Does the Magic Relationship Ratio apply for agile retrospectives?

November 13, 2019

Team dynamics are tough. They are constantly-evolving and dynamic. They’re living things. Even if times are good, you’re only a buggy release or atomic story away from killing the momentum. And when things do go wrong, the team will identify an action item and go fix it. Newton’s third law states that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Unfortunately when it comes to your team’s health, a 1:1 response to fix issues isn’t good enough. Sure it’s silly to bring up physics but you should know that solving your team’s issues isn’t plug-and-play.

Famed psychologist Dr. John Gottman has spent decades taking a research-based approach to relationships and identifying what makes them work. To better understand the differences between happy and unhappy couples, he and his research partner ran parallel studies on couples in the 1970s where they would ask the couple to solve a conflict in their relationship in 15 minutes — then would sit back and watch to analyze. From there, they would review the tape and follow up with the couples nine years later. Gottman and his partner were able to predict with over 90% accuracy who would divorce.

What they discovered was that there was a balance between positive and negative interactions during conflict that makes love last which separates happy and unhappy couples. The magic ratio is 5:1. This means that for every one negative interaction, a healthy couple would interest, express affection, agree, empathize, listen, apologize, joke and appreciate their partner five or more times to get things back on track.

As you run your sprint’s next agile retrospective and are coming up with the categories for the discussion of what went well and what didn’t go well, anchors and engines, pros and cons, the four Ls, remember the balance for how you need to facilitate the discussion. Often I find teams go one category at a time because they want to address the most important issues and go from there. But if you over-index on the negative column, for example “what didn’t go well” and run out of time for “what went well” you will be damaging your team’s long-term health. Be mindful of acknowledging the good (5X the good!) with the bad as your team holds the discussion. The relationship depends on it!

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