Retrospective Exercises – A Toolbox

Overview

The goal of the retro is to empower teams (groups of people focused on a common goal) to control their own destiny.

In retrospectives teams look for primarily for improvement actions that they can do themselves. If they want to try a different way of working, it’s up to them to give feedback to each other, to discuss what happened, to learn, and to decide what to do. If there are external issues affecting the teams, they need to be raised up within the organization so collectively we can address them. Maybe they use a cross team retro, or invite “external agents” to their retro…

Why different retrospective exercises?

There is no single retrospective exercise that always gives the best results. Why? A couple of reasons:

  • Teams differ from each other so an approach the resonates with one team, might not work so well with another
  • The things that each team deals with can be different in each iteration.
  • Teams might just get bored when they are always doing retrospectives in a similar way.
  • Individuals must feel comfortable enough to share their problems, opinions and concerns. So various means of doing so (group, individual, spoken, written) are often needed.

Below are a number of techniques teams can use to mix things up, to look from different angles and perspectives, create safe environments, make sure all voices are heard, and generate new insights.

Before starting a retrospective, teams should think about which exercises would be most suitable – for where the team is now, and for the just completed iteration. And then use the exercise as a team to solve the problems you consider to be your biggest hurdles.

There’s a Zen saying I’m personally fond of: We’re all perfect just the way we are. But of course there’s always room for improvement.

So that’s the goal for any retro: elicit feedback, collectively share it and make the retro a catalyst for continuous improvement – as individuals, as a team, and as an organization.

Exercises

Management30.com
Management30.com

The Celebration Grid

A Management 3.0 Practice

Dealing with software development means taking risks, doing experiments, and hopefully learning along the way. Yes there a good practices, but if we just stuck to those we’d minimize a team’s learning of new things. The celebration grid is a way to visualize the outcomes. Create a blank grid and have the team populate each of the areas with stickies. And then use it as the basis for discussion (and celebration).


The 4L’s (Liked, Learned, Lacked, Longer for): A Retrospective Technique

by Mary Gorman and Ellen Gottesdiener ( http://ebgconsulting.com/blog/the-4l%E2%80%99s-a-retrospective-technique/ )

Liked – Learned – Lacked – Longed For

  • Liked – things you really liked;
  • Learned – things you have learned;
  • Lacked – tools, process, systems
  • Longed for – is about the soft stuff, feelings, desires, things wished for.

Steps for the 4 L’s

  1. Hang four posters, one for each L, around the room, titled appropriately: Liked, Learned, Lacked, Longed For
  2. Ask people to individually or in small groups to jot down on post-it notes what they Liked, Learned, Lacked, and Longed For – one per note.  When the time is up (5-10 minutes, set a timer…), they place their notes on the appropriate poster.
  3. Divide the group into four subgroups; assign an “L” poster to each subgroup. They review the notes of their subgroup, cluster as appropriate and identify themes.
  4. Each team reports out on the themes. Time box each team to 5 mins.
  5. The entire group decides how they might use the data.  For example, ask, “How can we satisfy the ‘lacked’ or ‘longed for’ items? (30 mins) Generate candidates for change.

Variations Team Can Try

  • Use color stickies, one color per “L”.
  • Select a subset of the L’s, but remember the power of “longed for”.
  • At step 2: Instead of each individual quietly writing their own 4 L’s, split group into 4 teams and assign each team to one of the L’s. Each team collectively identifies, discusses and writes points. (Plan for more time to allow for discussion.) After posting their items onto their assigned “L” poster, ask teams to rotate to each of the other 3 posters, adding items that occur to them.
  • After step 3: Facilitate a “gallery walk around” whereby people walk around and read what’s on the 3 other posters.

WWW: Worked well, kinda Worked, didn’t Work

1. 3 columns:

  • Worked well – things that worked really well;
  • kinda Worked – things that kind of worked, but you rather tweak them a little bit;
  • didn’t Work – things that did not work.

2. Ask the participants for their notes.

3. Group the notes by affinity and discuss.

KALM – Keep, Add, More, Less

KALM is a retrospective activity that fosters the conversation to the current activities and the perceived value.

1. Four columns

  • Keep – something the team is doing well and you recognize the value in it;
  • Less – something already being done; but you rather do less of it;
  • More – something already being done; and you believe it will bring more value if done even more;
  • Add – a new idea, or something you have seen working before that you would like to bring to the table.

2. Ask the participants for their notes.

3. Group the notes by affinity and discuss.

CAPT – Confident or Apprehensive x People or Tech

This is an interesting retrospective activity that explores people’s anxiety and confidence levels.

1. Draw a vertical axis with the following in each end (top, bottom):

  • Confident: I was confident about it (the higher, the more confident I felt)
  • Apprehensive: I was apprehensive about it (the lower, the more apprehensive I felt).

2. Draw a horizontal axis with the following in each end (left, right):

  • Tech: notes related to tools and technology.
  • People: notes related to people and their interactions.

3. Folks write up post it notes on specific elements and put them in the corresponding quadrant.

4. Affinity grouping and group conversation.


The following exercises are from: http://www.infoq.com/minibooks/agile-retrospectives-value

The descriptions all follow a similar format:

  • What to expect from this exercise: The potential results that this kind of retrospective can give you and the benefits of using this retrospective exercise.
  • When to use this exercise: Situations where this retrospective exercise can be most useful.
  • How to do it: A detailed description of the exercise and how to apply it.

Asking Questions

One exercise often used in agile retrospectives is for the team to ask themselves questions and collect and cluster the answers. The results can be used to define improvement actions that the team can do in the next iteration.

What to expect from this exercise

Newly formed teams can use this approach to reflect and improve their way of working together. Realizing that they can get retrospective actions done motivates teams to learn and improve continuously.

Mature teams can leverage this exercise by asking more detailed and focused questions to help them to fine-tune their way of working.

When to use this exercise

If you have never facilitated your team’s retrospective before then asking questions is an easy way to start. Since questions can vary, it’s also flexible which makes it suitable in many situations.

How to do it

With a team that is new to retrospectives simply use the following four key questions:

  • What did we do well, that if we don’t discuss we might forget?
  • What did we learn?
  • What should we do differently next time?
  • What still puzzles us?

These four retrospective questions are usually very effective. Asking “What should we do differently next time” urges team members to look for things that they want to change. It often helps to facilitate a discussion, to find out why a process needs to be changed and to build a shared understanding and commitment for the actions that the team will do.

“What did we do well?” is a solution-focused approach that can be used in a strength-based retrospective. The addition of “if we don’t discuss we might forget” makes this question even stronger; if something good happened by accident, that’s great, but what can you do to ensure that you will keep doing it?

The question “What still puzzles us?” can provide useful insights by revealing things that had previously remained unspoken. If things come up, a one-word retrospective (see below) can be used to deal with the team’s emotions. Asking “What did we learn?” makes team members aware that in order to become better, they will need to learn. If this question doesn’t lead to answers in several consecutive retrospectives, it can be a signal that the team is not trying enough new things. That’s something the team can dig into using root cause analysis – see Five Times Why.

Examples of questions that are a bit more detailed:

  • What helps you to be successful as a team?
  • How did you do it?
  • Where and when did it go wrong in this iteration?
  • What do you expect, from whom?
  • Which tools or techniques proved to be useful? Which did not?
  • What is your biggest impediment?
  • If you could change one thing, what would it be?
  • What causes the problems that you had in this iteration?
  • Are there things that you can do to these causes?
  • What do you need from people outside the team to solve the problems?

The key is to use questions that help the team to gain insight into the primary issues that they are having now, and questions that help them to visualize their improvement potential.

Using open ended questions helps to elicit answers that provide more information, and using follow-up questions helps teams get more insight into what happened.

Ask for specific examples to make situations concrete, then summarize answers to build a shared understanding and come to actions that the team will do in the next sprint.


Sand dollar aka Starfish

This exercise is an evolution of the typical three questions that are used for retrospectives: What went well? (Continue), What did not go so well? (Stop), What should be improved? (Start)

What to expect from this exercise

This exercise helps to identify problems of and opportunities for the team. Instead of the typical three questions, we have a circle with five words (see diagram below):

  • Stop – These are activities that do not bring value to a team or customer activities that bring waste into the process.
  • Less – These are activities that require a high level of effort and produce little benefit. They may also be activities that were brought into the team from the past but did not lead to any overall improvements to a process.
  • Keep – Usually these are good activities or practices that team members want to keep. These activities are already being applied.
  • More – Activities on which a team should focus and perform more often. For example, many teams express that pair programming is helpful yet they do not need to do it every time.
  • Start – Activities or ideas that a team wants to bring into the game.

With this exercise, teams can get an overall picture of what’s going on within the team, what is working and what is not. They can get an overview about failed as well as successful ones in the past. This is a great evolution of the typical three retrospective questions.

When to use this exercise

This simple technique does not require any special occasion. It might be interesting for situations when a team goes through several ups and downs during the iteration. This technique reveals good actions as well as less positive observations the team has performed and therefore might be a good tool for summarizing the iteration. Starfish is suitable for any team. It does not require any specific level of maturity.

How to do it

This retrospective is simple to do. First, draw a circle, divide it into five segments, then add the words in the order shown. (Counter clockwise: Stop, Less, Keep, More, and finish with Start)

After drawing the picture on a flip chart/white board, it’s good to start a brainstorming session by allowing the team to put their ideas in the Stop area. (Either collectively, on via silent writing on post it notes.) After that, give two to three minutes to read aloud the Stop ideas and spend 10 minutes on a short discussion to see if everyone is aligned.

Repeat the exercise for each of Less, Keep, and More.

For the Start part, add one extra step after the initial 2-3 minute review. Use the Toyota approach, choosing a single topic to discuss (not necessarily a single post-it note. Look for an emergent theme, maybe list the themes off to the side.) You can hold a dot vote, or use any of the Filtering Techniques (see bottom of this page) to determine what the team considers the most important topic to start with. After selecting the topic, design a small strategy to make sure a topic is well implemented. This strategy might include responsible persons, due dates, and, most importantly, success criteria. In order to know if the implementation was successful, we must have a success criterion.

A topic that is chosen in the Start part does not need to be new to a team. It can be an improvement of something that is not working well.

The order of review of segments within the circle is important: Stop, Less, Keep, More, and finish with Start. Starting with negative topics and progressing little by little towards the positive ones will help the team to end the retrospective with a much more positive feeling than if they did it in a random order.


Sailboat

This exercise guides a team to think about their own objectives, impediments, risks, and good practices, in a simple visual format.

What to expect from this exercise

This exercise helps a teams to define their vision. It helps them to identify risks in their path and allows them to identify what slows them down and what actually helps them to achieve their objectives.

When to use this exercise

Suitable for any team. It does not require any specific level of maturity.

How to do it

Draw a sailboat, an anchor, rocks, clouds, and couple of islands.

  • The islands represent the team’s goals/vision. They work every day in order to reach these islands.
  • The rocks represent the risks they might encounter along the way.
  • The anchor on the boat is everything that slows them down on their journey.
  • The clouds represents the wind – everything that helps them to reach their goal.

Time box 10 minutes for everyone to individually write down ideas for each area on post-it notes. At the end of 10 mins, everyone puts their notes in the appropriate area.

With the picture on the wall, start a brainstorming session during which the team reviews their ideas from the different areas. (Starting with the team visions / goals.)

  • Discuss how the team can continue to practice what is written on the clouds/wind. These are good ideas that help the team and they need to continue with them.
  • Next, discuss how the team can mitigate the identified risks (the rocks).
  • Finally, discuss the anchor items, and the team chooses the most important issue that is slowing them down. If there is disagreement within the team about which topic to tackle, use vote dots.

By the end of the retro time-box the team defines specific steps to take in order to fix the anchor problem. Cards are created for the backlog and pull them into the next sprint during planning.


One-Word Retrospective

The one-word retrospective approach helps a team to deal with feelings. It represents a check-in where every team member summarizes in one word how they are feeling about the last iteration and the team. By discussing these single words, the team is able to identify major problems that they are encountering and decide which actions they will take on to solve them.

What to expect from this exercise

This is an effective way for the team to discuss what is hampering them and come to an agreement on how to deal with issues. Teams can use this exercise to increase understanding and mutual respect and improve collaboration. It can teach team members to express themselves better and find ways to deal with feelings, both positive and negative.

When to use this exercise

Rely on this exercise when there are sensitive issues within a team that need to be discussed. For instance when a team is struggling with the way that they collaborate or if conflicts and personal issues between team members are hampering the team spirit. Teams can also do the one-word retrospective as a check-in exercise, to get the team members ready for a retrospective. If the team is having major problems, this one-word check-in and the discussion that follows may become the entire retrospective! You can also combine “one-word” input with many of the other exercises listed here.

How to do it

Have each team member state how they feel about the past iteration in one word. (Folks can speak aloud, or write silently on post it notes) If spoken, the facilitatory should repeat each word as it is said and write it down on a flip chart / white board. Then start asking why they feel that way. Use the exact words mentioned by team members to have a discussion in which the team members express feelings that otherwise would not reach the surface.

Work towards a shared understanding and draw out the major issues. (Maybe use the five why’s approach to really get to the heart of the matter. Active listen. Mirror. Probe.)Summarize those on the board. As a facilitator, you have to respect the opinions of the team members and ensure that they respect each other. If people start blaming or accusing each other, please remind them that the purpose of a retrospective is to understand what happened and learn from it. Remind them about the retrospective prime directive (everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time…)

To be able to do a one-word retrospective the team needs to:

  • Have a reasonable level of trust and openness.
  • Respect team members and their feelings.
  • Be able to deal with the issues.

Trust is important in any retrospective, even more so when you are dealing with people’s feelings and emotions. The team members need to feel safe to speak openly about issues and express how they feel. If you are facilitating, make it clear that what is being said will remain within the team.

Next, check with the team members and identify if there is agreement on the emergent theme(s). Ask the team what actions they plan to take in the next iteration to solve those problems.

While it is important to deal with issues that are brought up, sometimes it is sufficient for team members to feel that they have been heard and understood.  On the other hand, some team members have to feel rewarded by the fact that the team does something with the issues they brought up.

Ultimately is up to the team to choose what they want to do with the results of their discussions, even if they decide that they do not want to take action.


Five Times Why

The five times why exercise uses root cause analysis to identify the deeper cause of a problem. It helps teams define actions that can eliminate those problems.

What to expect from this exercise

The five times why exercise helps to define effective actions to stop recurring problems and prevent similar problems in the future.

When to use this exercise

When teams have repeating issues in their iterations and previous attempts have failed to solve them, this exercise helps everyone get to the root causes of the problems.

How to do it

See: The Five Whys – Root Cause Determination

Once the team have all root causes identified, they should brainstorm actions that would prevent similar causes to lead to problems in the future.

There are some things to be aware of when using this exercise during a retro:

  • Use real problems, not just imaginary cases. Team members need to bring up causes that actually happened, not merely something that could have happened (this prevents assumptions). The team must recognize the causes and know that they are real to define effective actions and solutions. •
  • Know that there are always multiple causes for a problem. Don’t stop when the team has found a first root cause. Invest enough time in analysis to find all of them, and get a good understanding of how the causes are related to each other.
  • Root causes can have something to do with people (skills, knowledge, communication, or collaboration), as well as technical, process or tool problems. Explore them all.

Team Assessment Survey

This exercise provides a set of measures a team can use to objectively determine their performance at the project level.

What to expect from this exercise

The exercise helps teams on their agile journey. It allows teams to analyze how they are performing in different areas and identify possible improvements in the near future.

When to use this exercise

This technique might be suitable for situations when a team wants to better understand how well they are implementing agile practices. This exercise will not solve specific problems that occurred during the iteration, but might reveal why those problems happened.

How to do it

See: AWeber Scrum Master Checklist


Strengths-Based Retrospective

How can a great team become an excellent team that is able to deliver and exceed customer expectations predictably and quickly? By continuously becoming better in the things that they are great at. This can be accomplished using a strengths-based retrospective with solution focus.

What to expect from this exercise

This exercise helps teams improve themselves by focusing on their individual and team strengths and using those strengths to improve! A solution focused retrospective is based on Solution Focused Therapy. This kind of therapy does not focus on the past but instead focuses on the present and future. It examines what works in a given situation, and uses that to address existing problems. It is a positive way of improving and exploring possibilities and revealing strengths that people and teams may not be aware of.

When to use this exercise

In retrospectives, teams commonly use one of a number of exercises to reflect on the work that they did, analyze what happened and why, and define improvement actions for the next iteration. These actions imply that they will change their way of working. A strengths-based retrospective is a different approach. Instead of coming up with a list of actions to start doing new things (which you might not be capable of doing), your actions result in doing more of the things that you are already doing and which you are good at. If your team is working to improve their happiness, then a strengths based retrospective can be used to identify what they are good at. Often these are the same things that make them happy.

How to do it

A strength-based retrospective consists of two steps: discovering strengths, then defining actions that use them. Both steps consist of retrospective questions that team members ask themselves.

“Discovering strengths” questions: Think of something that succeeded in this iteration that the team managed to accomplish beyond expectation, and which produced benefits for you, the team, and/or for your customers. Now ask yourself and your team the following questions:

  • How did we do it? What did we do to make it successful?
  • What helped us do it? Which expertise or skills made the difference? Which strengths that you possess made it possible?
  • How did being part of this team help to realize it? What did team members do to help you? Which strengths does your team have?

The questions are based on Appreciative Inquiry, an approach that focuses on value and energy. These questions give visibility to good things that happened and explore the underlying strengths that made it possible.

If you are using the four key questions (What did we do well, What did we learn? What should we do differently next time?What still puzzles us?), the question “What did we do well?” can also be used as a solution-focused approach to find strengths that can be deployed to address problems a team is facing.

“Defining actions” questions: Think of a problem that you had in the past iteration, one that is likely to happen again. For example a problem that is keeping you and your team from delivering benefits for your customers? Now ask:

  • How can you use your individual or team strengths to solve this problem?
  • What would you do more frequently that would help prevent the problem from happening again?
  • Which actions can you take, which you are already capable of?

Again, this applies appreciative inquiry by envisioning what can be done using the previously discovered strengths and giving energy to the team members to carry it out.


High Performance Tree

One big advantage of this exercise is its simplicity. This exercise is a fantastic tool that helps teams on their journey to become high performing teams. The high performance tree was created by Lyssa Adkins. This exercise is explored in detail in her book Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for Scrum Masters, Agile Coaches and Project Managers in Transition.

There’s also a YouTube overview:

What to expect from this exercise

This exercise helps team to define a vision for themselves thru metaphor.  In order for a team to be highly productive, it needs strong roots. When the roots are solid, the tree can flourish and bear beautiful fruit. It’s a way to create a path that leads to high performance teams. This exercise helps many teams find the next steps in order to achieve that high performance.

When to use this exercise

The exercise can be used in several different ways, and can be used by any team, and any level.

  • Team startup.
  • A normal team that still has a lot of problems to solve.
  • A good team that is looking for the next step to become a high-performing team.

How to do it

This exercise starts with someone drawing a tree with the five Scrum values as the roots. (This makes it also a great opportunity for the team to refresh their understanding of Scrum values.) If the team is mature they can substitute their own values for the Scrum values. When the team is new and inexperienced, it is recommend to start with the Scrum values:

  • Commitment is the state or quality of dedication to a cause, activity, etc. A commitment should never be broken – if it is broken, it was not a commitment but an empty promise and a lie. In the Scrum world, this means that everyone involved in developing a product is committed to working towards a common objective.
  • Courage is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, and intimidation. In software development, these feelings will always be present and it is up to the team members to try to dispel anything that prevents them from being successful.
  • Openness is the ability to be open to new ideas, new approaches, and new ways of working. This is a fundamental state in agile software development because everyday teams encounter different problems that need to be approached differently. Being open is mandatory for success.
  • Focus is the process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things. In software development, this means teams should concentrate on one topic at a time. They should not start a new topic before finishing the previous one.
  • Respect is a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements. In Scrum, all team members interact closely and respect is paramount for such relationships to work.

After reviewing the Scrum values, the team can review the characteristics of high performance teams, for example: empowered, consensus driven, self-organized, constructive disagreement, etc. (These are some of the characteristics that Jean Tabaka refers on her book Collaboration Explained.)

This combination will produce teams that can do anything, accomplish astonishing results, get the right business value, and get business value faster.

After this, the team engages in a healthy discussion to try to figure out what is light or missing and what is needed to allow them to advance to the next level.

New teams will learn how to become a high-performing team with this exercise. Established teams can revisit their performance and analyze what’s required to become high-performing teams. Even teams that are already highly performing will find something they can improve upon in order to become better.


What/So What/Now

This great approach comes from Jeremy Jarrell via http://blog.oikosofy.com/the-whatso-whatnow-what/ and offers a variation to the classic “Start, Stop, Continue” exercise. Rather than forcing the team to place each item into one of those three buckets, Jarrell’s format treats each bucket as a status that the item must flow through to resolution. This approach makes retrospective items feel more like story items moving across a Scrum or Kanban board.

When would you use this exercise?

This format is a bit more advanced than the classic retrospective format so wait to introduce it until the team has had several successful retrospectives using the “What’s Working/What’s Not/What to Try Next” format. This way you can be sure that the team is getting comfortable with the idea of introspection and addressing items before switching up the underlying format.

There are also a few symptoms that can tell you if you’re ready for this new format. For example, you may notice that the team is struggling to remember items during the retrospective even though you’ve witnessed many small pain points during the sprint. This can happen because the team has already addressed the larger and more obvious items and has simply learned to live with the smaller items.

Another symptom may be that many of the items the team is bringing up have started to resemble “observations” rather than true pain points. These are items that don’t fit neatly into a “What’s Working” or “What’s Not Working” bucket but still need to be discussed.

If you notice that your team is starting to struggle to fit items into one of these buckets, then this may be a sign that they’ve outgrown the classic format.

Visit OikoSofy for the full “How To”


 

Filtering Activities

Filtering activities are about finding through prioritization, voting, and comparison the actionable “next steps” –  so the team can create commitment and alignment to follow thru.

Dot Voting

  • Each participant is entitled to a certain number (3, 5) votes (each vote will be represented by a dot on the post-it).
  • Participants can cast more that one vote on an item.

Plus Minus Voting

This is a variation of the Dot Voting activity which allows participants to be clearer about agreements and disagreements. It also is a great filtering activity for time management and prioritization. It is can be used for focusing the conversation on items of highest interest to the group.

  • Each participant is entitled to 3 “Plus” and 3 “Minus” votes (each vote will be represented by a + or – mark on the post-it).
  • Participants can place more than one vote on a card.
  • (+) represents your agreement with a note, and you want to talk about it.
  • (–) represents your disagreement with a note, and you want to talk about it
  • The items with most votes (Plus or Minus) will be discussed up first.
  • Items w no votes are typically not discussed

Into the Graph Feasible x Useful

This activity provides a fast way to prioritize a list of proposed ideas or actions. By relatively comparing levels of feasibility and how useful each idea is to each other, the participants collectively create a prioritized list of high valuable and feasible ideas.

  1. Draw a graph: Feasible on Y-axis, and Useful on X-axis, with the marks low and high for each axis
  2. Either ask participants to write down ideas and action on post-its, or select post-its from some previous activity.
  3. Ask participants to place each idea or action to the graph according to Feasible & Useful.

By the end of this activity, it will be clear to everyone the actions considered to be highly feasible and useful. These should take priority amongst all the ideas and actions. Mostly likely, ideas that have low feasibility and are not considered too useful are discarded.

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