In our last article, we introduced our way of constantly improving in a customized way and introduced our Lean Process Development team shortly. Now we’d like to get into the details.
As mentioned in part 1 of this mini series, we try to be most efficient by cutting down to the phases, that seem to be most important to us:
- A starter activity to set the stage,
- going through former action items or action points the team worked on,
- gathering new data and setting new action points for the team to tackle,
- a closing activity to end the retrospective.
Here’s a short overview of some of the most used exercises and the goals we try to achieve with them. This is not a complete list, of course, but an overview of the ones we find ourselves using more often and with great results. We didn’t invent these exercises (see for our inspiration below) but we tweak them, to cater to our team's needs and get to the bottom of issues we see.
In general, with some activities, it is helpful to remind the team to focus on things the can control or influence — their Circle of Influence. With this, you enable the team to be able to achieve a positive impact through their generated action items instead of being stuck in a mode of complaint.
SETTING THE STAGE
Ask for expectations
It’s always easy to just assume what’s going on — We try to make expectations explicit! For example when a new team lead comes into the team, when we talk about tackling a complex upcoming project or when we ask for expectations in the retrospective itself.
- Manage Expectations
- Focus on what to achieve during the retrospective
- Clarification what the retrospective is about
Ask the team, what they’re expecting from the retrospective, everyone notes their expectations on sticky notes and double checks at the end of the retrospective, if it is fulfilled on a scale 1–10 (10 = totally achieved expectations).
Taking a stand / rate on a scale
This is a really nice exercise because everybody gets to stand up and walk around the room, it lightens the mood and wakes people up!
- Get an insight into the current (e.g. emotional) state of the team
- Find out how everyone feels about a certain topic right now
- Get the team to reflect and increase focus to give proper feedback in the next part of the retrospective (to gather data)
- It’s also great for identifying the “elephant in the room”
Ask your team to imagine a scale from 1 to 10 along the length of the room, 1 is the lowest and 10 the highest rating. Then tell them what you’d like them to rate, for example “Please rate your current satisfaction with your job” or another example could be “How would you rate the current team processes” and then stand on the scale at their respective numbers. We always like to ask each person, what number they are at and why. But also what would need to happen for them to be one number above: This helps to focus them on a solution-oriented mindset and gives a hint how the team would like to improve. You can get further into occurring issues in the next phases.
Some folks might have trouble to get into the reflective state needed in retrospectives. To ease the team into thinking about what actually happened last iteration/sprint, we love to do this exercise.
- Refresh memories of last iteration/sprint/project
Ask everyone to describe the last iteration/sprint with just 3 words, like bullet points. Give them a minute to come up with something, then go around the team and everybody sums up the last iteration in 3 words.
3 in 1
We use this a lot to identify mood and satisfaction with team work and sprint result. But really you can use this method for finding out anything that plays a role in your team.
- Quick feedback on personal mood and satisfaction with two different topics
Each one write his/her personal mood with an emoji on a post-it. Pin it on the scale for, e.g. sprint result, teamwork. Afterwards everyone ought to give a short explanation why they put it there and maybe how to improve
Amazon customer review
This is a fun take on something most people would know of, use it to break the ice and get everyone thinking about the last iteration.
- Find out how the team rates the last iteration
Ask the team to write a sticky each person with an Amazon-like review. The review contains a headline, their rating (1–5 stars) and a little text, explaining the rating within three sentences which can be related to any topic that’s relevant to their rating, e.g. individual concerns, teamwork, processes or cooperations with other teams. Everybody reads their reviews (no discussion).
To gather learnings, feedback and so forth or to find out about concerns or discuss upcoming issues with our teams, we like to use these following “questions” we call clusters.
Collection of positive and negative feedback
Especially if we have a specific project to reflect on, we like to guide the teams to accumulate positive and negative but always constructive feedback.
- Gather positive and negative feedback and motivate the team to think about improvements instead of problems
Let the team brainstorm to one certain or up to 10 topics (e.g. workflow, teamwork, ..) and ask the open question “Is there anything else to talk about?”
Give them the following questions:
- Do you have any improvement suggestions to the topic?
- What do you think is working pretty well?
Prepare a table and let the team pin their cards from brainstorming with a short presentation of :
- The topics
- Improvement Suggestions
- What they think works well
Cluster the suggestions, discuss and generate action items to improve in the future.
Motivation & shared goals
Helps with team building and getting to know each other. We also use this when a team has a new lead.
- What went well?
- What is motivating to me?
- What is demotivating to me?
Everyone writes down their answers on post-its and presents them. Then you group the topics if they are similar, discuss the clusters in the team and generate action items to improve in the future.
This is a well-known set of clusters that everyone does a bit differently. We mostly use it in the following way.
- Focus the team’s discussion on team performance and challenges they face
Ask your team the following questions:
- Current or upcoming challenges
- What could improve our output?
- What is slowing us down?
- What went well?
Everyone writes down their answers on post its and presents them. Then you cluster similar topics, discuss in the team and generate action items to improve.
Stop, start and continue
This activity is a classic that works especially well if you want to reflect on the team processes and enable the team to eliminate outdated behavior or obsolete rules.
- Process focus, eliminate waste and improve change muscle
Ask the team:
- “What should we start, stop and continue?”
And then, as usual, the team writes stickies, we cluster, discuss and make action points to work on.
Big Project / feature / epic review
If your team finished up a bigger project and you want to capture learnings for the next one, this exercise is for you.
- Realize learnings from big project / feature
- What I did learn from [big project]?
- What did we learn from [big project]?
- What should we do differently next time?
When generating action items from the results, always ask where to apply the change/ action exactly
Put yourself in other perspectives
When stakeholders play a big role in your teams for or you experience a delta in expectations with a certain stakeholder (e.g. senior management), try this:
- Enforce visibility and understanding of another perspective
This cluster is used best in combination with others. It is a great addition to “start, stop, continue”, for example. Ask the team:
- “What would [Stakeholder] bring up in this retrospective if they had worked in your team during the last iteration?
Everyone writes down their answers and presents them, you create actions for future improvement.
A new lead joined the team
To identify current pain points in the team that could be tackled with the new team member / team lead you can work with these questions.
- make expectations explicit
- get to know the new team members better
- reflect on good results so far
- What do I expect from my colleagues? (Team members sharing peer expectation)
- What do I as a team member expect from my lead?
- What do I as a Lead expect from my team members?
- What went well?
- What else should we discuss?
Sometimes we mix different activities but always aim to have not more than four clusters because otherwise, it is taking up too much time. An example of an individualized cluster set could be:
- Cluster: Improvement suggestion for latest change e.g. new team process
- Cluster: What could improve our output?
- Cluster: What went well
(because it is always good to talk about achievements)
- Cluster: What else should we discuss?
(if most of our topic clusters are very narrow or specific, we always add one more broad cluster so the team members can add topics which are important to them)
To close up the retrospective is a powerful last step, which we often like to use for positive input or feedback. But if you have a few minutes left, it would also be possible to sneak in a little reflection on the retrospective itself.
Especially if you’re new to moderating retrospectives or just took on a new team, or even if you have been doing this for years, this is an exercise for you.
- Reflection on the structure and moderation of the retrospective
Ask the team specific questions like:
- “How did you like the questions?”
- “Do you have the feeling that we tackled all the issues?”
- “Were your expectations in the retrospective fulfilled?”
At ABOUT YOU, we foster an environment where feedback is very much appreciated. For some people though, positive feedback is harder to communicate and praise is held back, so we try to enable everyone to give some props to their team members during this closing exercise.
- Lift spirit and give feedback
Ask the team to give their right (or left) neighbor feedback
- “In which situation were you surprised from your neighbor?”
- “What did you like that your neighbor did during last iteration?”
Thank you — My action!
It’s just a nice feeling to close the retrospective on a happy note. This activity brings a smile to peoples faces and also generates a personal resolution to work on in the next iteration.
- Recognize the efforts of teammates and self-improve a little bit
Ask everybody to write one sticky note each about
- something they want to thank another teammate for doing
- something they want to change about their own behavior in the next iteration/month/two weeks.
Be sure to tell them that it can be something really small they compliment on. Once everyone is finished, do a round for each person to present their stickies and post them to the board. Make everybody take the stickies with their actions with them when the retrospective ends!
How to save time in your retrospectives:
We know that when you have a great discussion, time flies by faster than anything. Here are two tips you can try to stay in the chosen time box.
First tip: Limit the team’s input:
Our first tip is to limit the amount of input the team is “allowed” to give. An example would be a maximum of four topics per person over all clusters or a maximum of one topic per cluster. Especially with big groups this saves time and also focuses the participants on the most important topics they can think of.
Second tip — Dot voting:
Limit the topics you discuss and try to find actions for to only the most important ones! You do this by letting the team vote on the bundled topics they have proposed (during the “Gathering Data” exercises above). We use a variant of dot voting for this and like to ask the team before the voting to put a stroke on the topics that are most important for their team or have the most business value. This way we focus on the most important topics for the team, which results in a more valuable output in the end. Thee amount of votes each team member should get is a simple calculation: n/3. If you have e.g. nine to be discussed topics, the amount of votes each participant should get is therefore three.
There is plenty of inspiration out there. These are the sources we use regularly to find all the activities: The amazing Retromat, the Atlassian Team Playbook and the great collection on the Agile Trello Board, to name only a few.
What works well for teams at ABOUT YOU won’t necessarily do the same for you. What are the exercises that you’ve tried and found to work great with your teams? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!
We’re hiring, come join us at ABOUT YOU Tech!