Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Consider Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern for Retrospectives

This post is related to a Scrum ceremony called the Sprint Retrospective and how it might relate to your team.

There is no reason the information could not be appropriate to any team which identifies impediments as part of a continuous improvement process or cycle.

That being said, here goes...

In Scrum, at the end of each Sprint, a cross-functional team gets together and reflects on their situation and how to improve it. Sometimes this involves self or team-improvement and sometimes this involves identifying and communicating external impediments.

As mentioned in a previous post, Scrum exposes problems, it does not fix them. Often, internal and external impediments become visible as a result of the Retrospective.

In the book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, he introduces the concept of "Circle of Influence" and "Circle of Concern". The suggestion is that to become more effective people, we should focus on those things that are "Under Our Control" (not other people or things but ourselves!).

The implication is that we should not try to directly change our Circle of Influence, but we should put that energy into our Circle of Concern in the way we do an act. We can increase what we "influence" indirectly.

To demonstrate this concept, I have created a diagram I call the Team Influence Surface Area Chart. To read the chart, do not focus on the size of the Circles of Concern(control) but on their interaction or "surface contact" with other circles. This is where influence exists.

Consider the following two before and after charts....

In the following chart, you will see the team has worked on increasing it's Circle of Concern by adjusting and working on what they personally can control (their work, their habits, their skills, etc.)

As a result, the team has a greater area of influence "surface area" on other circles.

Note also that before the Circle of Concern grew, there was little influence on the "Green" external circle. Now there is.

This greater surface area allows more exchange of ideas and knowledge. Think of this as being similar to "Osmosis".

As with all conceptual models, there are errors with the chart. For instance, the chart does not currently show changes in the size and location of the Circle of Concern of the other circles. This is highly unlikely in a complex human system. The chart just demonstrates the concept.

I have included a link to the charts in presentation format. they are licensed as Creative Commons.  Please feel free to share them, keeping the original attribution. 



A reality of Scrum (or any other framework) in a large organization is that a team often identifies impediments (problems) that, if fixed, would significantly improve their ability to deliver. 

In theory at least, managers and/or leaders would receive this information, and simply "fix it" right away. 

Even the most aggressive large organizations take time to make some changes. 

Does this mean the company does not want to change?


It just means it's hard for them right now.

I have seen a situation where a team continually focused on the same external impediment as the result of their Retrospectives. Due to this, no other growth or learning was happening in the team (where it was under their control). When the company eventually fixed the impediment, they were shocked to find the team had made no improvements in the interim.

If your team is doing this, consider that can make the situation worse. This effect is compounded should the change for the organization be difficult and is politically challenging. 

As changes  happen by the request of the team, it is important for the team to be improving at the same time so that the challenges feel "worth it" to those being effected. 

Put a different way, this has to be good for the team and the company. They are a unified "system" after all.

After introducing this idea to the team, consider asking "Hey, do you want to use this information and focus on something that's under our own control for a few Retrospectives.  We all know this is a big problem, but there must be many other things we can work on that are under our Control. such as ...(fill your own list in here) ..  Are we OK to just accept this impediment and work on something we can fix while the company works on the other impediments for us ? ... What do you say?".

I am by no means suggesting you silence your team about external impediments. I just ask that you let them know about "Circle and Influence" and "Circle of Concern" and use that knowledge to their advantage. 

I will admit, I am sometimes nervous about this approach. In some companies, the "impediment" actually won't go away without the team constantly bringing it up. That is a very different discussion.

Most importantly regarding this topic; please, allow your team to decide for themselves.

As coaches or leaders, it is our responsibility to educate. Consider teaching your teams about this concept and maybe you'll find they not only deal more effectively with negative external factors, but they can also start to focus on "self-improvement" as they wait for the company to make needed changes on their behalf.

Worth a thought at least.

Mike Caspar
Passionate about Agile