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For a few years I’ve been thinking there must be a better way to work. In fact I’ll take that further: given we spend a lot of our waking lives doing work, there must be a better way to live life. These thoughts led me to a man called Bob Marshall, of the Antimatter Principle and Rightshifting (Bob is @flowchainsensei on Twitter) and an author called Alfie Kohn who wrote ‘Punished by rewards’ and ‘Unconditional Parenting’ to name but a few. As a consequence, my view on how I go about being ‘good’ at what I do (for example, helping to run UVD and being a father of two young children) has taken quite a turn in recent times. And perhaps being a parent has been the enabler. In short, I’ve been more and more conscious of empathy. It seems to me, at least in the world I live and work in, that most problems could be solved by people having a little more empathy for one another. In other words, if we could only understand what each of us needed we could help (collaborate) to meet each others’ needs. And as such, in the world of the knowledge worker where our ability to produce anything useful is almost entirely reliant on people working together, surely if these people’s needs were met we’d be able to produce more/interesting/useful stuff and our endeavours would be more satisfying? If you’d like to read more about this, I’d recommend Bob’s website as a starting point.

As a consequence of these musings, I’ve been trying to introduce some of these concepts to the UVD team, including myself. One difficulty I’ve found is how to practically foster empathy (what Bob refers to as ‘tend to folks needs’). I then came across Neil Killick’s blog post ‘CAIN (Continuous Attention to Individuals’ Needs) – An #AntimatterPrinciple approach to retrospectives’. It’s a practical implementation for a retrospective focussed on the needs of the people within the system as opposed to the needs of the system itself.

In his post, Neil has carefully described the retrospective and set the context for what it’s about, so in this post, I’m not going to cover the same ground; what I’ve tried to do is describe what happened during the retrospective and how it panned out – more of a journal entry than anything. And you never know, you might want to try it out for yourself. To provide some context this is an excerpt from Neil’s post:

“The continuous attention to individuals’ needs retrospective adapts the typical retrospective questions of ‘What’s working well?’, ‘What’s not working well?’ and ‘How can we improve?’ to directly address the needs of folks in a team in a systematic way.”

What’s working well for me (what needs have been met)

We started by spending 10 minutes or so each writing down what personal needs have recently been met and took it in turns to place each item on the wall, talking about them as they were placed. I’ve summed these up for each individual below (note: we’ve recently moved to flexitime so you’ll see quite a few of our needs being met as a direct result of that – which is actually fantastic validation for the decision to introduce the flexibility in the first place):

  • Person 1: ‘I’m able to see my children in the morning’‘much prefer afternoon standups – less stress’
  • Person 2: ‘My work has been more varied recently as I’ve been able to get out and talk to users (something I wanted to do more of)’‘I’m more relaxed in the morning due to being able to avoid the morning rush hour’
  • Person 3: ‘I feel more relaxed’‘I can plan my work around my life as opposed to my life around my work’
  • Person 4: ‘I don’t need an alarm and have better sleep’‘I can work from home which is convenient sometimes’
  • Person 5: ‘Feel in control and trusted because I can manage my own time’
  • Person 6: ‘No longer feeling stressed in the morning knowing I don’t have to rush in for standup’‘other people taking ownership of their holidays has reduced mundane admin’ ‘enjoying being more creative / satisfied with role’

What’s not working well for me (what needs have not been met)

After celebrating the needs that have been met we moved on to unmet needs. We spent about 15 minutes reflecting on our feelings and needs that haven’t been met recently and wrote them down. We then took it in turns to add the items to the wall, again, talking about each of them as they were added. Others were also free to ask questions about the unmet needs and this helped us all to really understand them. Here’s a breakdown of the unmet needs:

  • Person 1: ‘I feel uncomfortable when people use language such as ‘I, me, you and they’ when involved in work that we’re all responsible for’
  • Person 2: ‘I’ve felt I’m spread a little too thinly and it can be stressful to pick up tasks where I left off, especially when they’re of a technical nature’‘lack of preparation for meetings is also causing a feeling of stress’
  • Person 3: ‘I feel I have a lack of control of my workload – it’s frustrating to be reliant on someone else to be able to do my work’‘I feel less confident around project x because of a lack of understanding of the ecosystem (tooling etc)’
  • Person 4: ‘I have a lack of clarity about what’s coming up and what work I’ll be working on resulting in a sense of uncertainty / anxiety’‘I haven’t done any programming recently’‘I feel isolated (working on things in a silo whilst others work together)’
  • Person 5:I feel isolated by project x because deployment has become ‘my’ responsibility – I’m scared to deploy (because of the consequences of something going wrong) and that’s impacting my sleep’‘I’ve been taking work home with me which is also impacting my home life and makes me feel like I’m in a silo
  • Person 6: ‘I feel frustrated we haven’t stuck to company planning meeting and as a consequence we’ve missed out on a couple of potential new projects’‘I’m not being recognised for my new role in the company and feel people are circumventing my skillset’

Actions (what can we do to try to meet these needs)

In Neil’s post he has a section for each individual to then write how their own unmet needs might be met. But after a bit of a discussion, we felt it might be sensible for each person to revisit their unmet needs, allowing the group to discuss them and for us all to come up with some action/s we felt we could take to meet these needs. This seemed to work quite well because it meant that we all had to think quite hard about how we might meet someone else’s needs. We rounded off by taking it in turns to write down the actions we were all agreeing to. Examples of these actions include:

  • Person 1: We’ll be mindful of the way in which we address one another and where appropriate will use language such as ‘we and us’
  • Person 2: We’ll set aside adequate preparation time for any upcoming meetings and make ourselves available if we’re needed, person 2 agrees to pair with person 3 on project x so as to enable person 3 to take ownership of some of the development responsibilities and to reduce the burden on person 2
  • Person 3: To pair with person 2 on project x so as to be brought up to speed and to be able to contribute more meaningfully to the project and feel more in control (and consequently lowering the burden on person 2)
  • Person 4: For us to bring person 4 into project x to work with others and contribute to re-architecting the deployment (also helping to meet person 5’s needs), to set aside time to develop programming skills and to use our Interesting Stuff Club to share what’s on the horizon with regard to the types of work coming up
  • Person 5: To share ideas with rest of team around a revised continuous integration strategy and for us all to set aside time to plan and implement a new strategy that’s not dependant on any one individual and when person 5 feels the need to work outside of business hours to stop and discuss these needs with the team and come up with an alternative approach. Also for others to look out for person 5 when there are signs of taking on too much
  • Person 6: Relevant parties agreed to stick to schedule of our weekly catchup and for us all to be mindful of person 6’s new role; ensuring we include them in all discussions around design



Going into the retrospective I was a little anxious. I wasn’t sure how well it would be received or whether the retrospective would be awkward and difficult for some of us (including myself). Although I’ve been enthusiastic about Bob Marshall’s Antimatter Principle as well as reading other authors such as Alfie Kohn, it did’t stop me worrying! But that anxiety soon faded because people were very receptive to expressing and then having their needs and feelings listened to. And importantly, to me at least, it felt an incredibly powerful way for us to understand other people’s needs and consider how we might work together to meet each others needs. In a nutshell: a great way to foster empathy.

What’s interesting is that there are many unmet needs that can be rectified by just having this retrospective in the first place; the very act of having our needs listened to can result in needs being met (feelings of isolation and frustration for instance). Additionally, by visualising these unmet needs it’s possible to see how two or more people’s unmet needs can be met by one action. For example, in one case where someone is feeling stretched or overwhelmed but someone else is feeling underworked – the penny drops, by shifting some of the workload we can solve both these unmet needs quite easily.

Finally, I think it’s worth considering the cumulative benefit in this method which I believe could be very powerful. As such, I will be inviting others to join me again – it would be good to see if our actions have resulted in needs being met or indeed if those actions have caused additional needs not being met. And I hope others will join me again.