Using ESVP in a solution focused way at the end of a retrospective

My friends and fellow coaches Marina Haase and Gitte Klitgaard and me recently have created two different workshop formats about retrospectives. As both formats got accepted for at least one conference each, we are now working on preparing them (to read the abstracts go here and here).

One of the workshops is about analyzing retrospective activities and games and figuring out in which context they work, when better not to use them, as well as a number of other aspects. Marina has been active in the European pattern writing community, and this workshop clearly shows her influence.

During preparation of the workshop, we were discussing that some activities can be used in different phases of a retrospective, while others are quite limited. Our example of an activity that can only be used in the opening of a retrospective was ESVP. While we first agreed that this limitation is true, on a second thought I had an idea about how to adapt the activity so it could also be used in the closing of a retrospective, and to improve the retrospective itself without really talking about problems, which makes it quick to do.

What is ESVP, and how is it commonly used?

ESVP is an acronym that stands for „Explorer, Shopper, Vacationer and Prisoner“. The idea is that some of the attendees of a retrospective are like explorers, eager to look at every single detail and seeking to get the most out of the retrospective. Others are more like shoppers, who like to look around, consider a few different things, but are happy with just a few new insights. Then there are the vacationers that merely enjoy the retrospective for giving them some time off the daily grind. The last category is people who feel like prisoners in the retrospective and would prefer to do something else instead.

Usually, this exercise is used in the opening of a retrospective, which is also called “setting the stage”. Attendees are asked to mark what they currently feel like on a pre-prepared flipchart or whiteboard. Then, if there are many prisoners, a common strategy is to ask why they feel trapped in the retrospective and what they would like to do instead. Perhaps the build is broken, and people would like to go fix it instead of discussing other potential improvements. Perhaps letting them go and do what they consider more important is the best we can do then. If there are many vacationers the iteration might have been stressful and the retrospective might not lead to many insights because people’s heads are smoking already…

ESVP how it's commonly used
ESVP how it’s commonly used

Getting that input at the beginning of a retrospective and acting on it is certainly valuable, as we want our retrospectives to be positive and energizing events for everyone.

But can we really only use it as a check-in activity? Is it only useful to identify prisoners and vacationers and to trigger a discussion around what holds them back to fully participate?

In my opinion, using it in a solution focused way at the end of a retrospective also covers the shoppers and the explorers and gives everyone a chance to point out how to make the retrospective more engaging, leading to actionable improvements in a quick way.

So, how to use ESVP in a solution focused way at the end then?

One of the standard tools of systemic coaching are scaling questions. They are also commonly used in solution focused coaching to have the coachee mark her current situation on a scale, while the highest mark represents the ideal situation often called “preferred future”. Then, in solution focused coaching we don’t ask what problems are holding you back from that ideal situation. We directly jump to solutions by asking “what would make it just a little bit better?”. This often leads to actionable improvements a lot faster than exploring the problem space first.

During the conversation around the ESVP exercise the different “roles” reminded me of “levels” on a scale, going from prisoner to explorer. This means that everyone being an explorer would be the ideal situation for a retrospective, which might sound a little idealistic, but I like the thought very much. Imagine everybody being highly engaged, looking for improvements in every single detail, even if the sprint went quite normal.

Solution Focused ESVP
Solution Focused ESVP

The next day after I had the conversation about ESVP, which lead me to the idea to do it in a solution focused way, I had scheduled a retrospective with one of the teams I’m currently coaching, so I thought I should try it out right away. At the end of the retrospective I introduced the ESVP concept and I drew a scale on a flipchart annotated with the respective levels. I asked the team to make a mark on the scale about where they feel like currently. Then I asked them “How can we make our retrospectives just a little bit better, as in moving your mark upwards just a little bit?”.

In my case the feedback was “we felt like vacationers earlier, but now we feel like shoppers, and it’s definitely going the right way”. They pointed out a few facts that are important to them (which made them shoppers, and might make them explorers?) that I can pick up. My plan is to do the exercise more often now, with the goal to end up with a team of explorers who actively change the way we work every sprint.

But what if we already have a lot of shoppers or explorers?

A question I ask myself about the modified exercise is, what to do once it ends up with a majority of explorers. Asking to move up their mark in search for improvements doesn’t make much sense anymore in that case. However, are explorers the best type of retrospective citizens we know of? An approach to target that situation might be to extend the scale. In case a lot of the attendees identify as explorers some solution focused questions one could ask are “Given we would extend the scale, what comes after explorer? What metaphor represents the perfect retrospective participant for you?”. Then, after the scale has been extended, which provides a new ideal situation to work towards, we can again ask the default question “How can we move up your mark just a little bit?”.

How does it all sound to you?