Making meaning of cultural values and preferences through retrospectives

Failing to recognize the diverse values and cultural preferences of colleagues usually lead to harmful assumptions that a difference in behavior is the result of a personal flaw, instead of recognizing it as a difference in social-emotional skills or cultural values.

Brandi Olson

May 1, 2019

We each bring social and emotional skills to the ways we show up and interact with others. Our ways of feeling, ways of relating, ways of getting work done are deeply influenced by our cultural values and preferences. And yet, our personal cultural values are often unexamined, leading us to make value judgments about the “right” way or the “wrong” way to communicate, resolve conflict, make decisions, etc.


For example, what’s your value around time? Is time a scarce resource? If so, starting a meeting when the clock says it’s time is the “right” way to behave. What if you see time as an unlimited resource? This value might lead you to believe that the “right” time to start a meeting is when everyone who needs to be there has arrived. Even the Agile Manifesto and Principles are steeped in a set of cultural values + preferences that privilege some behaviors over others.


Failing to recognize the diverse values and cultural preferences of colleagues usually lead to harmful assumptions that a difference in behavior is the result of a personal flaw, instead of recognizing it as a difference in social-emotional skills or cultural values. This reality plays out frequently as we try to make sense of team behavior.

Understanding the cultural values and preferences represented on a team or in an organization can bring powerful insights into ways to work better together.

In collaboration with the University of Minnesota, I co-created the Ways of Being Model for teaching the connection between cultural values and social-emotional skills. One of the most powerful tools we developed is the Cultural Values Map It’s a simple way to help a group of people explore how their own values and preferences shape the culture of their teams and organizations.


Cultural values mapping in a team

At a recent scrum master workshop, I introduced Cultural Values Mapping. One of the participants sent me a note a few weeks later. She had been infuriated with her scrum team-- they were so undisciplined!

Standups were a mess, she said. They never started on time and she felt like she wasn’t getting through to the team on the importance of standups.

She invited the team to create a cultural values map at their retrospective. They learned that the entire delivery team held a deeply shared value around time--it’s a flexible, abundant resource.

Can you guess where the scrum master landed? She found herself on the opposite end of the spectrum!

They spent the rest of the retrospective talking about their mutual frustration around standups. The team was frustrated when the scrum master tried to get them to start the standup before everyone arrived. They collectively believed it was more important to have everyone in the standup conversation than to start on time.

The team didn’t lack discipline. They were prioritizing a different value.

The ways we behave are rooted in our values. My values around time or communication or celebration are not more right or more wrong than your values. But if I don’t know what your value is, it’s all too easy for me to assume that you just don’t know the “right” way to act.


In the case of our scrum master, she assumed that her belief around when to start standups was the RIGHT way to do it. She judged her team to be generally disorganized and undisciplined because standups frequently got a late start. While she stated often and loudly her expectation that standups should start “on-time”, she never explored why they were starting late and if it was a problem for anyone else on the team.

In any workplace, there are behaviors and norms that are privileged because they align with the implicit cultural values of the organization. Shared expectations around behavior aren’t inherently bad--a team has to work together towards shared goals. However, if we want to work better, together, then we need to make these expectations -- and the values behind them, explicit.

Two ways to use cultural values mapping in your next retrospective:

1. Team Retrospective: Map the group

Invite team members to complete the cultural values mapping exercise on their own and bring their results to the retrospective (get the cultural values map and template right here). Map each person’s responses into a single group view.

  • What trend does the team notice?
  • What dimensions have strong shared values?
  • What dimensions have value diversity?
  • How do those differences or similarities show up in your team interactions?

2. Team of Teams Retrospective: Human Graphing

At your next PI planning event or product design session, use one cultural dimension from the Cultural Values Map as a conversation starter for a group retrospective. (Here is a simple deck of all of the cultural value dimensions and descriptions, ready for you to use with your group!)

Share the dimension so everyone can see it. Ask people to move to specific areas of the room to represent their preferences on the spectrum.

  • What are our group norms around this value?
  • How might someone who has a different value be viewed?
  • When do our different values around this dimension help us as a group?
  • What values (and resulting behaviors) are privileged and rewarded in our organization?

Turn it into action

The Scrum Master from the workshop reached out to ask, “What now?” What do we do with our understanding of each other’s cultural values? Here’s what I told her…

Once you’ve mapped individual values and preferences, map out the values underlying your team working agreements.

What are the implicit values represented in your working agreements?
How do your team’s values compare?
Are there opportunities to make the values behind the working agreements more explicit?
Does the team want to change any working agreements?

As a result of their retrospective on cultural values mapping, the Scrum Master’s team made their expectations and values around standup explicit--the daily standup would start when everyone was ready--even if that meant it started a few minutes past the scheduled time. The Scrum Master agreed to prioritize the team’s value around time, and they all agreed to check-in on this expectation in a few sprints to see if they needed to adjust.

If you’d like to get additional resources to use Cultural Values Mapping in your retrospective, head over to Brandi’s Cultural Values Mapping Resource Page - created just for Scatterspoke readers. There, you’ll find individual templates and a deck you can use to introduce the concepts to your teams.

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