January 20, 2021

Facilitating Retrospective in the Prison

Remember the good old check-in activity for retrospectives called ESVP – Explorer, Shopper, Vacationer, Prisoner? I couldn’t imagine that “Prisoner” would become so literal for me - until I found myself in a real prison facilitating a Retrospective for a group of my cellmates, political prisoners. This article describes some lessons that I learned from this unusual experience.

 

Setting the Stage

Ten people from 20 to 60 years old. An architect, 2 engineers, a CEO, an account manager, a rock musician, a copywriter, 2 students, and a Scrum Master. This could be a perfect cross-functional team, but in modern Belarus, these are quite typical “criminals” brutally arrested and imprisoned for participating in a peaceful manifestation. Most of us spent together 15 days sharing a 20 square meters cell and got infected with COVID-19 without any hope for medical help inside the prison. Some of us were beaten during the arrest. We were deprived of outside walks, letters from relatives, individual plates, and cups. The lights in the cell were extra-bright for 24h, we went through continuous humiliation, and threats...  And nevertheless, this was the lightest possible option since many talented, outstanding Belarusians suffer much more these days.

This is all part of the biggest political repressions in Europe after World War II with more than 33,000 Belarusians arrested already since summer 2020. In percentage ratio, this corresponds to 135,000 people for Poland or about 300,000 for Germany.  People are arrested every day for manifestations, posts in the social networks, flags in their windows, or just expressing their opinion out loud.  Honestly, I could never imagine I will experience something like this in my life. Also, I couldn’t imagine that Belarusians would be left alone in their tragedy with no real help from the EU and the “civilized” world. This is a separate discussion, however.

Liberating Structures Work in the Prison!

One of the biggest problems in the Belarusian prison is how to occupy yourself. You are not allowed to sleep or even sit on the “beds” from 6 to 22. After playing the games like the mafia, LINQ, word chain, and of course chess, hundreds of times people get bored. So, it was not a big deal to involve my cellmates in the retrospective session. Everyone felt enthusiastic about the activity. We agreed that the purpose of the session is to help each other in this difficult situation by understanding where we are now and what we can do next.

It was too tempting to use the liberating structures for the retro, given the fact that liberation was something we dreamt of every minute. So as a facilitator I proposed a string of quite traditional liberating structures: Impromptu Networking ->  Troika Consulting -> 1-2-4-all.

We started with Impromptu Networking to set the stage and get positive energy right from the start. The invitation we used was: “What are the positive sides of being here today? What value does this situation provide you right now or will bring in the future?”. After 3 traditional rounds in different pairs, people were happy to share lots of insights. One of them was, for example, that it was really helpful to see people on the opposite side (prison guards, police, etc.) and understand that many of them actually have the same aspirations but are threatened to death and not ready to join the protesting majority yet.

We continued with Troika Consulting to discuss the most difficult problems that each of us faces now and get help from the cellmates. They say that most people in Belarus today have psychological trauma after witnessing all the tortures, murders, and repressions. Many people have problems with job or business. So, the ability to share the pain with like-minded people and get advice was invaluable.  

We concluded the session with 1-2-4-all with the invitation asking about the next steps, options, and solutions that each of us might use after the release. After generating long lists individually and expanding them in pairs we converged into the top 3 ideas for every group of 4 people and shared them with the entire cell.

At the end of the session, people shared their feedback. It was surprising and exciting to hear how people of very different professions and experiences found sessions like this valuable for their work and life!

Liked Learned Lacked

A great Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau devoted most of his novels to World War II (which he went through himself fighting against fascism). He skillfully used the fact that extreme circumstances like war (or prison) often work as a magnifier – they make our choices more explicit and highlight things that we easily miss in a “normal life”. Under these circumstances, we get a unique (though often expensive) opportunity to learn more about ourselves, about what we really like and what we lack.

In prison, it was amazing to observe the power of people’s motivation coming from a meaningful common goal. I was shocked by the level of engagement the cell demonstrated during the retrospective session. I must confess that in my facilitator’s life I often felt like I am pushing people along the session. I almost forgot what a pleasure it is to deal with a truly motivated group that has real problems to discuss. Actually, the only problem I had was how to stop the discussion when all timeboxes and extra minutes expired long ago. What do we lack at our workplaces to make it happen every time? Why are we in a constant search for “fun” retrospective techniques or “most efficient” facilitating practices? Don’t we miss the real key to engagement?

It was also fascinating to see how challenging circumstances and tough constraints stimulate collaboration and creativity. I bet some managers would be very surprised to see how their employees can voluntarily take ownership of various things including housekeeping, facilitating, cleaning, etc. Or how people can sincerely care about their mates, giving away all they have… Constraints and creativity is another interesting topic. Our cell keeps a sacral knowledge of how you can run the retro (and also play most games in the world) without even a pen and paper. Most of the time the only available material for us was stale bread. And believe me, you cannot even imagine what 10 people with higher education can craft out of a loaf of stale bread. But that would be another story…

 

P.S. All the drawings in the article were made by my cellmates during our stay at Prison #8 in Zhodino, Belarus in December 2020.