The retrospectives experiment

August 14, 2020

Every fortnight, we conduct retrospective meetings. We gather as a team and look back into our recent successes and failures with a view to improve our development process.

After a few years using the same Lean Coffee format as the base format of the retrospective meetings, we decided to try something new.

We started experimenting with new formats and every time someone brought a new one, the experience became so enjoyable that invariably someone else would volunteer to prepare the next retrospective and try an untried (by us) format (truth to be told, a few members needed an extra little encouragement, but we made it! - every single member of the team conducted one :) ).

There's no much novelty in most of the formats we tried and will describe below - except for one or two where we created our own variations inspired by existing formats. What's perhaps novel and we thought worth this blog post is the series that we went on for a few months.

The experiment led us to the retrospective experiment - a 20 weeks long cycle of retrospectives where every member of the team conducted one using a different format each time. We had a lot of fun along the way and decided to share the experience, some information about each format tried and some conclusions about the experiment.

The one word retrospective

The experiment started with the one word retro. This allowed everyone to share a single word in a round-robin fashion to describe how they felt about the previous cycle, allowing a very open flow of discussion.

The traveller retro

We started by discussing the image used as the background of the retro board - it was a paradisal image from a Greek beach. We then used it as a basis to navigate our travel through different subjects and used a traditional pipeline to drive the discussion including the stages:

  • To Discuss
  • Discussing
  • Discussed
  • Actions
  • Share with the Team

The 3 little pigs retro

Using the theme of the 3 little pigs tale, we used the houses of straw, sticks and bricks as a metaphor to discuss where we're doing great, where we can do even better and where we clearly need to improve.

Two truths and a lie retrospective

Participants gave 2 truthful statements and one false statement. The rest of the group tried to guess which was the lie, and why.

The Harry Potter retrospective

In this retrospective, we used Harry Potter spells and artifacts to brainstorm and improve. Felix Felicis: The good things that happened in the sprint. Baruffio's Brain Elixir: The things we learned. Petrificus Totalus: What did slow us down? Triwizard Cup: Shout-outs for the team members.

Retro against Humanity

Inspired by the card game, in this retrospective we used cards with incomplete sentences, completed them collectively and discussed the different perspectives.

The Pacman Retro

In this one, we used Pacman as the theme and applied a phased approach to the discussion:

  1. Draw your mood
  2. What did you enjoy?
  3. Problems/Challenges
  4. Next exciting thing
  5. Actions

The Super Mario retrospective

In this one, we rolled a die to decide the topic based on the picture below (unless already discussed in which case we'd roll again). We'd roll again if we got "surprise". For each topic, people wrote cards and we kept doing this until we covered 4 topics. After that, we talked through the cards raised for each of them.

The Toyota Retro (five whys)

A nuance introduced in this edition (which was replicated in some of the later retros): we started by going round the table and each one of us scored how we felt in general and briefly explained the reasons behing feeling somewhere between ok and great - gladly everyone was feeling at least OK.

Using a virtual board, each participant added positive and negative cards which were grouped by the facilitator into subject clusters. For each card we dived deep into discussion of the root causes of problems the team wanted to address using the 5 whys interrogative technique to explore the cause-and-effect relationships behind a particular problem. Where a clear root cause couldn't be found, a separate meeting should be held to discuss the subject. Otherwise, we found that good action points came out of the discussion. The main goal of this retro format was to allow participants to deeply discuss the problem instead of focusing on solutions before getting to the root cause of the issues encountered.

The Chef retro

This followed a structure based on a chef's menu. We started by ranking our energy levels from 1 to 5, where each person explained the motives behind their own ranking. Then we answered a bunch of questions about what we were happy about, what we would like to add, remove or improve. We then discussed our answers and wrote down action points. Finally, everyone rated the meeting from 1 to 5.

The retrospective on the retrospectives

We gathered previous actions and voted on whether each was a success or should be retried, analysed the results together, celebrated the most positive actions, discussed the least positive, recovered some actions for retry and slightly changed others to increase our chances of success.

Conclusions

If it's not clear already, this 20-week long retrospective series made the process far more enjoyable, engaging and creative. It also led to an environment where people could truly feel vulnerable and speak their minds and develop mutual empathy, even though some of us never met in person. We felt this was particularly important for us as a remote team and the context we’re all experiencing these days. We think the fact that everyone put effort into conducting the sessions made this a very engaging experiment to everyone involved - every single format had its good share of fun. For us, as a relatively young team, this experiment has helped in the following ways:

  • Encouraging creativity across the team
  • Open and vulnerable sharing of ideas
  • Increased engagement
  • Exposing and addressing fundamental flaws in our processes and ways in which we operate
  • A lot of fun along the way

Having exhausted many different retrospective methods, maybe our next creativity will be thinking of what format to try next. In addition, in our next cycle we may be paying greater attention to the actions that we come up with, and hopefully getting some reinforcement that we are well on our way to improving our ways of working 🤞

We hope that was fun to read and hopefully an inspiration for you to try some of the formats above with your team(s) and take your retrospective game into the next level.