Norm Kerth’s Safety Poll

By Joshua Kerievsky

From Norm Kerth’s book: Project Retrospectives

In 2001, a small green book was published by Norm Kerth, a deeply experienced software practitioner, colleague of Gerald Weinberg, and a leader in a practice he called Retrospectives. Norm’s book is called Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews. It’s a goldmine of wisdom on how to help teams learn from their experience, written by a genuine expert in the subject.

Over the last several years I’ve seen blogs and slides featuring Norm’s safety poll, but they usually don’t credit Norm. It’s likely that these authors simply don’t know the origin of this valuable technique. So this article is here to get us back to the source of this valuable idea and honor Norm in the process.

The “safety poll” is actually step 2 in a 4-step “safety check” that Norm conducts with teams to establish safety before conducting end-of-project retrospectives. It’s worth noting that with the rise of popularity of lightweight software development methods like Extreme Programming in the late 1990s and early 2000s, along with the popularity of Norm Kerth’s Retrospectives book (published in 2001), many agile practitioners began the practice of holding retrospectives at the end of iterations (A.K.A. sprints). I briefly documented this practice of “Iteration Retrospectives” in a paper I wrote for the XP2001 conference in Sardinia, Italy (see Continuous Learning).

So what is Norm’s safety poll? Norm suggests that you take a poll of how safe people feel before a retrospective begins. He suggests that the retrospective facilitator ought to acknowledge that with managers present in the room, people may not feel safe to speak up and for that reason, it’s helpful to anonymously measure the level of safety in the room. Here’s how Norm describes how he does that:

By means of secret ballots, take a vote on safety, using a rating scale of 1 to 5, in which “5” means “Hey, no problem, I’ll say anything.” A vote of “4” means “I’ll say most anything, but a few things might be hard to say.” A mid-scale “3” means “I’ll share some things, but keep a few things to myself.” Lower down, a “2” means “I’m not going to say much. Mostly, I’ll let other people bring up issues.” Lowest on the safety scale, a “1” means “I’ll smile, claim everything is great and agree with whatever the managers say. No way will I let them know what I really think.”

Once the votes have been collected, Norm suggests marking them on a flip chart and then making a dramatic show of placing them in a secure container, like a briefcase.

This simple technique can speak volumes about whether or not it’s safe to speak up. Retrospectives require safety to be effective. When a group of people can freely speak their minds, in an atmosphere that is free of blame, sarcasm, criticism or humor at other people’s expense, the possibility of raising real issues and solving them increases significantly. So, give Norm’s safety poll a shot at your next next retrospective or important meeting. And please add a comment to describe your experience of using this technique.