How to run Safety Checks

Before I run a retrospective, I often run a safety check.

The purpose of the safety check is to see how safe people feel sharing their opinions or problems in the room. I’ve been doing this for some years now, and have made many terrible, horrible mistakes! So I thought I would share my learning and help others avoid the same fate.

The format

I usually get people to write a number from 1 to 5 on a piece of paper, where 5 is “I feel safe to share anything” and 1 is “I am not comfortable sharing my real opinions so I’m going to smile and nod and pretend to be happy.”

If a team is mostly 3’s or above, I think it’s worth doing the retro. If it isn’t, the retro will be pointless. I’ve sometimes asked management if we can run the retro without them, if comparative safety checks suggest that’s a better idea (please, managers, try and find someone else to run your team’s retrospective!)

I was even once safety-checked out of a retrospective I was meant to run as a coach – the company were making redundancies, and the teams thought our input might have contributed. I got some very useful feedback on my coaching after letting someone else run the retro with me out of the room!

Another format is “E, S, V, P”:

– Explorers want to discover everything they can
– Shoppers have some things they’d like to pick up
– Vacationers are just happy to be away from their desks
– Prisoners come only because they’re forced to.

I’ve started replacing that last one, Prisoner, with Worker, since nobody is actually forced to come or made a victim by doing so.

The safety check should be anonymous

I once ran a safety check with a great team who knew each other really well. The PM said, “Fine,” and threw a 5 into the middle of the table. The rest of the team followed suit. “We all get on very well and feel very safe,” one person pointed out.

I asked if they minded practising doing it properly, on the grounds that we had the offshore devs joining us a week later. I made sure they had the same pens, the same post-its, so that nobody could see who had voted for what.

The first piece of paper we unfolded said “4”. “Who wrote that?” the PM asked.

Now the team does it completely anonymously.

Safety checks should not be shared

A couple of years ago, I stopped sharing the safety check. These days I tell teams, “Only I will see these numbers. They will go in the bin when I am finished; nobody will know. I won’t even share the average. I will just tell you if there are some people feeling unsafe, so that we can think of ways to make things safer, and I’ll tell you if it’s worth running the retrospective.”

The teams I do this with seem to consistently vote lower than those who see the numbers. I take this as a sign that they feel more comfortable being honest.

Sometimes I may do other things to increase safety – for instance, getting someone else that the team trusts to gather up the numbers before I look at them, or asking the coach of another team if they’ll help run it, so that my agenda isn’t on the table either.

Project Managers and retrospectives

It’s easy to bias conversation so that your agenda gets discussed. All you have to do, as a facilitator, is encourage discussion which goes your way and encourage interruption when it doesn’t. And you know what? You’ll be doing this anyway; you can’t help it. It’s human nature.

This is why I prefer PMs not to run their own retrospectives. Even the best, most open-minded PMs can’t help but overlay their own agenda on it, and the worst control the retros to the extent that nobody feels safe to speak. Find someone from another team to help out instead, and go help out with theirs.

A special note about Art Attack

Of all the retrospective formats I’ve used, Art Attack – getting people to draw what’s in their heads, then talk about it – is the format most likely to cause controversy. Teams will often hide the elephant in the room when they talk about it, but seem quite willing to draw it! Again, I’ve had some very frank and helpful feedback myself from running Art Attack retrospectives.

If you’re thinking of running this format with a new team, consider running a safety check first!

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