Average read: 5-8 mins
Work can be messy, and humans aren't errorless, emotionless robots. Sharing and responding to feedback on a regular basis can be challenging for some teams, especially following a difficult iteration or deployment.
Even when the team has plenty of context and is operating from a place of mutual trust and safety, retrospectives can still be stressful for introverts (like me) who can find the prospect of verbal communication intimidating.
If you are consistently struggling to cluster and categorize team feedback, if you're looking for more room for discussion and experimentation, if you've been skirting around powerful emotions with no outlets or techniques to uncover them, or you just want to try something new and fun, here are some enhancements and alternatives to consider.
If your team is new to agile (or retrospectives), shy, worn out, or any combination of these, skip the procedural approaches and try something easy that will galvanize your team and encourage a positive shared experience.
Story-style retrospectives, where some sort of basic story or scenario is utilized to explore goals, assets, factors, and root causes, are fun ways to fire up imaginations and get people participating. Their deceptive simplicity makes them especially useful for futurespectives or establishing broader visions and goals.
Plus, drawing silly things like zombies or pirates and icebergs is (usually) a terrific ice-breaker.
The Sailboat Retrospective model
Go for simplicity.
I observed this in practice working with a cross-functional team at SoundCloud who had partnered with an external mobile developer. When that team came on-site into a brand-new environment for the demo and retro, they brought with them an innovative yet unambitious model: the Perfect 10 retrospective. The new and easy format quickly galvanized everyone.
Instructions: Each team member gives the prior sprint / iteration / deployment points out of ten, along with their rationale. Then, they explain what things or changes would have made the sprint a "perfect 10".
A heap of 7s and 8s could mean your team is pretty happy with what's going on... or, they're afraid to be truthful. And outliers in either direction can also be revealing.
The Perfect 10 Retrospective
Allow for vagueness and experimentation.
Do you observe participants thinking their socks off but struggling to write? Perhaps they scribble several drafts on post-its but ultimately never share that feedback? Maybe the categories themselves are too rigid for your team. Here are some alternatives to "Stop Start Continue" to consider.
Give your team room for suggestions and experiments.
The Starfish model (which I also used last year for a personal growth retrospective that I blogged about) diverts some of the finality, judgement, and pressure from the labels "STOP!" and "START!" and allows for more gradual options. These will sound less like commands and more like suggestions and prompts for discussion or experimentation.
The Starfish retrospective model
This also helps you reserve the "Stop" and "Start" spaces for more drastic areas of feedback.
Call out partial wins.
Two similar techniques -- the WWW activity (Worked, kinda Worked, didn't Work) and the Three Little Pigs (what are our straw houses, wood houses, and brick houses? what are "the wolves"?) -- help you look back on a sprint (or analyze a particular issue) and consider the activities over more of a spectrum of relative successes.
Additionally, this gives the team the latitude to move feedback between categories based on how a team's understanding of the context and perspective shift during the discussion. Maybe something that started out as "awesome, hell yeah this worked!" shifts to "kinda Worked" under closer inspection. Why is this important? It reinforces to your team that changing their opinion or questioning the group is acceptable.
Three Little Pigs
Udacity, whose photo I'm using above, used the Three Little Pigs (which most people are attributing to Fun Retrospectives who in turn credit Steve Wells) retrospective at the beginning of their recent two-day design off-site where they refined their goals for the future, capturing it all, along with great observations on design thinking, in an excellent post on Medium.
Labels like "kinda worked" or "wood house" fire the imagination more than the word "continue" (which, perhaps, would be better re-labeled "continue to improve").
What about stuff we can't change?
How many retrospectives get derailed because people rant with frustration about things that can't be changed (or which they think might be impossible to change)? Maybe the Wheel of Change would help.
Three things I like about Wheel of Change:
Wheel of Change (c) Marshall Goldsmith
Marshall Goldsmith, the creator of this technique, writes: "Acceptance is incredibly valuable when we are powerless to make a difference. Yet our ineffectuality is precisely the condition that we are most loath to accept. This truth triggers our finest moments of counterproductive behavior."
Learn from emotions and contrasting views.
Feelings, emotions, and moods -- oh my! These can be tricky subjects in any workplace and can be affected by our corporate and our social / national cultures. (Note: if you feel like you can't share your feelings with your co-workers, scrum master, or manager, you may have a workplace culture problem. Here's a great article about workplace culture from my former colleague, Catt Small.)
The ways we feel -- happy, sad, resentful, frustrated, cheerful, lonely, tired, fulfilled, angry, relieved, manipulated, creative, paranoid, challenged, excited -- have tremendous impacts on our work and our interactions, especially if these feelings rarely see the light of day. It takes courage and honesty to bring these to light.
Tweak your format...
If you and your team like Stop Start Continue, consider these alternatives. (You could even make them additional categories alongside Stop Start Continue or any other retrospective model.)
...or use it as a check-in
You could also use the two techniques above as a check-in before the main exercise. Fun Retrospectives also has an excellent list of pre-retrospective check-ins.
Lots of stuff going on? Consider a timeline with emotion map.
Are you coming off an out-of-the-blue catastrophe? Did things go poorly in a recent deployment or project? Are people on the brink of rage-quitting? You're not alone: these things happen. (Work is messy, and we're not emotionless robots.)
How do you coax your team to critically examine root causes -- and air feelings constructively -- without stepping in a minefield of silences, blame games, and rants? The Timeline Retrospective is a useful technique here: it brings your team together by collaboratively and objectively assembling a timeline of events and facts. Then, from this solid foundation of shared understanding, their opinions about the significant events, along with their emotions at the time, can be constructively expressed and anchored.
PART 1: Create a Timeline of Events
Blank Timeline template including Emotions map
Getting started. I'm using key events from the American Revolutionary War
so I can stage and discuss this example. (It's probably a good idea to add some dates along the timeline.)
PART 2: Dot-Vote the Significant Events
In staging the example below, I gave the brutal winter at Valley Forge lots of red or "negative" votes, as you'd expect, but a blue vote, too. This would be a cue to ask why someone would consider the frigid cold and starvation a "positive significant event". (Perhaps, in their mind, it proved our endurance as a young nation? And so forth.)
Step 1 and 2 complete: a representation of a theoretical
"American Revolutionary War" project review, with dot-voting.
Don't be afraid to dig into causes, effects, and other notes and outcomes. Context is vital!
PART 3: Add an Emotion Map Parallel to the Events
In my example below, I replicated emotional journeys based what I've seen in real retrospectives: contrasting, sometimes controversial, divergence of emotions alongside the events above.
Completed retrospective of events, significant positive (blue dots) and
negative (red dots) events, and the team's individual parallel emotions.
Why did some people view the Boston Tea Party positively, while others were less enthused? Maybe certain people on the team were alarmed by events and would have preferred more diplomatic routes. Why was someone "happy" throughout Valley Forge? Perhaps they tended to those who were sick and in need; perhaps they proved themselves as a soldier and a survivor; if you consider the likely technological correlations to these examples, you can see how this technique can provide valuable insights into your individual team-members' motivations and behaviors.
Regardless of your role on the team, I hope you are inspired by these examples and insights to continue improving retrospectives and serving the team.
The retrospective is an activity which singularly embodies and requires all the agile values -- focus, courage, openness, commitment, and respect -- to be successful; it's therefore also an important teaching tool and a vital voice for the team.
Please share any of your own examples or experiences using these or other techniques!
Additional Resources and Summaries
Excellent things from Corinna Baldauf at Finding Marbles:
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