Would you mind a bit of Clean Language with your retrospective?

Thu Nov 9, 2017 - 5 min read

By Gaël Mareau

Just under a month ago, I was preparing a retrospective for the main team that I coach. I like to regularly offer them different activities to stimulate their creativity and prevent a routine from settling in. So I was looking for a new format by browsing through my reading lists, books, and conference notes. That’s when the penny dropped! Wouldn’t this be a good opportunity to put my new Clean Language skills into practice? Of course, the answer was yes!

If you don’t know (yet) Clean Language, this is a technique developed by David Grove in the 80’s and comes from the world of psychotherapy. For some time now, its field of application has widened and reached the Lean-Agile coaching circles. The general idea is to construct metaphors and explore them with a Clean question set. I’m deliberately blurry. Everything should become clearer with the following activity details.

For my part, I discovered Clean Language during a session of Agile Lean Europe 2016 led by Scott Stroud. I was immediately impressed by the potential of this technique. I remember thinking, “Wow! We can learn so much about ourselves and others, just with a few questions and metaphors”. More recently, I was trained by Judy Rees to use this technique mainly in the context of a team.

Let’s get back to the topic. I am convinced that Clean Language can be used throughout a retrospective. However, as this was my first experience, I opted for a light “check-in” activity.

How does it work?

The activity described below is directly inspired by the work of Caitlin Walker.

It is a short, fast-moving and fun activity where everyone has a chance to speak up. As a bonus, it does not require any materials. This is welcome when your team is distributed, for example. All you have to do is create a room on Zoom and you’re good to go. Here is how the activity unfolds.

When you’re working at your best, you’re like…what?

  • Ask the question,”When you’re working at your best, you’re like… what?”. Invite team members to think for a minute.
  • As they think about it, gently explain that there is no right or wrong answer and give them an example like “When I’m working at my best, I’m like a train running at full speed”.

Anecdote: During the explanations, I used the word “image” instead of “metaphor”. I think that’s why (but maybe not) the first teammate shared an image URL as an answer. I was hoping for verbal metaphor so I was quite surprised.

  • After time for reflection, ask for a volunteer to engage in dialogue. Ask him/her the question, “When you’re working at your best, you’re like… what?”.
  • Let him answer and listen carefully to his answer. -Use one of these two questions:”What kind of X?” or “Is there anything else about X?”. Replace X with one or more words used by the volunteer when replying.
  • Let the volunteer answer this new question and then use either of the follow-up questions again. You can choose the same one (by changing X) or choose the other.

After these three phases of question-and-answer, it is time to change people so that everyone can speak up. It can be tempting to continue digging into each other’s metaphors. As this is a check-in activity which is quick and light, being limited to three questions makes it possible to go around the teammates fairly quickly.

Here is an example

To illustrate the activity, here is an example of questions and answers.

Facilitator: – When you’re working at your best, you’re like… what?

Volunteer: – When I’m working at my best, I’m like a train running at full speed.

Facilitator: – A train running at full speed… What kind of train is this train?

Volunteer: – It’s a really fast train and it’s heading to its destination.

Facilitator: – Is there anything else about this really fast train running to its destination?

Voluntary: -… sometimes its destination changes along the way like a railroad switch. However, it does not slow down.

How it went?

When I introduced the activity to the team and asked the main question, there was a little hesitation. This is not necessarily a question that we often ask ourselves. The format of the answer, the metaphor, is not in our habits either.

After that, the activity went really well. We jumped quickly from one teammate to another. The answers sometimes surprised us and sometimes amused us. Some were metaphors that expanded very quickly. Some were harder to fall into place. In any case, seeing metaphors coming to life is quite fascinating.

I had been looking for a while for a way to encourage the crew members to talk about themselves in order to strengthen the bonds between them, without going into their personal lives. This was the bonus goal of the activity and it was fully met. In a twenty minutes timeframe, we all learned more about our teammates. We discovered that we had a spider, a racing car and Alice in Wonderland rabbit among us 😉

Obviously, this is a first experience and a very simple use of the Clean Language. We could push the exercise much further and repeat it with other teams.

For my part, it strengthens me in the idea that this is a technique worth using!

And if you tried, what would you like to have happen?