The elephant in your retrospectives

Mar 13, 2018 | Leadership

Every team has “elephants” — those lingering issues that eat away at moral, invade 1:1s, and haunt the team for months (and years) on end.

The thing will not budge no matter how much we talk about it, no matter how many processes we throw at the problem. The elephant is in EVERY room.

“It’s just not worth talking about anymore.”
“You either accept it or not. Things aren’t going to change.”
“That’s just how things work around here.”

You can trace most elephants back to some unreconcilable logjam: a personal conflict, a question of money, a question of structure… Something that “is just the way it is.” Examples might include:

  • how the company was funded,
  • the motives of the earliest founders,
  • expectations from investors,
  • the “style” of a senior leader,
  • the structure of the company, or
  • how resources are allocated to efforts.

I’ve seen it all throughout the years — different elephants, but treated with similar neglect.

Now, people that love the companies they work in do bring up problems — but they describe those problems as slowly (and inevitably) working themselves out. So, the distinction here isn’t a lack of issues (the situation is by no means perfect). But over time, in those companies, the elephants are slowly and intentionally coaxed out of the room.

But helping the resident elephant out of the door takes patience. It might even take years — a daunting challenge for individuals — but it happens in the teams and companies that take a deliberate approach to understanding and solving them.

Approaching the gnarliest of problems

On some level, we do invite the elephant into the room, and so we can ask it to leave. Here are a few solutions that will help you approach the gnarliest of problems and relieve you and your team from the tension.

We tend to assume that everyone sees the elephant the same way, but they don’t.

Invite it to the table (or at least address that it’s in the room)

We often tend to assume that exposing and calling out the elephant will cause damage, even when there’s an opportunity to build shared understanding. We’re too cautious about talking about the elephant, or at least inviting it into the open where we can acknowledge the issue.

“I just wish people would just admit there is a problem. That’s all I ask. The problem is impacting people, and I’d appreciate some acceptance of that. It would make the team feel better.”

But sometimes, just acknowledging the issue — even bringing it up, admitting its impact, but saying it isn’t the most important thing on the roster — is enough to give people hope. “Hey, I know that dealing with [some elephant] is hard at the moment, and we’ll tackle that when we can, but for right now we need to focus on _____.” In my opinion, this is the mark of a great leader: not just saying it, but keeping internally and externally consistent with that statement.

But addressing the problem isn’t just about showing people that you’re aware and thinking about it. It’s a great time to identify the underlying issue and understand other’s perspectives on the problem by offering it up for discussion — “I think I see an issue here. What do you all think?” That is an important consideration here: we tend to assume that everyone sees the elephant the same way, but they don’t.

We all see the elephants differently. My “impossible conflict” is the next person’s “challenge.” What I might be willing to endure for five years, will drive the next person insane in 10 months.

And the problem with not addressing the issue, and not acknowledging that people will see the problem differently than you, is this: those who view the elephant in similar ways tend to congregate. They find each other on Slack and start the back-channel. They go out to launch for a gripe session. We tend to only see one slice of the problem.

When you bring the problem up for discussion, you bring out different perspectives that you (and everyone else) hasn’t thought of before. You’ll learn more about what might be the real roots of this problem, your role in it, and ultimately gain an understanding of it so that you can take a better approach to solving it.

De-personalize the problem

While it may seem difficult, think about how you can detach the issue from people — from the way they “are” — and instead focus on the work. Personalizing puts people on the defensive, whereas framing the problem as something that’s detached and is something that people can influence will likely be received.

Let’s say you have team members that just don’t trust each other. Everyone knows it, but its hard to address that in public. Someone could mention the problem in a nonviolent way by keeping the issue specific, and remaining humble: “I think we could more trust in each other when doing __. I have observed that when happens, it tends to impact us by _.” Teaching teammates to communicate thoughtfully will strengthen their connectedness and their confidence to bring issues up. Just blurting out “Well, X and Y don’t trust each other! It’s obvious!” may not go over well.

Additionally, I think there is a benefit in personifying elephants. Giving it a name — “the [xxxx] problem” — displays that the issue is not a personal vendetta or a challenge. It’s simply a problem, and problems are opportunities.


List your elephants

I’ll always remember when a manager made it very clear to me that though the problem we (I) saw was debilitating, it was not the most critical problem we needed to focus on at the time. There were even more severe issues that needed fixing. It was was hard to wrap my head around that fully. What I was experiencing was SERIOUS, so could there really be EVEN MORE SERIOUS problems? That was a tough pill to swallow, but was something my manager had to face every single day.

So one tip for untangling significant issues is to show that you’re working on it and show what else you’re working on. Have a list of elephants and keep it in the room during retrospectives. If something keeps coming up, and it’s evident that the team feels as though they have little influence over it, write it down. Put it on the elephant list.

Then, try to include the impact of each initiative on that list. That way, when an issue emerges, you can compare the impact of the new one relative to the others, and prioritize accordingly. And if someone thinks that the impact of one item is greater than you’ve listed, open it up for discussion. It might be more important (and impactful) than you initially realize.


Document your history with elephants

Know your history with elephants, and be able to articulate or point to it. For example, take a team with mostly “new” employees. They may have no idea of the history of the company, how the significant issues are brought up, and how they’re dealt with. What they see is a small slice and what they hear from others. On the other hand, the long-time employee has seen elephants come and go. They have faith in elephants working themselves out over time.

Sharing those stories — without inflating them — is critical. It demonstrates that there’s hope, and that the “long game” does indeed yield fruit.

Your team should be able to understand how problems are dealt with. Help them to know how and when to bring up issues, and to understand that they might not be the most impactful issue at the time, but they are important and will be addressed.


Let problems (and solutions) emerge

Be patient when trying to understand the source of elephants. Just as you think you’ll understand it with a limited perspective, you’ll also fall trap to thinking you manage the problem without giving it time. You’ll often find even deeper systemic reasons for the problem with time. If dealing with a toxic person, for example, you should ask what forces exist to keep that toxic person in a position of power, what your role or other’s roles are in enabling that person, and how it’s really affecting others.

Having patience with these complex issues and focusing on untangling the underlying causes will save you from poor decision making, elevated stress in the team, and can even help you predict where the cracks are forming (and where they have the potential to form).

Finally, remember that elephants are fairly graceful. We do invite the elephant into the room, and we can ask it to leave. Acknowledge that people will see the elephants differently. Acknowledge that some people are allergic to elephants, while others relish moving mountains and tackling gnarly problems.



John Cutler

John Cutler

Multiple hat-wearer. Product development nut. I love wrangling complex problems and answering the why with qual/quant data. Follow @johncutlefish on Twitter.

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