5 retrospectives to try with your team
6 minutes read
“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes.”
Speaking as a product designer I very much have a love, hate relationship with agile. Whilst there are a lot of things about agile that I don’t necessarily like, one thing that I love are retrospectives, the act of looking back and learning from what has happened to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Retrospectives (done well) can be some of the most important time that a team spends together all year. Retrospectives are something that all teams (not just agile teams) should be doing on a regular basis. It’s important to regularly take a step back, to look at how things are going, and of course how things might go that little bit better.
I’ve outlined 5 retrospectives to try with your team (or even on your own) along with templates and some hints and tips when running them. Whether you work in a cross-functional team, development team, user research team, UX team, design team, hell any team you’ll get a lot out of each one of these retrospectives. You might use them after a sprint, mid-way through a project or simply as a regular team meeting.
1. The good, the bad and the ugly
The good, the bad and the ugly isn’t just a great film, it’s also a great retrospective as well. As a team you should spend 10–15 minutes capturing:
- The good — What has gone well? What should we do more of?
- The bad — What didn’t work? What should we avoid repeating?
- The ugly — What could have gone better? What could we improve?
If a lot of things have been captured, you can use dot voting to identify items to discuss further as a team. You can give each team member 3 dots to place on things they would like to discuss and then add up the votes. Finally, don’t forget to discuss and agree actions for the team to take, such as process changes, or experiments to run. Assign owners to actions where possible.
2. Timeline retrospective
Before diving into the usual what has gone well and what could have gone better it’s often important to establish what has actually happened. A timeline retrospective is a great way to do just that.
Take a period of time, such as a sprint, or the last few months of a project and ask the team to spend 10–15 minutes capturing all the things that have happened in chronological order, together with how they have positively or negatively impacted the team. It’s a good idea to start at the beginning of the time period and then work towards the present day.
Having captured a timeline of events it can be useful to use dot voting to agree items to be discussed further as a team. In particular, you should focus on how to address events that have had a very negative impact on the team and how to ensure that events that have had a very positive impact continue to occur.
3. Hot air balloon
A hot air balloon retrospective is not only great for looking back at what has happened, it’s also great for looking forward. Using a hot air balloon metaphor the retrospective is split into 2-parts.
Firstly the team should spending 10–15 minutes capturing what has helped ‘lift’ them off the ground recently, along with what has pulled them down as ‘ballast’. This can be framed as:
- Lift — What has gone well? What has helped get things off the ground?
- Ballast — What has pulled us down? What has prevented us from soaring off in our balloon?
For the second part the team should spend 10–15 minutes capturing potential problems in the future and strategies for addressing these. This can be framed as:
- Storms — What potential problems do we see ahead?
- Navigation — What can we do to avoid storms ahead and to reach our desired destination?
Having considered what has happened, along with what could happen the team should be in a great position to agree and discuss actions to address both past and future challenges.
4. A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol is of course the well-known story by Charles Dickens of a miser named Ebenezer Scrooge who on Christmas Eve is visited by three ghosts: the ghost of Christmas past, the ghost of Christmas present and the ghost of Christmas yet to come. Unlike the story, A Christmas Carol retrospective is certainly not just for Christmas. It’s a great retrospective all year round for identifying and discussing problems from the past, present and future. The team should spend 10–15 minutes capturing:
- Ghosts of the past — What problems from the past are still a hinderance?
- Ghosts of the present — What problems are we experiencing right now?
- Ghosts of yet to come — What potential problems do we see ahead?
If lots of problems have come up dot voting can be useful to identify the most pressing ones to address. As a team discuss each problem and agree the best strategies for tackling it.
5. The 3 little pigs
The 3 little pigs is not just a cautionary tale for any house builder, it also makes for a great retrospective. It’s particularly good for reflecting on processes within a team, including what is working well and what could be improved. The team should spend 10–15 minutes capturing:
- House of straw items — What do we do that just about hangs together, but could topple over any minute?
- House of sticks items — What do we do that is pretty solid, but could be improved?
- House of bricks items — What do we do that is rock solid, therefore we want to continue doing it?
The team can then identify key items for discussion. For example, how can we improve things that are currently prone to error, or unreliable? How can we ensure that we continue current best practices? Don’t forget to agree some actions as a team, including owners if possible.
Retrospective hints and tips
There’s more to running an effective and engaging retrospective than simply choosing the right format (although using one of the above retrospectives will certainly help). Here are some general retrospective hints and tips to consider.
Allow for 60–90 minutes
If you’ve ever experienced a half day or (shudder) full day retrospective then you’ll know what a harrowing experience it can be. 60–90 minutes is generally the right length of time for a retrospective. This ensures that there is just the right amount of time to discuss the most important topics as a team and to agree actions.
Share the workload
It’s a good idea to take it in turns within a team to plan and run retrospectives. It certainly shouldn’t always be the team lead, or agile coach running a retrospective. Sharing the workload gives everyone the chance to run a retrospective and helps to keep them fresh.
Establish a safe space
It’s important to remind the team at the start of a retrospective that it’s a safe space. A retrospective is not the place to apportion blame or for harsh judgement. Reminding the team of the retrospective prime directive can be a good way to do this:
“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”
Norm Kerth, Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Review
Gauge the mood of the team
A good way to kick off a retrospective is to carry out a short activity to gauge the mood of the team. For example, you could ask:
- The team to describe their currently mood in 1 or 2 words.
- The team to draw how they are currently feeling.
- The team to choose a cartoon character that encapsulates how they are currently feeling.
- The team to choose a movie that reflects their current mood (hopefully not Titanic!).
Capture who added an item
When discussing things as a team it can be useful to capture who added a particular item. This can be easily done by assigning a colour to team members (assuming you have enough colours to go around) or simply reminding everyone to include their name or initials when adding items to the board.
Discuss and agree actions
A retrospective without any actions to take forward is really just a group therapy session. Sure, it’s nice to talk things through as a team, but without out any actions a team will be doomed to create their own version of Groundhog day by repeating history over and over again. It’s therefore important to conclude a retrospective by agreeing actions as a team and if possible, finding an owner for each one.
Try out different retrospectives
There is no right, or wrong way to run a retrospective because the best format to use will differ from team to team, and situation to situation. Along with the retrospectives featured above also take a look at the excellent Fun retrospectives website to find new and interesting retrospectives to try out.
You can download all the templates as PDFs using the links below.
- The good, the bad and the ugly template (PDF)
- Timeline retrospective template (PDF)
- Hot air balloon retrospective template (PDF)
- A Christmas Carol retrospective template (PDF)
- 3 little pigs retrospective template (PDF)