Retrospective Formats for High-Performing Teams

Choosing the right format will bring your team from an A- to an A+

There’s always room for improvement.

I tell my teams that a lot, and I repeat it often to myself as a reminder. When your team finally gets into a good groove — tasks are rapidly changing hands, blockers are few, and morale is high — it’s easy to want to take a breath and relax. In situations like these, though, you need to be your team’s coach. Don’t let your team get complacent! Always search for something to make your team even better.

Retrospectives are a great place to dive in deep and find those things to improve. Here are three retrospective formats that incite deeper thinking about the things that aren’t exactly problematic but, if improved, could make the team’s productivity soar.

1. Worked Well/Worked OK/Didn’t Work

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Comic from Gunshow by KC Green

This retrospective is pretty self-explanatory. Divide your board (or whatever you use to collect ideas) into three spaces — one titled “Worked Well,” another titled “Worked OK,” and the last titled “Didn’t Work.”

In many high-performing teams, retrospectives have fewer outcomes because fewer things are problematic. Or, depending on the format, you’ll see less of the bad and more of the good. This format is valuable because of the “Worked OK” category. It causes teammates to think about the things that are in the middle — things that aren’t on fire but could improve.

Perhaps half the team is always 5 minutes late to meetings, which means the other half of the team loses 5 minutes of productivity. Or your Product Owner is always in meetings, so stories take too long to be reviewed. Or your test coverage isn’t great so your team spends two hours doing manual testing every time you release. Those things are either too trivial or too culturally ingrained to surface. This format encourages teammates to think of those things when they otherwise wouldn’t.

This retro format can also be a great brainstorming activity when applied to a certain topic instead of the past sprint. For example, if you are doing long-term planning, the developers could all meet together to determine and prioritize technical work by applying this format to the question, “How resilient and performant is our system? How easy is it to code in?”

2. Three Little Pigs

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Photo by Dane Deaner on Unsplash

You’ve probably heard the story of the Three Little Pigs. One made a house out of straw. The other, a house out of sticks. And the third, a house out of bricks. The Big Bad Wolf came and huffed and puffed and blew down the houses of straw and sticks, but couldn’t blow down the house of bricks.

In this retrospective format, you again divide your board into three sections. Title the first, “House of Sticks.” The second, “House of Straw.” The third, “House of Bricks.” The first section, “House of Sticks,” is for the things that are terrible and already falling apart. The second, “House of Straw,” houses what is fragile but working (at the moment). The final, “House of Bricks,” is for items that are very strong and resilient.

You might notice that this format is almost identical to “Worked Well/Worked OK/Didn’t Work.” So why call this format out separately? The distinction is subtle but important. When you ask someone, “What worked well?” they will generally answer with a process — something that the team did that sprint. Whereas if you ask, “What’s fragile?” they will generally answer with a noun. Many retrospective formats focus on what the team did and how they operated the past sprint. This helps the team think more about the artifacts that they created and used in the past sprint. Many of the ideas surfaced will be similar with these two formats, but asking the same questions slightly differently will often bring up some new and different answers.

3. 1 minute faster, 1 hour faster, 1 day faster

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Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

What would make your team faster? The question is asked pretty often, and it’s kinda daunting. Many times, the answer given is something big, like cutting excessive red tape or purchasing better hardware. And these things are important to surface! But while you’re waiting and hoping for your manager’s manager to make some progress on those items, you shouldn’t twiddle your thumbs.

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As Rafiki would say, “Look harder.”

This retro format aims at surfacing those not-so-obvious things that can accelerate your team. Divide your board into three categories. The first is for things that can make you and your team “1 minute faster.” The second, “1 hour faster.” The third, “1 day faster.” (For those of you who are thinking, “Faster at what? One minute faster making a copy change, or one minute faster at completing an entire sprint’s worth of work?” To which I say, “ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” Embrace the vagueness!)

Those things that you usually answer when asked, “What would make you faster?” generally fall in the “1 day faster” category. That’s where this retrospective format is powerful — it inspires brainstorming. What little thing could you change to make you a minute faster? How much time would you gain if your stand-up was a minute shorter, and it took a minute less for your PO to review your work? Most of the time, the effort needed to make those improvements is minimal, but we don’t put the effort in because we feel like the return is minimal as well. The power in these changes, however, is that they’re cumulative.

Embrace the Okayness

Everyone should always be striving for improvement. High-performing teams are no exception. So try out these formats that “embrace the okayness” so you can start moving those items over from “OK” to “great” — and tell me how it goes!

This article is a sequel to “Stop using ‘Start,’ ‘Stop,’ Continue’.”

Written by Lead Developer at athenahealth, Inc. Wife, mother of one, choir nerd.

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