5 Agile Retrospective Formats to Put in Your Toolkit

The original title of this article was going to be “Which format(s) to use for Agile retrospectives”.   As soon as those words appeared in print, it became clear that the article might as well be called “Which food to eat for dinner”.

The truth is, the menu of options is a virtual smorgasbord.

According to the official Scrum GuideTM :

The purpose of the Sprint Retrospective is to:

  • Inspect how the last Sprint went with regards to people, relationships, process, and tools;
  • Identify and order the major items that went well and potential improvements; and,
  • Create a plan for implementing improvements to the way the Scrum Team does its work.

Most teams that follow some semblance of a Scrum framework know the standard Agile retrospective format something more like this:

  • What’s working?
  • What isn’t?
  • What should we do about it?
  • Can we go back to work now?

In order for Agile retrospectives to be truly effective, there must be a willingness from the team to learn and adapt.  Feedback must be able to be delivered in a psychologically safe and vulnerable way.  That, in itself, is a major undertaking and the reason why the role of the Scrum Master might need to be relabeled as “Collaboration Architect”.

After the team has spent month developing the kind of trust and accountability to results described above, they can then choose one of the following Agile retrospective formats to stimulate insights and innovation.  These are some of the best that the Agile world has to offer.  Each is designed to stimulate some combination of Ideation, Prioritization, Visualization, and Simulation within the team.  (These retros are also great for heating up a cold winter date night.)

Liked, Lacked, Learned, Longed For

  • Summary
    • The team reflects on the previous sprint, highlighting items that they liked and that they thought were lacking.  Next, they highlight things they learned, and finally something that they really wished or desired to be.
  • How it works
    • Create 4 lists or areas on your Agile retrospective board, one for each: Liked, Lacked,  Learned, Longed For
    • Have participants brainstorm items into each area
    • Conduct a group discussion about what’s been brainstormed.
    • Vote on an item to create an action from.  This is something the team will focus on in upcoming sprints.
  • Why it Works
    • This retro format gets he team to focus on positive and negative items, per usual.   It also gets them to think about learning throughout the sprint and then asks a very expansive question:  what did you long for?  This final question gets the team to think forward, imaging something that is yet to be.

Three Little Pigs

  • Summary
    • The team reflects on their overall agility and technical excellence and identifies three lists: what they do really well, what could be improved, and what are their weakest areas.
  • How it works
    • Using the story of The Three Little Pigs, the team draws a canvas that contains three houses:  a house of straw, a house of sticks, and a house of bricks.
    • Starting with the house of bricks, the team brainstorms what they are “rock solid” at.  In other words, identify what the team does really well, both in collaboration and technical execution.
    • Second, they fill the house of sticks with items that they do pretty well but could be improved.
    • Lastly, they brainstorm items that are barely being accomplished by the team, and likely need immediate remedies.   These items go in the house of straw.
    • Have the team reflect on each list.  Vote on items from the house straw and the house of sticks that should be queued up as backlog items for improving performance and reducing technical debt.  Top items from the house of bricks are things the team should pride themselves on and look for ways to continue building upon.
  • Why it Works
    • Using a children’s story, this exercise engages deep-rooted imagination and metaphor.  In doing so, it abstracts the team from the story, allowing them to be more open and honest about their own abilities.  The exercise helps the team identify things they are exceptional at, strengthening positive team identity.

Pre-Mortem Retro

  • Summary

    • The team is asked to imagine the future sprint and identify what could go wrong.  The team then sorts items into lists of “what the team can control” and “what the team can’t control.”  The team then brainstorms how to respond to each list accordingly.
      • How it works
        • This Agile retrospective must be conducted after the team has planned their upcoming sprint.  After becoming familiar with the sprint backlog, the team is asked to informally discuss “what if” questions about things that could go wrong over the course of the sprint.
        • After 5 mins of discussion, ask each team member to write down 3 more things that could go wrong.
        • Then, ask the team to collectively sort their concerns into lists of “what the team can control” and “what the team can’t control”.
        • Working from the “what the team can control” list, ask the team to identify what can be done to prevent or mitigate the biggest risks.
        • Working from the “what the team can’t control” list, ask the team to identify what they would prefer be done about the situation and prepare a list for the Scrum Master and Product Owner to raise as impediments to the appropriate audiences.
      • Why it Works
        • This exercise allows the team to release anxieties and proactively address concerns.  It trains the team to think forward and mitigate risks while still taking them.  The exercise also gets the team to focus on what it can control and let go of what it can’t, while still attempting to make organizational impediments transparent.

Sailboat (aka Speedboat)

  • Summary
    • The team reflects on their overall performance and growth.  Imaging themselves as a boat, they then identify what propels them forward and what holds them back.
  • How it works
    • On your board or canvas, draw a boat floating on the water.  Add whatever flourishes you want.  If the team is focused on a particular project or objective, you can also draw an island that the boat is traveling toward, representing the team’s goal.
    • Ask the team to brainstorm items that propel them forward and place them on the canvas above the water line.  These are the “wind in their sails” or the “speedboat motor”.
    • Ask the team to brainstorm items that hold them back and place them on the canvas below the water line.  These are the “anchors”.
    • Ask the team to reflect and discuss which anchors are most problematic.
    • Have them choose an anchor to turn into a goal. Then ask which of the “wind” or “motor” items could be used to help accomplish the new goal, thus overcoming the anchor.
  • Why it Works
    • The visual imagery engages different parts of the brain, allowing the team to expand their thinking about obstacles.  Additionally, transforming anchors into goals that can be accomplished using what the team does well teaches the team to focus on how to use their collective strengths to overcome impediments.

Lean Coffee

  • Summary
    • This exercise allows for open-ended conversation while still enforcing a timeboxed environment.  Team members contribute to a backlog of topics, then prioritize and discuss within an allotted timeframe.
  • How it works
    • Create a Kanban Board with 3 columns: To Do, Doing, Done
    • Invite team members to add topics for discussion to the “To Do” column for a set period of time.
    • Next, give each team member a set number of votes and have them place dots or checks on the topics they want to vote for.  Votes can be spent any way they want, but cannot exceed the determined number of votes.
    • Move the top voted item to the “Doing” column.  Facilitate a discussion on that topic for a set period of time.  Ask someone to capture any arising action items.
    • When the time has expired, move the topic to “Done” then move the next ranked topic into “Doing”.  Discuss for the allotted amount of time.
    • Continue doing so until the overall allotted time for the retro has expired.
    • Create any necessary stories for the product backlog, based on the discussions.
  • Why it Works
    • The open nature of the exercise allows topics to arise organically and in the moment. The facilitated structure ensures that the whole time isn’t spent on only one issue.  Multiple team members can feel as though their topic was addressed, and backlog items are still captured for later action.

Try one of these Agile retrospectives today and reflect on what you observe. Good luck!

Improving Team Retrospectives by Focusing on Individuals

Read Now
Jeremiah Hopkins
Jeremiah Hopkins