Your design team needs a (story) retro.

Phil Smith
Apr 22, 2020 · 4 min read
Nux is a weak warrior living in a world where strength is valued above all. Post-apocalyptic tribes fighting for resources when Nux is rejected by his tribal leader (‘MEDIOCRE!’). Nux has a turn of heart and and ends up fighting for the good guys. (photo source)

‘If you were a character in a movie, what would I need to do to make the movie really good?’ Donald Miller posed this remarkable question. When I heard it I immediately wrote it down in my notes. As I was recently planning a design team retrospective (retro for short) I knew an adaptation of this would be perfect. Retros are common practice for agile software development. From my experience they’re not common for design teams. That needs to change.

Retros will make your design team healthier.

Personal reflection is not a common practice in modern culture. Yet the benefits of reflection are well documented. Do a quick search online and you can see. Reflection gives meaning to experience. Reflection creates a sense of accomplishment. Reflection relieves tension. Reflection re-energizes. Reflection renews.

It is wise that agile dev teams adapted reflection to the team setting. It would be wise for design teams to adopt reflection too. You can learn how to run a basic agile retro elsewhere (video). Once you understand the basics there are myriad ways of running retros (articles). Regardless of your experience with retros the ‘Which character are you?’ retro is a great place to start.

Be sure to warm up first.

Warming up in sports is critical so you don’t tear any muscles. While you’re not going to tear your brain muscle (I hope!), creative teams need to warm up too. Everyone needs to feel comfortable sharing with each other to begin. But to make a warm up great it needs relate to the main topic. Oftentimes this is sneaky—people don’t realize they’re thinking about the main topic when they actually are. This is a great warm up

Can you even see him? There in the dark sits Han Solo—a questionable person hanging out in an even more questionable place. He is confident, lax, and keen to defend his freedom. (photo source)

To get everyone familiar with the warm-up I went through a few characters including, of course, Han Solo. He’s an interesting character because you meet him and you don’t know what to think. Can you trust him? Can’t you? Did he shoot first? Didn’t he? (He did!) Yet the other characters have no choice but to trust him. He ends up playing a central role to the rebellion despite his questionable repute.

Imaginations are churning at this point. A basic way to share is verbally. A more interesting way is to make a collage of characters. Film Grab has high quality stills from many films. There are many ways to make a collage. I chose Figma in order to capture images now and ‘sticky notes’ later. Everyone in the room sharing about a favourite character from a favourite movie can take a considerable amount of time. But is it too much time for a warm-up? No, beacuse it directly relates to the main question. The conversation was deeper from a longer warm-up.

Ryan Gosling plays a character in ‘La La Land’ who wants to have it all: dreams, fame, love. As is often true IRL, he can’t actually have it all, which is sad indeed. (photo source)

Go deep into your team’s story.

Everyone is warmed up and ready. Everyone has already thinking about this in a shallow sense and is ready for depth. What kind of character are we as a team? Are we the main character? Are we a quiet but vital supporting role? To know what kind of character we are we need to know: What kind of movie are we in? Are we like The Monuments Men, who played a small yet very meaningful part in WWII? (They saved stolen art from Nazis.) Where are we in the movie? Are we at the very beginning? Are we like Spiderman? Have we been bitten by the radioactive spider yet? Only you and your team can answer that.

You will be surprised by the conversation this retro inspires. Thinking about your team’s story from a different perspective will surely take you somewhere interesting.

P.S. I found myself using Figma so much for sticky note exercises I made a sticky note kit.

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