Spice Up Your Next Retrospective With These Activities

I’ve described in a previous post why the retrospective is the most important event you will run in an agile transformation. For the retrospective to fulfill its role, it needs to be effective: it has to happen in a safe space, the team needs to look into data and generate insights based on actual information from the team’s activity and results, and it needs to end up with an action plan that is added to the backlog.

To summarise, the retrospective should have the following structure:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Gather data
  3. Generate insights
  4. Decide what to do
  5. Close the retrospective

In this post I will write about my favourite retrospective activities and my learning from applying them.

From: Esther Derby and Diana Larson, Agile Retrospectives, Fig.4.2

ESPV (Explorer, Shopper, Vacationer, Prisoner)

The ESPV activity is best suited at the beginning of the retrospective (Set the stage). It is meant to gauge if the people in the room feel safe to speak openly and honestly.

This is how I run this retro:

  • Each person receives a post-it where they need to write what ESPV role they identify with.
    • The Explorer is interested in discovering new things and creating new ideas.
    • The Shopper will “shop” for information and will go home with one useful idea.
    • The Vacationer is not that interested in the work, and would prefer to be out of the office.
    • The Prisoner feels forced to be there and would prefer to be anywhere else.
  • I collect the post-its and share the result with the team, drawing the histogram on the board. No names are attached to the results.
  • I start a conversation with the team based on the results; e.g. if most people in the team feel like Prisoners, there are underlying issues that you need to help reveal. In this case I bring up Kerth’s Prime Directive for the retrospective and what could stop the team from an open discussion. After this conversation I run the activity again.

Duration: 5-10 minutes

Working Agreements

This activity can also be done in the Set the stage part, at the beginning of the retrospective. The purpose is to set team rules that everyone commits to and that represent the behaviours the team values.

For this activity, the 1-2-4 Liberating Structure works pretty well.

  1. I have everyone in the team spend a few minutes on their own to come up with working agreements on their own.
  2. Next, I organise them in groups of 2, where they discuss and aggregate the working agreements.
  3. I organize them in groups of 4 to discuss and further re-write their working agreements.
  4. At the end, each group will write on the board 3-5 of their most important working agreements.
  5. I facilitate the discussion around the agreements and the team votes on the most important 5-7 rules that they want to follow.

Duration: 10-30 minutes.

Timeline Retrospective

The timeline retrospective fits really well to longer projects or releases (it’s part of the Gather data of the retrospective). You should include everyone involved in the project, not only the development team (so you will have stakeholders present also).

This is how I run this retro:

  1. I draw a line in the middle of the board and add to it the stages of the release (milestones) or project milestones.
  2. In order to encourage expressing feelings also, I split the board in half: the team will add successful items in the upper half (the “happy face” part of the board), and issues or improvements on the lower side of the board (the “sad face”).
  3. Then each person in the room takes the time to add comments to each time period (hard facts, but also feelings or emotions). You can use a color code for emotions or different types of activities, this is something that you need to agree on with your team.
  4. At the end, have everyone “walk the board“, walk by the timeline and see what others have written. Reading others’ ideas might stir memories, so it’s ok if they add more cards on the board.
  5. Analyze the timeline, look for improvement areas and come up with actions to improve the entire flow.

Duration: 30-90 minutes.

Satisfaction histogram

This following activity is my favorite of all. The purpose of the histogram is to get to a shared understanding on how the team works together, collaborates, communicates. Is is part of the the Gathering data..

This is how I run it:

From: Esther Derby and Diana Larson, Agile Retrospectives, Fig.10
  1. I explain the purpose of the histogram and what each level means. I explain that it’s not a judgment on individuals, but we look at how the team works, and it’s ok for each individual in the team to have a different perception.
  2. I also explain to them that the evolution of the scores is more important than the score itself (so you need to repeat this activity with each retro).
  3. I do a round-robin and ask everyone to pass a score, which I add to the board, thus drawing the full histogram.
  4. I ask the team to save it and review it at the next retrospective, after they do this activity again.

Duration: 5-10 minutes

Five Whys retrospective

When you are gathering insights, it’s essential to address the root cause of problems rather than solve symptoms. The 5 Whys (inspired by Toyota) is a great activity for root cause analysis.

This is how I run it:

  1. I make sure that everyone has the same understanding on the issues identified in the Gather Data activities.
  2. You can again use the 1-2-4 Liberating Structure (especially if you have a bigger group) if you have enough time; I usually organised groups of maximum four. One person asks “why” an event happened, gets an answer, asks “why” again (4-5 times). The answers that come up fourth or fifth time are the ones that get to be written down.
  3. I share the findings and start working on an action plan.

Duration: 15-20 minutes.

What Went Well / What Can Be Improved

This is retrospective fits a new team or a team new to Agile. It is easy to facilitate and there is a lot of space for the team members to discuss issues.

This is how I run it:

  1. I part the board in two columns, and I write the column headers: What went well / What can be improved. I usually add one more column, called Rants, in case there are issues that need to be discussed and are not clearly in one column or the other.
  2. Everyone gets 10-15 minutes individually to write their comments directly on the board or on post-its. I found this to be the best method to have everyone in the team heard, especially the more introvert of our colleagues.
  3. When everyone is done, we review the board; we celebrate wins and share learnings from successful experiments, and we come up with actions for issues and improvements. I write them on the board on a separate column.
  4. At the end of the session we review the actions, prioritise if there are too many, and decide what the team will be working on during the next sprint (depending on capacity and the actions prioritised).

Duration: 40-50 minutes.

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