Agile retrospective, are negative comments a bad thing? In other words, should we only allow positive comments in the retrospective?

I remember years ago I worked with an executive who had a "leadership" meeting every two weeks. The executive was more than a little command-and-control. New ideas got shot down.

It didn't take long for people to simply stop talking in the meeting. Why bother to contribute when someone with power is going to tell you that your ideas are bad?

The first thing I'd suggest is to ban negative comments at a certain time or of a certain type -- judgments of people, for example.

My point here is that negative comments tend to shut down conversation. They steal the energy from the room. Once you realize that, it makes sense to forbid negative comments, especially in an environment like an Agile retrospective where the team is trying to look back at what to improve and do differently.

Then again, what if the idea is horrible? What if you strongly disagree? Are we really all supposed to just smile and play along? What if that just isn't me?

These are valid concerns.

The first thing I'd suggest is to ban negative comments at a certain time or of a certain type -- judgments of people, for example, would be bad. It is common to begin the Agile retrospective agenda with observations of what is happening, move from observations to insights and then from insights to action. If a team wanted to forbid negative comments in observations or insights, especially comments along the lines of "that's wrong / dumb / you don't get it," I tend to support that kind of rule.

Say that a large bug slips through to production. "Boy the programmers screwed up" or "the testers did a terrible job" might be the kind of comments to forbid. Team members can be encouraged to change this negative comment to a positive one, for example, by reframing "a terrible job" to "an opportunity for improvement."

Personally, I'm not allergic to negative terminology; I am comfortable with it. At the same time, I want to recognize that some people are uncomfortable. The "opportunity for improvement" reframe, combined with a specific suggestion, has worked for me in the past, and I recommend it when tempers are high or people are especially sensitive.

In conclusion, if negative comments are stealing the energy from the group during an Agile retrospective, I might support a "no negative comments" rule. But be clear what you mean by negative, what the alternative is for someone who wants to say something and exactly when the statement is forbidden.

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Try using Edward De Bono's 6 thinking hats which allows people to express different opinions (positive, negative, innovative, feelings, thinking) at different stages of the meeting.