Return to site

Hoist the Flag: A Discussion Tool

Explore complex issues and feelings with honesty, respect, and empathy

· everyday agile,retrospectives,gun violence,nonviolent,communication

With proper set-up and context, retrospectives can be vital tools to help any group of people share and discuss their opinions about topics, even heated ones, in a calm and constructive manner. In light of the recent events in Parkland, Fla., I have adapted some known retrospective techniques and developed this exercise as a resource that can be used to encourage healthy debate in classrooms, church groups, town halls, at home, or in any organized or ad hoc community setting.

Notes for newbies: If you've never run a retrospective before, here is a good step-by-step guide that provides additional context. The three big things to do well? 1. Be clear about the context or challenge to avoid unrelated tangents, 2. Give everyone a chance to be heard and understood in a respectful, empathetic, and polite manner, and 3. Make sure any outcomes and next steps are reasonable and achievable (e.g. SMART goals). If you're not accustomed to facilitating group discussions, limit the number of participants to no more than 10 people for a 90 minute session or, if you have a large group, run smaller sessions in parallel with help from other facilitators.

Most importantly, give yourself and your participants choices: ask them if they'd like to add extra time to the session; ask them if they'd like to table an item and return to it later. Adapt the format to your needs.

Hoist the Flag: How Might We Reduce School Shootings?

Use the sobering symbol of our national flag at half-staff, lowered most recently to coincide with a period of mourning for the seventeen victims of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, to invite discussion.

What do I need?

  • post-its and pens for each participant
  • a large vertical surface, such as a section of wall, a whiteboard, blackboard, or an easel. (For groups of 6 or less, a large table or section of floor could work, too, but because people will be placing, moving, and discussing post-its as part of the exercise, everyone needs to be able to see and comfortably interact with the retrospective.)
  • a clock or timer (you can use your phone, but it's even better to have a clock that everyone can see)

How much time will it take?

This is completely up to you. You could spend as little as 90 minutes or an entire day gathering insights and discussing ideas on a topic of this complexity and gravity. If it's practical, you could also set aside a dedicated space where you and your group could return to the themes on a daily or weekly basis and discuss topics that you weren't able to cover in the first session.

Here, I am assuming you will spend 90 minutes, so I have scaled approximate times needed for each step -- as well as the voting in Step 2 -- accordingly, but you can revisit these time ranges and the voting techniques depending on your specific needs. (Honest discussions, learning, and problem-solving should never end just because the retrospective does.)

Why do this?

Retrospectives help people connect and discuss difficult topics in a safe, structured, and productive manner. They help us feel empowered and, perhaps, less isolated. Often, participants are surprised to see that others share their views. Whereas discussions over social media have a tendency to become polarized, fractious, heated, and lacking in substantive outcomes, in-person retrospectives help people empathize with one another -- even if disparate points of view are risen -- and bond by taking proactive steps to address a shared view of the problem together. It's okay and healthy to disagree and debate conflicting views as long as everyone remains respectful and brings a spirit of learning and tolerance to the retrospective.

Step 1: Gather the Group and Open the Retrospective (5-10 minutes)

Welcome your participants, and set the challenge for your group. I suggest, "How might we reduce the number of school shootings?" because it is a tangible and positive challenge. (You could optionally further restrict the challenge to address a particular school or community as opposed to the idea of school shootings at-large. Avoid overly broad topics or any phrasing that might be considered biased.)

Then, set the tone and intention for the meeting to ensure that participants acknowledge the spirit of problem-solving, collaboration, respect, commitment, and constructive discussion in which they are about to engage. The Futurospective Prime Directive offers inspiring words. (Alternatively, you may wish to choose a poem, Bible passage, or other quote that helps you and the participants enter the retrospective feeling calm, open-minded, and focused on the challenge.)

Our Shared Values: Optional "Icebreaker" Activity (5 minutes)

Ask participants to consider, and provide one or two responses for, this question:

"As a member of our community, I value..."

Ask participants to write one response (e.g. "...friendly neighbors") per post-it note. Invite everyone in turn to read their values with the group. Then set these aside for the moment. (If you have a large whiteboard or workspace, put them off to one side from the main area for the time being.)

(Note: You can rephrase this question for your purposes, e.g. "As an American...", or "As a student at <school name>", etc.)

Step 2: Gather Feedback (5-10 minutes)

First, draw or create a large, simple representation of a flag at half-staff on your chosen workspace. Write "things that prevent school shootings" at the top of your flag or flagpole, and "factors of school shootings" at the bottom of your flag or flagpole.

Task the group to consider these two points:

  1. What are the things that contribute to or are a factor in school shootings (and which we observe in mourning by lowering the flag to half-staff)? In other words, what factors "lower the flag" or hinder efforts to reduce or prevent school shootings? Share those insights on post-its and place them below the flag in the "Factors" area. 
  2. What are the factors that might reduce school shootings, which in turn "raise the flag" to full-staff? Put another way, what are the things that help reduce or prevent school shootings? Place those insights at the top of the flag in the "Prevents" section.

Ask the group to spend about ten minutes writing their insights down -- using one post-it for each individual item -- and ask them to place their post-its in the appropriate area at any time.

Step 3: Vote on Feedback and Generate Insights (45-60 minutes)

Once everyone has written their items of feedback down and placed them at the flag, invite all participants to stand near the workspace and spend a moment reviewing the feedback together. As a team, group any similar insights into thematic clusters. Briefly discuss or resolve any insights that aren't clear to the group, but discussions at this stage should be limited to quick clarifications. (As with brainstorming, there are "no bad ideas" at this point.)

After everyone understands the feedback, vote on the theme(s) you want to discuss as a group. One easy way to do this is to ask the participants to use dot voting, in which individuals put a single dot beside the topic they'd like to vote on. Each participant can vote a limited number of times. If you only have 90 minutes, suggest no more than three dots / votes per person. With more time, perhaps you could expand that to four or five dots. Participants can divide their votes among multiple issues or use them all on one topic. (If you're limited to a total of 90 minutes, you probably have time for one or two topics at most.)

Next, circle or call-out the themes that received the most votes, and spend the rest of your time in a group discussion focused on the voted topic(s). Set a timer if necessary.

Here are some useful facilitation questions to help draw insights from participants and reinforce a constructive, forward-thinking mindset. "Why" is always a useful companion to these or other questions.

  • "What is your ideal scenario?"
  • "What do you see as the obstacles?"
  • "How do you feel about this?" or "How do you feel right now? Why?"
  • "What do you feel would be the simplest response or solution? Why?"
  • What could we do, at our level and with our own resources, to make this better?"

As a facilitator, be prepared to occasionally step in and help participants share the floor while staying focused, respectful, polite, and open-minded. However, give them plenty of time to speak freely, too. The group will, more often than not, find their own way in the end.

Step 4: Decide What To Do Next (10 minutes)

What key new insights, ideas, questions, or solutions were generated from the topics you discussed? Write these down in a format that is visible to the team and which will also help them stay connected and accountable. It could be one or many of these: post-it notes which people then take pictures of on their phone, notes on a whiteboard or a wall / easel post-it, a shared Google doc, or a task-manager like Trello.

When capturing action items for your participants, challenge your group to generate goals that are clearly understood and specific, can be measured, are achievable or attainable, are relevant to the challenge at hand, and have some sort of deadline or time constraint. (These are also known as SMART goals.) If applicable, ask the group to volunteer an owner who is responsible for delivering or supervising the goal. Check in with your group to make sure they're comfortable with everything that's been captured.

Step 5: Close the Retrospective (5-10 minutes)

If you included the "shared values" exercise, return to this now:

Our Shared Values: As a group, move the post-it notes of the values into, or beside, the flag, until the group reaches a vision of values that the entire group shares. Feel free to rewrite or rephrase certain values as needed, and work through disagreements. Depending on your group, this may take more than 10 minutes, which is why I've described it as an optional segment to use if you wish.

Finally, thank everyone for their participation. Capture all the notes and feedback using photos and notes, and share with all the participants. If there's time, as you're leaving, ask everyone informally to share what aspect they found to be most valuable, and why.

I hope you find my "Hoist the Flag" retrospective format to be a useful tool. If you have questions, or have run the exercise and want to share feedback, I would love to hear from you.

Note: This is a safe place to share, listen, and discuss. In the spirit of effective facilitation, I have endeavored to remain a neutral voice and keep my own opinions private. I welcome your polite and constructive feedback, comments, suggestions, or questions. Thank you!

Half-Staff Flag at Tomlinson Field, Gulfport, Florida (C) Laura Peterson.

Further Inspiration and Tools

Change Artist Super Powers: Empathy​. "The more you listen, the more you learn about the needs and values of the people facing a change. And that is the key: People rarely change because someone has a bright new idea. They change to save something they value. But you won’t learn that unless you empathize." -- Esther Derby Associates, Inc.

Circles and Soup. Run as a companion or a standalone exercise, this is an excellent way to analyze and categorize ideas according to the degree of control and influence you and your group can exert. 'Sometimes teams get stuck at the point of “deciding what to do” in retrospectives. Team members may begin to point fingers and describe things that the ubiquitous “they” must do before the team can move forward or make improvements,. This may lead to a team-as-victim, "poor us, we're stuck" syndrome, or blame and finger-pointing. "It's their fault we're in this mess!" Blame kills retrospectives and the perception of persecution stalls any hope of forward motion, so the retrospective leader has to shift this conversation, and fast!' -- Diana Larsen