Over the years I have facilitated and observed many retrospectives. In fact, I’d struggle to guess how many I have actually taken part in! The good ones have been filled with energy, honesty, conflict, creativity and humour. The bad ones have been repetitive, shallow, uninspiring and predictable.  Retrospectives are one of the easiest agile events to pick up and run with and if they’re well executed, they can have an immediate effect on team productivity and morale.

To this end I thought I’d share with you the top 10 tips for facilitating a great retrospective which I created a few years back with Geoff Watts. Each tip is three words long, which should be easier to recall too!

1. A Good Venue

It’s hard to expect people to think differently about their situation if they always use the same old meeting room and stare at the same four walls. Some of the best retrospectives I’ve been involved in have been performed inside a pub or a restaurant, outdoors in the garden or in the park. You might find people open up more emotionally in an informal environment or extend their creative thought by enjoying some actual “blue sky” thinking.

2. Get People Moving

Body movement increases blood flow and that in turn allows more energy and oxygen to move through our bodies and brains. Something like an outdoor ball game can help relieve some of the stress of the day, adds to team building and helps get our brains working if we face challenging issues.

3. Food and Drink

Remember, you are expecting people to stay focused for one to three hours typically in most cases and attentiveness will soon drop off if attendees feel hungry or thirsty. Freshly made hot coffee is a great incentive to get a team to turn up on time, and as far as food goes, we’d steer clear of too many cakes, biscuits and beige choices. Offer some fresh fruit instead to prevent these retrospectives from turning into a lethargic and sleepy affair.

4. State the Purpose

Lots of poor retrospectives I’ve attended have wandered aimlessly for hours and culminated with no tangible outcomes or benefits. As a facilitator, try and grab the attention of your audience within the first five to 10 minutes of the meeting. This is your chance to entice them into participating in the entire session. Setting a compelling goal or a challenge at the start of the retrospective can be a simple way to hook people from the outset.

5. Experiment with Metaphor

All the ideas we need already exist – we just need to be able to access them, however some people truly believe that they are not creative at all. By introducing a metaphor, you can allow people to think about a problem or situation differently and that might stimulate a more natural and spontaneous response. Some examples that I have used involve asking questions like “If this sprint was an animal what would it be?” or “If this sprint was a chocolate bar what would it be?” The key to these questions is then exploring why attendees responded with their own answers.

6. Let People Play

We feel safer if we feel like we’re playing. So, try introducing some games into the retrospective. I’ve had success with word association games, role-playing scenarios and even board games. Equally, playing with toys such as Lego blocks or modelling clay will access different parts of the human brain and might help stimulate some different thoughts. Don’t forget to have a look at The Retrospective Lexicon, a game which might help people widen their emotional vocabulary in a retrospective session.

7. Encourage Healthy Conflict

Assure the team that it isn’t always about agreement and that disagreement is not only OK, but it’s also a great way to find the best solutions. Premature consensus actually reduces the quality of the output, so perhaps introduce an element of “Ritual Dissent” where team members are actively encouraged to take turns dissembling ideas and finding all the reasons why they won’t work.

8. Keep Things Varied

One of the biggest complaints I hear about retrospectives is that they become boring as the facilitator runs out of techniques or novel ways to run them. Asking the same questions at every retrospective can quickly become tedious so do anything you can to keep them fresh. Some simple ideas include having a specific theme or topic for each retrospective, perhaps changing the location. Try having a guest speaker, using a different metaphor, or maybe even bringing in an alternative facilitator.

9. Reflect on Facts

Encourage everyone on the team to move past just the “facts” and tap into how the situation is affecting them and others. Not only does this make it more “real” but it also increases the value of doing something about it, and therefore makes it more likely we will act on our ideas. I’m more likely to make a change if I know how it’s affecting me and other people in my team.

10. Take Some Action

Don’t let the retrospective turn into a town hall meeting where everyone just gets to air their grievances and complain about what’s not working. Ensure that the team reflects on things – thinking about what part they’re playing in the situation and more importantly take some action towards making that aspect of the team situation better. They don’t have to solve it completely, so long as they’re moving towards a solution.

I hope you enjoyed these tips and I challenge you to find some ways to incorporate them into facilitating your next retrospective. Good luck!

Paul Goddard - Agile Coach

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