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Fresh Ideas for Better Retrospectives

Going beyond "Stop Start Continue" to embrace humor, experimentation, and emotion

· everyday agile,fun retrospectives,zombies,emotions,workplace culture

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.

Have fun.

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.

Tell stories!

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.

  • Challenge stories: how would the team fight off a zombie apocalypse?
  • Momentum stories: what factors help a craft -- Sailboat, Hot Air Balloon, Racecar -- reach its destination? What are the obstacles or weights? 
  • Journey stories: a variant of momentum (which I would personally turn into an epic 8-bit Legend of Zelda-style map) is the Hero's Journey, exploring the attributes of the Hero, the guides, the challenges, and the treasure. While similar to the Momentum-style ones, the terminology of "guide" is more likely to lead teams to consider positive people, not just "process" or other forces, while "treasure" denotes not just aids but rewards, another vital aspect of work.
sailboat retrospective

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.

Perfect 10 out of 10 retrospective

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.

(c) nequalsblue Starfish retrospective image start stop more of less of keep

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 retrospective image from udacity. straw, stick, brick houses

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:

  1. it gives the team a chance to discuss and clearly acknowledge what can and cannot be affected in their particular circumstances, which in turn helps teams and managers focus on the important needs.
  2. you can use it to distinguish priority: by moving suggestions to the outer edges of the circle according to each quadrant, you can promote and filter the things that require the most attention.
  3. you can also use it to guide and represent points of view during your discussions and decisions, moving post-its between quadrants as the team's understanding of the problem evolves.
wheel of change agile

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.)

  • Glad Sad Mad. The inevitable question: what's the difference between "Sad" and "Mad"? "Sad" = things that were a disappointment, which didn't go as expected, whereas "Mad" could be more of a shocking surprise and something that really frustrated the team. You could also use "Mad" for things that the team didn't have much control over, whereas "Sad" would be something to strive to improve for next time.
  • ☺ ‎☹ ? (I really like the open bucket for questions or puzzlers)

...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

  1. Draw a horizontal line on your whiteboard to represent the entire duration of the project (or range of time in question) from beginning (at left) to end. If necessary, quantify the timeline with days, months, hours -- whatever you need to provide context.
  2. Invite the team to begin writing and placing events on post-its above the timeline. Don't be overly concerned with exact order at first, but ensure the team is helping one another remember the events that occurred.
  3. Give the team time to move and re-order the post-its until everyone agrees with the sequence of events.
Timeline and Emotions map template

Blank Timeline template including Emotions map

Timeline getting started Battle at Yorktown and Battle of Lexington and Concord

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

  1. Choose two colors to represent "positive events" (green or blue are good choices) and "negative events" (red or black are popular). Or, use smiles and frowns, Xs and Os... whatever works for your team.
  2. Ask everyone on the team to put a dot directly on any and all events they, individually, feel were "significant". Team members have unlimited votes. Expect that many post-its won't get any dots; some will clearly be only positive or negative; and others, controversially, may be covered in both positive and negatives.
  3. Look at the items that were voted upon and spend some time discussing these much as you would the up-voted topics in other retrospectives. Take notes and add context directly on the whiteboard as needed; you may even need to add additional events as the discussion continues. 

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.)

Retrospectives should be spaces for contrasting, sometimes controversial, ideas.
picture of Revolutionary War Timeline complete, but without emotions

Step 1 and 2 complete: a representation of a theoretical

"American Revolutionary War" project review, with dot-voting.

picture of digging in to events

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

  1. Below the left-most side of the timeline, draw a happy face, a neutral face at the midpoint, and a sad face.
  2. Using pens of different colors, invite your team to plot their "mood journey" along the events in turn with the emotion axis for reference. Some techniques call this exercise "peaks and valleys".
  3. If they feel comfortable doing so, each team-member is encouraged to share and explain their individual journey.
  4. Give space for people to notice where lines came together or where they diverged and why. Discuss.

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.

timeline and emotions picture

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

Everything and everyone at Fun Retrospectives, which is frequently updated with ever more compelling content and ideas. A true gem explaning all kinds of likely activities and needs.

Great summary of the top retrospective techniques from An Agile Mind:

Scrum Alliance has a broad-not-deep one-page reference guide to a number of retrospectives.

Excellent things from Corinna Baldauf at Finding Marbles:

Cover photo by Olga Guryanova.