Exploring Strengths with Core Qualities

retrospective strenghts core qualitiesTeams can improve their way of working by exploring their strengths using a core qualities exercise in their agile retrospectives. The exercise described in this blog post, which is based on ideas from positive psychology and Solution-Focused, helps teams to become even better in things that they are great at. It enables them to deliver more value to their customers and stakeholders.

Earlier I wrote about using Solution Focused in a strengths-based retrospective. Teams can learn from mistakes, but they can also learn from things that went very well, by identifying their strengths and using those to improve. Here’s another retrospective exercise for teams who want to become even better in things that they are great at.

Personal Qualities Cards

This retrospective exercise uses the Personal Qualities Cards, a deck of 84 cards with word, like “Accessible”, “Courageous”, “Trustworthy”, and “Fearless”, to identify and discuss qualities or personality traits that people have. These cards can be downloaded from my webshop for a nominal fee.

The cards are provided in PDF format to print out and slice into physical cards for onsite usage, and in PNG format for online usage.

Core Qualities Retrospective Exercise

This exercise can be used by agile teams in their retrospective to explore the strengths of their team and individual team members and define actions to become better in what they do.

Core qualities are positive qualities, strengths that people have. They define how people behave in situations, how they react to things, and how they collaborate in teams. This makes them useful for agile teams to explore how things are going in the team and to improve themselves. Core qualities come from research on the Core Quadrant by Daniel Ofman.

Teams can do this exercise when they want to get a deeper insight into the qualities and strengths of their team members. Knowing them helps teams to address issues that they are facing.

How to do the exercise

All team members come together for the retrospective and the facilitator starts by explaining the purpose of this exercise: To identify the strengths that team members and thus the team has, and use these strengths to effectively address issues that the team has to deal with.

Next, the facilitator spreads out the Personal Qualities Cards on the table. The team members are asked to look at the cards and identify core qualities/strengths that they recognize in one or more of their team members.

The team members will write a short note for each core quality – team member combination. Each note contains:

  • The core quality/strength
  • Name of the team member
  • Short motivation explaining why they think the team member has this core quality/strength
  • One or more examples of behavior from the team member which conforms this

Next, the notes are collected and clustered on the strength. The facilitator leads a discussion on each strength and asks the team members(s) who are mentioned on the card if they are aware that they have this strength.

After all strengths have been discussed the facilitator asks team members to come up with a major problem that they are having. The problems are collected and the team decides which problem they want to focus on (they can do ranking or dot voting to come to an agreement).

The team looks at the strengths that they identified earlier in the retrospective, and discusses which strengths can be helpful to solve these problems. Based on those strengths the team defines the vital few actions that they will do.

Alternatively to using notes the facilitator can also ask team members to take turns and mention a strength and give examples of how they see their peers using it. The facilitator will write down the strengths, for instance on a flip-over. Once enough strengths have been identified the team proceeds to selecting the major problem that they want to solve.

You can do this exercise also with remote or dispersed teams by spreading out the Personal Qualities Cards images on an online whiteboard (e.g. Jamboard or Lino). Ask the team members to assign strengths to their fellow team members. Team members can prepare individually by identifying strengths and pulling them out on the whiteboard to discuss them. Alternatively, they can use the cards to create a list of personal qualities in an online document or website (Google doc or Wiki). My suggestion is to reserve time for the team to discuss the qualities and decide how to use them to address a problem that needs to be solved or for individual and team improvement (e.g. in a Google Meet or Zoom).

Note: An earlier version of this exercise used the Core Qualities for Agile Retrospectives. This leaflet has been replaced by the Personal Qualities Cards which provides a more extrensive set of personality traits, with the possibility to preselect cards to focus on specific topics or areas of personality.

Examples using this exercise

I did this retrospective exercise with the team of volunteers that translated our book to Dutch (read more about this book edition in Waardevolle Agile Retrospectives). We sat together to explore how we are working as a team and what helps us to do the translation activities together:

In the retrospective with the Dutch translation team I asked the team members to identify the strengths that they had recognized in each other while working together. I used a list of core qualities to make it easier for them to recognize and name the strengths.

The strengths that the Dutch translation team identified based on core qualities were:

  • Helpful
  • Aim for consensus
  • Efficient
  • Structured
  • Innovative
  • Service Oriented
  • Dedicated

We discussed these strengths to explore and learn how they make a difference. For example, we learned that translating the book and reviewing chapters went smoothly because team members dared to reach out for help and quickly received help from both me in my role as Scrum master and from other team members.

Team members didn’t have to wait long for answers, hence they were able to work efficiently (no waste!). Also since all communication was visible to the whole team (we used a Trello board) team members learned from each other and jumped in whenever they felt the need to discuss or share something valuable. The team also really enjoyed this way of working.

Being aware of their strengths helped this team to effectively address issues that they were facing. It also helped me in setting up and supporting other translation teams, as it clarified the qualities that teams and team members need to do this kind of work.

Tim Sorweid used the Core Qualities exercise in their retrospective, he blogged about this in A Feel Good Retrospective. Here is what happened in their retrospective:

While we didn’t come away with any takeaways (we ran out of time and I’m a stickler for schedule), I feel like this was one of our most enjoyable and beneficial retrospectives ever. In my almost five years at Business.com, I can’t recall a time during a retrospective that our team members smiles and laughed so much. I found myself also grinning ear-to-ear as we went around and talked about the qualities we appreciate in one another.

People simply don’t get enough praise and appreciation in their lives (especially at work) and this exercise was really powerful for the team. I can honestly say that despite the fact that no problems were surfaced and no solutions provided our team came out of that room as tighter-knit group. It may sound sappy, but there you have it.

I’m honored to see that my exercise is used. It feels rewarding to read how it helped the team. Thanks Tim for sharing this!

Sjoerd Kranendonk has translated the list of core qualities into Dutch so that he could use it with his team: Kernkwaliteiten voor Agile Retrospectives. The source files used to create this PDF can be found on github: ScrumFacilitators Core Strengths. Thank you, Sjoerd for sharing this with us!

More agile retrospective exercises

retrospective exercises toolbox

The core qualities retrospective exercise is provided in the Retrospective Exercise Toolbox, a free of charge agile and lean tool that helps you to do Valuable Agile Retrospectives.

The book Getting Value out of Agile Retrospectives from Luis Gonçalves and Ben Linders provides many different retrospective exercises that you can use to design effective retrospectives for continuous sustainable improvement.

(This post was updated on March 25, 2016, added how the exercise was used by a team and what they got out of it, and February 22, 2021, added the Dutch translation of the Core Qualities, and January 5,2022, added the Personal Qualities Cards).

Ben Linders

I help organizations with effective software development and management practices. Active member of several networks on Agile, Lean and Quality, and a frequent speaker and writer.

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