Years ago, when I was a junior UX designer at an agency, I worked on a team with a vocal software engineer. The software engineer regularly raised concerns about our “broken process.” He said our team often made similar mistakes over and over again on projects.
He was right. We did make similar mistakes on each project. I understood why he was frustrated. I was frustrated, too.
At the time, I didn’t know how to make our process better. The software engineer didn’t know how to make it better, either.
Enter the Start, Stop, Continue
These days, I have a few tricks up my sleeve to help my design team improve their work process. One of those tricks is to run a retrospective activity like a Start, Stop, Continue.
A Start, Stop, Continue allows your team to reflect upon how they worked together in the past and improve how they work together in the future.
I recently facilitated a Start, Stop, Continue activity with my students at Center Centre. The activity helped students reach a huge breakthrough in how they collaborate. It gave students a chance to pause during the project and see why they worked together so smoothly in their last sprint, and how they could continue to work together smoothly in the next sprint.
When to do a Start, Stop, Continue
Start, Stop, Continue works well for activities you plan to do again in the future. Here are some examples of when you can do a Start, Stop, Continue:
- After a 1–2 week sprint.
- At the end of a project.
- At the end of an event (Example: After you host a UX meetup and before you plan the next meetup).
How to do a Start, Stop, Continue
Number of participants: 4–12, plus one person who facilitates. You can include people like UX designers, graphic designers, front-end developers, software engineers, and product owners in the activity — basically, anyone who contributed to the sprint or project.
Time you’ll need: 1–2 hours. The larger the group, the more time you will need. I did this activity with five students in about one hour and 15 minutes.
Supplies you’ll need:
- Sharpies (one per person).
- Sticky notes in four different colors.
- A room with ample wall space for stickies.
- 1–2 whiteboards.
- A whiteboard marker.
1. Gather your design team in a room.
2. Ask the team members to recall all the work they did during the sprint or project. When I facilitated this activity with my students, I asked them to share all the work they did during their two-week sprint. Students shared things like:
- Did dry runs of usability sessions.
- Moderated usability sessions.
- Created a low-fidelity prototype.
- Led analysis after usability sessions.
3. Write down what people share on a whiteboard that’s visible to everyone. Let people share activities until they run out of things to share. List everything they contribute on the whiteboard.
4. Ask team members to write starts, stops, and continues on sticky notes. Specifically, ask them to write based on these three prompts:
- What didn’t we do during this sprint that we should start doing?
- What did we do that we should stop doing?
- What did we do that we should continue doing?
Give everyone a sharpie and three different colors of sticky notes. I like to use green, pink, and orange. Ask participants to write starts on the green notes, stops on the pink notes, and continues on the orange notes.
For example, people can write things like:
- Send honorariums to participants sooner. (Start)
- Don’t use [prototyping tool X] for low-fidelity prototypes. (Stop)
- Keep doing dry runs before usability sessions. (Continue)
Have everyone write things on sticky notes individually and without talking to each other. Encourage people to write down everything they can remember.
Give people 8–12 minutes to write things down. The larger the group, the more time you’ll need. Set a timer, so you don’t lose track of time.
Keep the whiteboard of activities visible while people write on stickies. The list of activities will help people come up with ideas for starts, stops, and continues.
5. Have everyone put their stickies on a large wall. Put all the starts in one section, the stops in another section, and the continues in a third section.
6. Ask everyone to group the stickies into clusters (categories). Ask people to group things that seem similar. Each cluster can have two to six sticky notes. When making clusters, participants can mix starts, stops, and continues in these clusters.
Ask participants to group stickies with no talking or minimal talking. The clusters don’t need to be perfect. They just need to show groupings of things that are similar.
7. Have 2–3 people to label the clusters as clusters start to form. Give them sharpies and sticky notes in a fourth color so they can make labels (I like to use yellow for labels).
8. Have people vote when the clusters are ready. Ask them to vote for three or four stickies from the entire wall. They can pick things they think are significant or things they think the team should focus on. Ask them to vote on stickies that are starts, stops, or continues, not labels. (The labels are there to help people distinguish the clusters.)
To place each vote, people can make a big, visible dot in the upper right corner of a sticky note.
9. Discuss the stickies that have the most votes. Some stickies will have multiple votes. Point out the three or four stickies with the most votes. Ask the team to discuss them. My favorite prompt question is, “Someone who voted for this sticky, tell me why you voted for it. Why do you think it’s important?”
This prompt will start a conversation. During the conversation, publicly record what people say on another whiteboard. You don’t have to take detailed notes. Just capture the gist of what people say. A public recording will help participants recall what was said and help them focus on the discussion.
If possible, get a volunteer to record for you. It’s hard to facilitate a conversation while recording. If you can’t find a volunteer, do both. Writing down what people share in a public, visible space is critical to making group conversations useful. Otherwise, people can forget what was said or lose focus during the discussion.
If some people are quiet during the discussion, invite them to contribute. You can call on people by name, or you can say things like, “Someone else who voted for this, please tell me why you think it’s important.” Continue recording what people say on the whiteboard.
At the end of the discussion, you should have a whiteboard with a long list of takeaways from the Start, Stop, Continue exercise.
9. Finish the exercise by forming next steps. I like to wrap up the Start, Stop, Continue by looking at the whiteboard and saying, “It looks like many people agree to do more of X.” Or, I’ll say, “It looks like we want to change the way we do Y.” Then, I’ll say, “Is everyone okay with experimenting with this during the next sprint? We can try doing more of X and changing the way we do Y.”
In most cases, participants agree with these suggestions. The beauty of running a Start, Stop, Continue is that everyone contributes — everyone generates ideas, everyone votes on ideas, and everyone has a chance to discuss the ideas with the most votes. Because everyone participated, it’s likely that everyone will agree to apply the big takeaways from the Start, Stop, Continue to future work.
Also, I often pose changes as “experiments.” I think people feel more comfortable with the idea of experimenting with something rather than formally changing the way they do something. The beauty of experimenting with something new is that you can reflect on how the experiment went in the next retrospective.
Give Yourself Grace
Facilitating a retrospective can be intimidating, especially if you’re new to facilitation. If you haven’t done an activity like a Start, Stop, Continue, I suggest you start small. Maybe you can begin with a small team of trusted colleagues or with a low-risk project.
Each time you facilitate an activity like this, you can invite a few more people. Then, your work culture will gradually get used to participating in these types of retrospectives.
The first few times you do a Start, Stop, Continue, you can use it as an opportunity to practice. You’ll get more comfortable with these activities the more you do them.
Improve Your Team’s Future Work
While working at Center Centre, I’ve learned that a retrospective isn’t just about reflecting on the work you did in the past. It’s about learning from the work you did in the past so you can work more efficiently in the future.
The Start, Stop, Continue activity was a big success with my students. During the activity, students identified multiple things that worked well for them for sprint 4:
- Students had fewer formal meetings and more impromptu, one-on-one conversations. The small discussions helped them get more work done at a faster pace.
- Students asked for volunteers to give feedback on their design work instead of asking all five students for feedback. Asking for volunteers allowed the students with a light workload to provide input. Meanwhile, students with a heavy workload could keep working on their tasks.
- Students divided into two teams to get work done. Splitting into groups helped students “divide and conquer” (their own words). Both teams checked in with each other regularly, so everyone stayed in the loop and had opportunities to provide input.
A few weeks earlier, during the retrospective for sprint 3, students realized they were having too many meetings and requesting too much input from each other. By the end of sprint 4, students had improved their collaboration skills.
If I Had a Time Machine
Years ago, when I was a junior UX designer, I didn’t know how to lead activities like Start, Stop, Continue. Now that I know how to facilitate these activities, I do them often, and I enjoy doing them. I see the benefits they bring to my students at Center Centre.
If I had a time machine, I would go back in time to my agency job. I’d facilitate a Start, Stop, Continue activity for my team members. I think that software engineer would’ve been very happy with the results.
More resources on the Start, Stop, Continue activity:
Thanks to Brady Ajay for his guidance on this article. And thanks to Kevin Hoffman, the first person who taught me how to facilitate.