6 Steps For Improvement

I wrote last week about Asking the Right Questions to improve through open-ended questions. This week’s post focuses on the steps needed to develop action plans, the environment necessary for analyst and developing actions based on your results, and how openness and trust breed success. We’ll also talk a little about how anonymous surveys can hurt more than help your improvement efforts.

Surveys are a good way to get general thoughts about one topic or another from groups. The key to a valuable survey lies with both the questions and how survey results are analysed & used afterward.

An Agile Retrospective is usually set up as a survey with two questions, “What went well?” and “What can we improve?”. The true value of an Agile Retrospective comes from the immediate analysis, planning, and actions resulting from a group effort.

6 Steps For Surveys and Retrospectives Actions

The Gallup organization provides this advice to companies doing employee surveys: do action planning. Gallup’s six steps for action planning after an engagement survey are:

  1. Introduce the action-planning session and state its purpose. This will help employees understand what engagement is, why the survey was conducted and what it measures, what the survey items mean to them and to their workgroup, and why action planning is a vital step in improving employee engagement.
  2. Distribute and explain the survey results.
  3. Discuss what those results mean for the workgroup, item by item.
  4. Select two or three key items to work on over the next 12 months.
  5. Brainstorm follow-up actions and complete a plan for improvement.
  6. Follow up regularly on the plan, and on how people are feeling about the team’s progress toward meeting its goals.

In an Agile Retrospective setting, those 6 steps are:

  1. Facilitator explains the workings of the Retrospective, its components, the hoped for outcomes, and establishes a safe environment. Agile Retrospective often run following Norm Kerth’s Prime Directive, “Regardless of what we discover today, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
  2. Conduct the survey-there are many styles and formats for retrospectives but they mostly require the participants to answer questions. See Retrospective Plans for a list of planning ideas. However, the ‘what went well/what can be improved’ format is eloquent in its simplicity and directness.
  3. Team members discuss the results-individual team members explain their choices, comments, and recommendation to the group. The group discusses these comments to better understand motivation and context.
  4. Select one or two key items to work on over the next sprint-the group collaboratively makes this selection, usually based on value.
  5. The team creates follow-up actions and completes a plan for improvement-the group collaboratively defines the problem, what the desired outcome should be, how to achieve the desired outcome, what measures are necessary to track, and how to validate the outcome has been achieved.
  6. Create a user story for the next sprint, including acceptance criteria so the team can measure progress toward meeting its goals and know when they’re done.

Between Gallup’s 6 steps and the Agile Retrospective step, most are reasonably similar and the outcomes are the same:

  1. create an atmosphere of safety and openness,
  2. ask open-ended questions on improvement,
  3. identify the key improvements,
  4. create an improvement plan,
  5. develop actions to complete the plan, and
  6. create measures to know the plan is working.

An example of an Agile Retrospective

When facilitating Retrospectives for Agile Teams I’ve asked the team to write on sticky notes the things they thought went well and put these under the ‘What Went Well’ column. Then I do the same thing for things that need improvement and place these under the column ‘What We Can Improve’. Now if you’ve ever been in a Retrospective, you’re probably familiar with this. What just happened is the survey. What follows, is a frank, open discussion within the team to make sense of the survey results. The survey by itself provided information but without the group discussion there’s no depth of understanding what the comments on the sticky notes truly mean.

For example, when an Agile Team first forms there’s an abundance of ‘What Went Well’ comments like, “We worked well together as a team”. This is a great comment and is very encouraging but doesn’t mean too much by itself. The lingering questions in my mind are, “how did you work in the past that wasn’t so great?”, “what allowed you to work well together now?”, “what does the team need to do to ensure you work well together tomorrow and beyond?”. The environment is set to discuss these and other questions to fully understand the meaning. Some advantages of the team retrospective are:

  1. everyone knows who made the comment and how they’ve worked with that person. Team members often know ‘where they’re coming from’;
  2. everyone’s opinion on the comment is welcomed;
  3. specific examples are explored by everyone; and
  4. a list of actions to continue a positive result or to make changes to improve a result are made by everyone, for everyone.

What’s needed for success? Trust.

The best results can happen when the group or team fully trusts one another. Agile Retrospective are conducted in an environment of trust which brings with it the openness necessary to truly improve.

FireRescue magazine’s article, The Absence of Trust in Dysfunctional Teams,  the importance of trust can be seen as a matter of life and death. Where most of us work, trust is rarely a matter of life and death. However, when looking to improve, we need to be open, honest, and feel safe. This can only happen in an environment of trust. The Agile Retrospective is seen as an event that cultivates openness and trust. When doing any type of improvement activity, from Retrospectives to employee engagement surveys, the way to get the best results is trust. Trust that:

  • observations and opinions matter
  • something good will result
  • as a team or group, we can improve
  • there are specific actions developed to improve

What did ‘Anonymous’ mean when they said …

The last few companies I was at gathered anonymous feedback using surveys. This was a key point to get you to participate. Interestingly, it also shows that distrust has been institutionalized. Claire Lew, CEO of Know Your Company, wrote in, Anonymous feedback breeds a culture of distrust, how anonymous surveys can introduce higher levels of distrust and suspicion. She also points to the difficulty in acting upon anonymous feedback.  A survey marketed as ‘anonymous’ can serve as warning that open discussions with actions may not occur. If the company provides the results from an ‘anonymous’ survey, it is very hard, if not impossible, to understand what a person was thinking when they made a comment.

One company where I was at did Engagement surveys with all staff but held a follow-up meeting with each team individually. The best the group could do was speculate on the results and comments. There was a discussion as how our group felt about the questions but these often had little bearing on the survey results. The team couldn’t ask the people who commented what they meant.

In contrast, in the Agile Retrospective, understanding and feedback are immediate due in part because you see and hear the person commenting.

In 10 Core Business Values That Really Matter And Why, from the Stanford School of Business, some of the top values are openness, honestly, respect, or trust. Having an anonymous survey would seem to contradict all these values.

When might anonymous questions or surveys work?

An anonymous survey might be the best place to start if you have a company culture of blame. In these environments, open, frank talk can be difficult. I was told at one place that being critical of company decisions or just making a mistake could get you fired. They told me people were dismissed in the past. Several years later, people still believed this to be true although no one had been dismissed for being critical or for making a mistake. But because the culture of blame lived on, it was necessary to promise anonymity.

It might also benefit you to promise anonymity if you’re conducting a survey individually with team members for your own use. I do this often to get a more personal response. I still circulated the results but without attribution.


Surveys done alone or as part of an Agile Retrospective can surface issues both positive and negative. Starting with good open-ended questions, people are compelled to think and see their world more objectively. Having the full team exploring individual comments with the person who made them is critical to success.

Anonymity can severely hamper getting to the truth. It can result in a growing culture of distrust and limit the ability to create a coherent action plan. The answers and ideas on improving require an open and frank discussion. This usually requires the people making comments to describe what motivated them. This is a critical link toward group understanding.

An atmosphere of trust and openness is necessary to achieve the greatest success. People should not fear speaking their mind. The team or group needs to be welcoming of all opinions and points of view.

Surveys and Retrospectives both must result in actions for success to flourish.




Author: Robert Boyd

I'm a CSP (Certified Scrum Professional), CSM (Certified ScrumMaster), and CSPO (Certified Scrum Product Owner). For 30 years I've been streamlining processes and systems. I've introduced agile methodologies to software and product management departments, resulting in a 300 percent increase in feature deliveries.

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