4 - Align through agreement

Part 4 of integrative retrospective - Engage stakeholders to resolve constraints through agreements
Written by Martin West
Updated 2 years ago

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Context of integrative retrospective

In the article, “Use integrative retrospectives for continuous improvement” we identified that if we are targeting continuous improvement, the game needs to change.

The parts of an integrative retrospective are:

  1. Agree on targets
  2. Develop insights
  3. Build an action plan
  4. Align through agreement

Part 4 - Align through agreement


A key part of changing the game is for retrospectives taking on the challenge of surfacing & resolving constraints in the delivery “system”. The broader constraints come from systemic conflict. By confronting this systemic conflict, you remove constraints to teams delivering customer value.

In part 4 by aligning stakeholders by building agreements is the mechanism to remove the constraints in support of the plans built out in part 3 - building an action plan. 

This canvas follows the flow for an interest-based negotiation. It’s goal is to guide a group as they explore what their reality is, the issues, options, and mutually beneficial agreements. 

Techniques help the group face the problem together rather than blaming or shaming. These include story-telling of how we experience the challenge.  The focusing on key shared interests.. and issue discussion, staying with the problem to explore underlying core interests. 

Five Stages

The flow of the interplay is in five stages:

1) Working together - this stage is traditionally called “setting the table”. It confirms representation and establishes the rules of how the parties work together towards building a mutually beneficial agreement.

2) Sharing our perspectives - this stage is for exploration “story-telling”. This is where parties share how they experience today’s problems and tomorrow’s solutions.

Detail: Each participant shares their perspective by answering some key questions. The focus is on their experience. i.e. specifically how they experience a challenge or working in the group/ team. 

Outlining how we experience something frames it from a personal perspective. It helps in building understanding. It is less accusative and therefore it is easier for the other party to be more curious. This is more likely to lead to an open conversation about how actions impacted the party without blame. Thus, it helps partners in a conversation who face the problem together. 

The investment in storytelling is a succinct way to build a list of issues. In the next stage, we bring clarity to the prioritized issue list. It’s important the partners-in-negotiation stay curious about their partners’ core interests behind the challenges.

3) Build clarity on Issues - this stage is to define the issues and understand what is behind these issues. This is where the parties define an agenda and build joint problem statements. 

Detail: There is power in clarity when we understand the core interests behind perspectives,. i.e. when we can uncover the core interest, impact & priority for each participant of the issue. 

Conversations may explore the issue and proposals in depth. Both partners build understanding and test the potential satisfaction of core interests. Nothing at this stage represents a commitment or constitutes an agreement of any sort.

4) Explore options - this stage is for brainstorming the options. Having built a solid understanding of perspectives, unmet needs, and shared interests, it is now time to explore solutions. Brainstorming is the first step. More detailed analysis and testing of proposals/experiments may follow as required.  

Detail: A focus on collaborative value creation for participants is proven to be the best path to a mutually beneficial agreement. Satisfying core interest groups significantly increases the odds of a long-lasting successful outcome.

5) Build a mutually acceptable agreement.- this stage is to build a mutually beneficial agreement.

With many issues, you gain the ability to brainstorm mutually beneficial trade-offs. Working one issue at a time may lead to compromise issue by issue, i.e. it is better to negotiate based on participant core interests and priorities across sets of issues. You need to balance them to increase the odds of reaching a mutually beneficial agreement.

Each participant can evaluate the benefit of an agreement in terms of value created. Comparing the agreement with their BATNA (best alternative to a negotiated agreement).

The stages and cards from “Align through agreement”

Stage 1 - Working together

Card 1.1 Set the table (formal and optional)

The purpose is to gather data from participants around their representation and an agreement about communication protocol. The aim is to build an agreement on the basic setup for the negotiation. It will not always be necessary and can be skipped through. For more details: See Setting table for interest-based negotiations (in Knowledge base articles).

It covers the basic questions such as name, title, and organizational role. It also covers which groups you represent, the authority you have for that representation, any limitations, and to whom you will defer specific decisions.

These questions can be amended prior to the meetings/stages and cards. 

Card 1.2 Accept statements of representation

The information from each participant will be shared and discussed if required. Then parties will determine if they are satisfied with the claims of representation and can move ahead with the meeting.  The thought is that not much debate is required and that either the parties agree or make statements of disagreement. The next card can be used to address any special considerations identified in this agreement process. 

Card 1.3 An extended working agreement for this negotiation

This is an open canvas ("Xapty" interface) for the team to raise process rules or behavior standards for how this negotiation is going to work... Build an agreement for how you want to build agreements. 

The structure of the conversation provided include: 

  • Activities - A gathering activity to add or change the working agreement, as well as voting and ranking mechanisms.
  • Labels to support agenda setting, interaction rules, breach issues, and process issues. 
  • Events such as “Brainstorming, setting criteria (further labels or voting/ranking criteria), and voting or ranking
  • A single question - Ideas for the working agreement (and why?)

Stage 2 - Sharing out perspectives

Card 2.1 How we experience what happened

This card will go to each participant and the lead for completion. The questions (that can be edited, added to, or deleted by facilitator or lead) are:

  • What is the issue? What happened or will happen? Give examples and if relevant illustrate with a timeline of events
  • What would you like the other parties to understand how you and others were or would be impacted?
  • Have you tried to solve this issue together before? And if so, how and what happened?
  • What are you looking to achieve in this process? What do you think would be an ideal outcome? And Why is this important to you?
  • Is there anything else you would like to share about your relationship (you and the other parties)?

This can be completed prior to the meeting. It may have a deadline. It may be done at the meeting. 

Card 2.2 Perspectives shared

The answers to the questions for all parties will be shared as one dataset, either as a table or set of records (group). Each person will be able to edit their records (planned feature). All records are editable by the lead or facilitator and can be changed as part of a facilitated conversation. 

The real value of these conversations is when participants share their experience of the problem through story-telling. All participants hear alternative perspectives. This is very powerful later in the process during problem-solving. People intuitively offer solutions that address the issues and perspectives shared genuinely in this stage of the structured conversation. 

The facilitator or lead will answer the header questions as part of the facilitated conversation. These should be captured as a set of lists. The questions (that can be edited, added to, or deleted by facilitator or lead) are:

  • Potential Agenda Topics
  • Stakeholder - Key positions
  • Current impact on stakeholders (things to solve)
  • Initial thoughts on shared interests (including relationships)
  • Other comments (including parking lot issues)

These lists will become a series of answers in the next card. 

Stage 3 - Build clarity on issues 

Card 3.1 Define agenda and issues list

Each facilitator-lead can run this part of the facilitation differently. The card is fed with data from the prior facilitated conversation that the facilitator has captured. Each line in the answer in the prior card becomes a new answer in this card.

  • The list of potential topics, the key positions each stakeholder has, initial thinking on shared interests, and what is the impact of the issues on stakeholders

The facilitator or lead works with the participant to explore this data and classify it. Logistically this can be organized in many ways. This can be done in a separate session or different groups can take on different classification tasks. When the group comes back together, the team that classified data runs the rest of the group through it. Why they created additional labels and what they learned about the agenda topic - core stakeholder positions and interests, what the shared interests are and why it is important to solve this challenge. 

 The view can be filtered by each classification and discussed. Updates to the answers can be made as part of the discussion on the key agenda item. 

The facilitator or lead can develop a set of questions to vote, score, or rank answers. Or they can use the basic question provided. Additional events and voting/scoring or ranking questions can be created and used to better understand and set priorities. The result at the end of this is a strong list of agenda items that can be prioritized by ranking or voting.  

At the end of this card, the data about the agenda items is fed to the next card for exploring in more depth. The output can then be printed as a PDF or CSV.   

The structure provided includes:

  • Activities - to process data and rank ideas
  • Label - Label the themes based on the agenda
  • Events - identify topics that could be part of the agenda; discuss areas where more clarity is needed; and Rank idea/topics
  • Defaulted questions come from the header questions in the prior card 

Card 3.2  Define agenda items/Issues as a joint problem statement

A series of agenda items have been prioritized and shared in this card - they came from the prior card. The team will have access to edit the topic they raised and can add records (planned feature). The facilitator or lead can edit any record. The team can organize around how they breakout and have these conversations. 

The questions are designed to help parties identify what are the core underlying interests and what are the shared interests, so in the next step a solution that meets these interests can be created.

The questions (that can be edited, added to, or deleted by facilitator or lead) are:

  • Potential Agenda Topics
  • Describe agenda item/issue
  • Who can resolve this? Are they present?
  • Why is this an important/critical agenda item/issue?
  • What set of outcomes are being sought?
  • Where are the gaps in understanding between parties?
  • What is the Joint Problem Statement that everyone can accept?

Stage 4 - Explore options 

Card 4.1 Brainstorm options 

With a list of joint problem statements, we can brainstorm options. Brainstorming helps expand options used to build an agreement. We ask the participants to list all options without hesitation. Even one that they know is 100% in their favor. Creativity often leads to the identification of unexpected options. i.e. those that help the other participant meet their core interest. Facilitators encourage as many ideas as possible. There is value in numbers. Verbalization may help participants free themselves from unreasonable requests. 

Then, we can classify the statements, options and develop a series of agreement statements... with the same classification. We are not limited to the Joint problem statements, we can add new topics.  The list of initial statements of an agreement is taken forward to the Mutual benefit agreement for further discussion.

The structure provided includes:

  • Activities - to brainstorm options, process data, and rank initial statements of agreement
  • Label - topics will determine labels
  • Events - brainstorm; classify and capture agreement ideas; and Rank priorities
  • Defaulted questions a) What is the Joint Problem Statement that everyone can accept? (this comes from the prior card) b) Brainstorm Options - Wild list (for no analysis brainstorming); c) Initial statements of potential solutions - key paragraphs capture as the team draft initial wording for the mutually beneficial agreement. 

Stage 5 - Build a mutually beneficial agreement 

Card 5.1 Draft mutually beneficial agreement

The facilitator or lead has edit rights to this card. They run a facilitated conversation. The suggestion is to work from the list of options created in the last stage. Preferably start with shared interests or a critical issue that requires resolution first. Focus on value creation for participants and work to achieve win-win. Find solutions that trade-off, balancing interests, and priorities. Where possible, depend on participant creativity to grow the pie.

In facilitator notes (header), the facilitator or lead can capture issues and items to resolve related to the statement below. The output from this card is a revised statement. 

Card 5.2 Mutually beneficial agreement acceptance 

In this card, the participants and lead are asked to confirm their agreement or disagreement. Add a comment.

By definition, it is important that you raise any objection to this agreement verbally and are clear about your stance. If you disagree, please raise this and have the conversation. If you want anonymity and disagree, please don't choose this option lightly. If you choose this option, it means you have agreed to this agreement but with a dissenting opinion. Please make your comment, if this is the case. This will also help the team. 

At the end of this card when closed, the output can then be printed as a PDF or CSV. 

Call to action

Facilitation is a critical skill used by leaders to build alignment. At Neutral Advocate, we offer a facilitation platform — Janars. Sign up for a free 32-day trial at community.janars.com.

We offer an integrative retrospective that helps you drive continuous improvement. We’ve identified a 3 step plan:

  1. Start: Select an effective team and use stage 2 — develop insights and stage 3 — build action plans
  2. With success: Add stage 1 — agree targets to make stage 2 target driven. And add stage 4 — align with an agreement to remove constraints from stage 3 — action plans.
  3. Expand with Stages 1,2 & 3 to more agile teams. And engage connected teams to build agreements. Teams like product owners, customers, executives.
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