Let Superheroes Improve Team Effectiveness
A guide to a Scrum Retrospective that is meant to improve team effectiveness by fostering psychological safety using a teams superpowers.
Prominent research suggests that a thing called “Psychological Safety” is the very foundation of effective teams. The term was coined by Amy Edmondson and is defined as a shared belief held by members of a team, that the team is a safe space for interpersonal risk taking.  
So, is there something to it? Think back on the development efforts you have undertaken, what made them successful? What made them fail?
Yet if it is the “fluffy bunny stuff” like Psychological Safety, that makes teams successful, what are the most common topics in Scrum Retros? Definition of Ready? A new column, so the tester will finally know their place? All too often improvement efforts are focused on tame process topics. They are easy to talk about and usually don’t hurt all that much. Or we are preoccupied with the complex nature of the problems we are trying to solve. Furthermore it is hard to formulate specific actions coming from an abstract concept such as Psychological Safety.
One way to foster Psychological Safety is to foster the level of trust between team members. The following description of a Scrum Retro is meant to do exactly that. By playfully talking about strengths and weaknesses it gives the team an opportunity to connect amongst itself. This can be applied to get teams started and incidentally creates a common team identity; it can also be used in ongoing development efforts to address the fluffy bunny stuff. So here we go.
Walking into a Retro session and instantly being on point about one’s strength is not easy for everyone. Experience with this format suggests that a bit of preparation is beneficial to achieve good results. However, this step could be viewed as optional, as the general concept does not strictly require it. A great way to prepare everyone within the team, is to ask them to do the Gallup Top 5 StrengthsFinder assessment. It is a great tool in this context since it provides participants with a precise view of their strengths, while disregarding weaknesses for the moment.
Setting the Stage
Start by outlining the agenda and clearly explaining why you are conducting this Retro and what your goals are. Afterwards get everyone to speak up with a lighthearted open question, e.g.: Are you more into SciFi, Fantasy or Marvel?
Create your personal Superhero
Now ask everyone to envision themselves as a superhero! Make it clear that we are after quality rather than quantity of results and provide ample time (timebox: 15 minutes). The goal is to express personal strengths and weaknesses in the form of the superhero and also visualize the hero by drawing it.
Here are some guiding questions that the newly created superhero profile should be able to answer:
- What are your superpowers?
- What do you look like?
- What is your theme?
- What is your kryptonite?
After the timebox ends, everyone presents their personal superhero, and results are pinned to a wall so that our band of superheroes is visible to everyone. With this we are on track to foster trust and understanding by sharing strengths and weaknesses in a playful manner. Kudos to Retromat Exercise 107 for the inspiration.
Examples to make this a bit more tangible: If your major strength is adaptability, your hero could be Aquaman because you go with the flow; if it is individualization, maybe a character is based around Cyclops who uses his eye to focus on individuals. Additional examples:
Until now we focused on individual strength. Now shift the view towards the team as a whole. To achieve this, ask the team to merge all individual heroes into a newly created megahero. Ask everyone to get up and step to a flipchart or whiteboard and in a free-flowing discussion combine all individual heroes into a megahero. Help the discussion along by moderating and asking questions like: Do the heroes have anything in common? What patterns can you find among the individual heroes? Did we miss anything?
Finally, when the megahero is nearly completed steer the discussion towards reality by questions like: What does this mean for us? Are we using our strengths? How can we use our strengths? Do you think we should make any changes based on this?
Use the input from the discussion to pin down actionable items. However, don’t insist that there must be something actionable, it is not that kind of Retro. Close the Retro by asking for feedback on today’s session with a question along the lines of: Do you think today’s session has been a worthwhile effort?
The luxury of joint Retros is not available to everyone. This format can and has been successfully conducted remotely. Keep a few general tips for remote in mind, such as “If we do remote, everyone is remote” and others.
Drawing tools are best left up to the participants, but inform them beforehand that there will be drawing involved. Be ready to step in and draw a megahero if participants already had issues with drawing their heroes. Not available to everyone, but iPad and Apple Pencil would be next level and work well with most video chat services.
- You can revisit this exercise, for example if circumstances change or team staffing changes
- Adapt to your circumstances, superhero can also be a character from your favorite fantasy saga (beware of the high death toll in Game of Thrones though)
- Stretching this over multiple Retros can also be an option. In this case you iterate over personal heroes and megahero to further refine them. This gives everyone a time to reflect a bit more
- Don’t force this on people if you get the feeling that a team is not happy with the format. In this case try to find out what the issues are. Is it too playful? Do people feel like they don’t want to share?
- If the session resonates well with the team you can build on the created theme with other Retros
- Further experiment with related topics: Who is your sidekick? Your nemesis? These topics may lead to an update or follow up entry on this blog
- Finally thank you for the great artwork I was able to use in this post
- Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams: https://www.jstor.org/stable/2666999?origin=JSTOR-pdf&seq=1
- Googles research on effective team: https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/
Michael Heß is Unit Manager with our Business Area Agile Mobile Revolution. As experienced Agile Coach he works with our App and Software Development Teams as well as external clients on their agile journey.