CAIN (Continuous Attention to Individuals’ Needs) — An #AntimatterPrinciple approach to retrospectives

Neil Killick
5 min readDec 20, 2017

(first published on March 27th 2016, migrated from my deprecated Wordpress site)

This is an idea for a series of focused retrospectives called CAIN (Continuous Attention to Individual’s Needs). It is inspired by, and based upon, Bob Marshall’s Antimatter Principle (Bob is @flowchainsensei on Twitter — you can find all related posts and tweets here).

The premise of the Antimatter Principle is simple — Attend to folks’ needs.

Think of CAIN as one example of a concrete implementation of this principle, or a method.

CAIN 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.

The team is looked upon as a group of individuals with unique human needs rather than purely a homogeneous unit. Continuous improvement efforts are focused on the habitual attendance to each individual team member’s needs (hence the name CAIN) rather than trying to ascertain the needs of the team as a whole.

From a Toyota Kata perspective, the current condition is the number of unmet needs in the team. The target condition is zero unmet needs. The team as a whole will continuously endeavour to reduce the number of unmet needs of the individuals in the team via deliberate actions and experiments identified in the retrospective.

What’s working well for me? (needs being met)
What’s NOT working well for me? (needs NOT being met)

Each team member spends time individually reflecting on events since the last retrospective that directly addressed one or more of their innate needs, and those that did the opposite. They are also invited to highlight needs that feel unmet due to something that didn’t happen.

:) "I feel very valued this week, and that I am starting to form friendships in this team.":( "I feel our work at the moment is quite mundane and uncreative.":( "I did not receive recognition for my efforts this week, which leaves me feeling somewhat deflated."

For this exercise, the team might find it useful to refer to a model for representing human needs, such as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Folks are invited to consider their emotional response to events rather than trying to be rational or scientific about what is working and not working. How they feel about what happened (or didn’t happen) rather than an objective assessment of what is effective or not.

For this to happen, it is more important than ever that the team feels they are in a safe environment, so the need for a safety check is paramount. Folks are being invited to share intimate thoughts and needs as human beings, so a high degree of trust is required. Consider that CAIN might also be used as an approach to build this required trust in the first place.

It’s also worth pointing out here that reflecting on one’s actual needs is not a simple task*. It is far easier for us to talk about what we want, or think we want, rather than what we actually need.

However, there is much inherent value in simply talking about needs — especially those of the deepest human kind — even if the “needs” that get identified are not truly the innate needs of the individuals. With practice, the team will become more effective at identifying genuine needs, and in the meantime they will at least be talking about them, building trust and perhaps making their work environment more joyful in small ways.

*This is also apparent in so-called requirements elicitation, where folks try and identify what the customer needs by asking them what they want. Actual needs are somewhat intangible in practice, and tend to emerge over time rather than be identifiable in the present.

How might we attend to my unmet needs?

Having celebrated the needs of its members that are being met, the team will turn its attention to addressing unmet needs. Folks are invited to spend time individually thinking of ideas that might reduce the unmet needs count.

All ideas are presented, and the group votes for the one they think might have the biggest impact.

An experiment is formed, and each team member goes back to her/his work routine, hopefully with an enriched view of her/his own needs as well as those of their colleagues.

What next?

My hypothesis is that CAIN might reap better results than other retrospective approaches because it reduces the risk of groupthink. No attempt is made to collate things identified as (not) working well into a team consensus. It is always the needs of the individuals that are focused on.

CAIN also might reap positive results because it focuses on the strongest lever for improving effectiveness, which is mindset. The conversations that arise when folks are unravelling their personal and professional needs will reveal differences in mindset — dissonance — which, left unaddressed, will result in a perpetuation of ineffective strategies for getting needs met, leading to conflict, competition, poor results from a team’s perspective and, ultimately, that of the entire organisation.

I invite you to give CAIN a try in your next team retrospective, and share your experience.

Thanks for reading! If you are looking for help with your software or product delivery, I provide agile coaching, public training (both theory and practical) up to executive management level, and more. As well as public events, I can also run training internally in your organisation for a massively reduced cost, so please ✍ get in touch.



Neil Killick

Software/product coach and leader. Expert in agile product development and product management.