There’s no questioning the value of good retrospectives, but are your retrospectives always valuable? Do they address the issues that need to be addressed? Does everyone contribute? Does everyone get value from them? Do you even ask?
There is no “One size fits all” approach with retrospectives. Whilst picking random activities may lead to a retrospective that will provide some novelty, it will rarely yield the same good results as a carefully tailored one. Those that want to try the random cocktail approach can try Retromat. (This is actually a very good site, with a great collection of activities set out in the 5 stage format. You can choose to tailor but there’s a shuffle feature.)
Teams quickly grow weary of the same old formula. They know what to expect, they follow the script, they “get back to work”. Teams can also grow tired of elaborate games that tenuously ask the traditional 3 questions of what went well, what didn’t and what can we do better.
Think carefully before running a retrospective, invest time in preparing. The team deserve a good retrospective. Remember that they need to go into the next sprint better equipped than they were before they came to the retro. Think about what may be troubling the team and how best to provoke discussion and resolutions in these areas. A good scrum master, delivery manager or coach will instinctively know the most appropriate format of retro to use with a team at a given time.
One way to give a more tailored experience is to create your own retrospective activities. Here are a few that I’ve come up with.
HeadsUp is a mobile app that is based on the “What am I?” game. This is where one person in a group wears a post-it on their head with a word or words written on it. The person wearing the post-it doesn’t see the words. The rest of the group have to get the person to say the words using hints and mimes. The group are not allowed to use the actual words. HeadsUp uses the same concept, but you use a smartphone with a deck of “post-its” and the app can take video footage of the team making fools of themselves!
A few days prior to the retrospective, I asked each team member to give me a few 1-3 liners that sum up their memories. I encouraged the team to think about funny moments, sad moments, proud moments. Some examples could be “Wrong Database”, “John’s odd foot”, “The night out”…. you get the picture. I created a custom deck in HeadsUp and loaded in the team’s memories.
In the retro I invited each team member to be the guesser. This person puts the phone on their forehead and the team shout and dance around until the person guesses the word or phrase. We repeated this until everyone (that wants to) has a turn.
This activity is useful as:
- It helps highlight any communication problems in the team. There were occasions where 1 or 2 members of the group were perplexed by the words on the screen – they didn’t know what it was? They weren’t “in on it” We can use this opportunity to understand why this happens and look at ways to improve if needed.
- Its a lot of fun
- Everyone got involved.
- The deck can be added to and replayed if needed
I came up with this activity whilst running a final retrospective for a team. The team were moving off to new projects and wouldn’t be working with each other again in the near future. It was important that we used this opportunity for the team to get some closure on their time together. They had been working in a team for 22 sprints (44 weeks / 11 Months). I asked them to draw out a timeline that described their journey together. From day 1 to now. Everyone shared their own memories of the timeline. After nostalgically replaying the past 11 months, I wanted the team to be able to give something to each other as a token or gift; a fortune cookie!
I ran it as follows:
- Handout a 2 post-its to each person in the team and ask them to write their name on one of the post-its and then place the blank post-it on top. (If there are people with the same name on the team ask them to add the first letter of their surname, or their nickname)
- Collect in the post-it bundles and shuffle them. (keeping them in a paired bundle with a name and a blank on top)
- Invite each member one by one to take a post-it pair from you
- Ask them to check the name to make sure they haven’t picked themselves.
- When everyone has someone’s name, ask each person to write something about the person they have. Preferably something nice. I suggested: advice, thanks for something, or something that they could put on their CV based on the work they’ve done on this project.
- Collect in the cookies and distribute them to the appropriate recipients
- Ask each person to read out their fortune cookie.*
*Some teams might not feel safe doing this, so its a good idea to do a safety check first. If they’re not feeling safe, collect in the cookies and read them out yourself, or simply allow everyone to read their fortune in private.
Pain / Painkiller / Cure
I thought of this activity on the morning of a retrospective. I was feeling particularly unwell with flu / cold symptoms. I popped into the chemist to pick up some flu / cold capsules and although it didn’t cure me, i felt a whole lot better! This can be applied to our teams; we can look for painkillers, things that will help us whilst we build up immunity or until a cure is discovered.
Ask your team to draw a character that represents the sprint (or the project if you’re wanting the team to retrospect through a wider lens). You can ask the team members to take turns drawing each body part or you can ask the artistic one in the team to sketch something out quickly with some direction from the rest of the team. Next, ask the team to give their new creation a name, don’t worry too much about this part. This exercise should serve as a good energiser and you should use this to ensure everyone has a chance to speak and contribute.
Ask the team one by one to represent some of the pains that the character is suffering from. You could do this as a collaborative or silent post-it exercise. Continue the metaphor by asking for Acute (new) and Chronic (ongoing) illnesses. Encourage your team to get creative with this. For example, maybe the team had problems communicating a particular blocker in the last sprint, or feel that they weren’t been heard. The team might represent this by modifying the sketch so that their character has their mouth zipped closed, or no voice box. Use post-its to call out the ailment, and ask the team to elaborate the illnesses with the real world concern.
Continue this exercise until the team have all had a chance to take part and there’s a good mix of “acute” and “chronic” complaints.
People often see a problem and invest a lot of time and effort to completely cure the issue. Whilst it’s desirable to rid ourselves of our problems, sometimes we can limit the problem more quickly and bring benefit sooner. Ask the team to think of a suitable PRESCRIPTION to issue for each of the complaints.
After the team have prescribed the painkillers, ask the team to look at what they’d need to do in order to completely cure the ailments.
Continue the metaphor by asking the team to think of the upcoming sprint and to think of what vaccinations they may need in order to prevent further “Illness”
Sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many teams I’ve observed “doing” a retro, yet they don’t come up with any actions! Encourage the team to come up with focused, achievable SMART actions for the next sprint. I encourage my teams to put their actions on their sprint / kanban boards so they don’t conveniently evaporate! Make sure that these actions are reviewed at the next retrospective.
Whatever format you choose, make sure you get feedback from the team on the retro. There are a number of ways of doing this, but I like using “Feedback archery”. To do this, draw 3 archery boards with concentric rings and a bullseye. On each target write a statement that you’d like the team to measure against. A good set of statements to use is:
- I got value from the retrospective
- I talked openly and honestly in the retrospective
- We talked about things that I wanted to talk about in the retrospective.
Invite the team to place a dot on each of the targets. Explain that the more they agree with a statement the closer they should mark to the bullseye.
Use the results of this to help improve your retrospectives with the team. If the team indicate that they didn’t talk about what they wanted to, try to address this with a lean coffee session at the next retrospective.
I hope that these ideas are useful to you. Please let me know if you do try them and if you have ideas on how to adjust these in any way to make them better.
I recently ran a short workshop on facilitation and retrospectives. You can find the slides from this here: