Running a Retrospective for Large Groups

Stickies” by alex roberts is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

I’m a big proponent for small teams. People just work better in smaller groups. But sometimes you have to bring a large group of people together and that’s exactly what happened a few weeks ago at a project that I’m currently working at.

I’m currently working as an Agile Lead and helped facilitate a joint retrospective for the project involving a group of around 50 people from various different teams. As an introvert, I know how hard it can be for us to be comfortable enough to speak up in large groups. So while we were planning this event we were mindful of making sure that the quiet voices would be heard while at the same time people would be motivated to go beyond their comfort zones - ensuring that we got meaningful feedback from the retrospective.

Things You’ll Need

  • A large room
  • A number of tables and chairs (depends on how big your group is)
  • Post Its
  • Sharpies/Pens
  • Wall space or whiteboards for each table
  • One facilitator per table

Warm Up

The first thing we did (after laying out some amazing donuts (doughnuts?)) was to get people out of their seats for an ice breaker. We asked them to play the line up game and arrange themselves in order of the who was born farthest from the location we were in. We had people all the way from New Zealand to Hull!

We then asked them to rearrange themselves in order of who had been on the project longest. After some more shuffling, there was order again.

This exercise got people talking to one another and moving about and generally livened up the mood.

Divide and Conquer

We wanted to make sure that we had a mix of people at the tables from across different parts of the project & different roles on the project. People tend to gravitate towards the familiar and we wanted to get them talking to people who they wouldn’t necessarily talk to on a day to day basis because of the way our work is arranged.

So we randomly assigned people a number between 1 and 6 (there were 6 tables) and asked them to sit at the table corresponding with the number they were given. For the introverts in the room — they were still in relatively small groups so it wasn’t pushing them too far out of their comfort zone.

Mini Retrospectives

Once people settled at their respective tables we asked them to run a mini retrospective at their table facilitated by someone we’d already picked. (You could also ask each mini team to nominate someone instead.)

Each table held their retrospective for about 30 minutes and using dot voting picked their top three topics.

Group and Clarify

Once all the mini teams had their top three topics, I read them out to the entire room and grouped any that were similar.

Rather than discussing each of the topics in depth, I asked people to raise their hand if they needed clarification on any of the topics that I was reading out. The general rule was that the person clarifying would just explain the intent of the note in a couple of lines and we would avoid any lengthy discussions at that time.

Vote

The entire group then used dot voting again & out of the 18 main topics we narrowed it down to the top six.

If you’re curious, these were the top issues that the teams had in mind:

  • Development Environment
  • On-boarding
  • Travel (Most of us travel a long distance and spend time away from home, during the week, on this project.)
  • Pipeline & Testing
  • Silos
  • Points & Deadlines.

Divide and Conquer - redux

We then assigned each topic to a table (and the facilitator for that table) and opened up the topics for discussion for about 60 minutes. We asked people to go to any of the tables/topics they wanted to - rotating every 10 minutes as they saw fit.

I set an alarm to go off every 10 minutes as a signal for people to move on to a different topic if they wished to. Some stayed longer at certain tables and some wandered off to participate in a different subject when they heard the alarm go off.

This ensured that everyone got to participate in order of what mattered most to them and dedicate the time they saw fit to each of the subjects.

The facilitators kept the threads of discussion between the old and the new participants alive by recapping what had been discussed thus far and the actions that had come up. These actions and discussion points were also written down on large sheets of paper.

This worked really well for everyone except that in order to maintain the continuity of the discussions at their own tables, the six facilitators didn’t get to participate in the discussions at the other tables. (If you have suggestions on how to enable the facilitators to participate in other discussions, whilst maintaining continuity, I’d love to hear them.)

Presentations

We used one of the large empty wall spaces to put up all six of the large sheets of papers with the discussion and action points on them. Each of the facilitators then presented their topic to the room and summarised what had been discussed and what actions had been proposed. People again had the opportunity to ask for clarity but without any long discussions.

Ownership

Once all six of us had presented, I asked everyone to write their names on a post it and then put it against any of the six topics. The idea was that people could decide what they wanted to help make better. Someone asked if they could put their names against more than one topic and I said that as long as they had the time and inclination to do justice to more than one issue they were free to do this.

It was important to us that everyone participated in improving things and this was not just something that was handed over to management to sort out.

We now had a list of actions with volunteers that wanted to make them happen. Huzzah!

Drinks!

The project retrospective neatly coincided with payday drinks and we all proceeded happily to the pub right after. :)

What happened at the pub stays at the pub.

Follow Up

We have transcribed all the notes to a wiki page along with the list of actions and the people that volunteered to make them happen.

We will be following up on this every two weeks with the entire team.

Power to the people!