Making Retrospectives Fun and Engaging

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Making Retrospectives Fun and Engaging

Are your retrospectives becoming stale or repetitive? Are they failing to add value?  For new agile teams, does awkward reluctance impede honest input?

Transforming the mundane into an engaging and thought provoking exercise requires honest and insightful feedback in an environment free of retribution or embarrassment.  Simply asking the team “What went well, what went wrong, and what needs improvement” is appropriate in its purpose, but often falls short in execution.  To address these challenges and build a culture of meaningful retrospectives, there are easy (and fun) methods to facilitate and solicit input.  Two methods I’ve used with great results are Story Cubes and Random Words.  Both have transformed my retrospectives into lively, engaging meetings that facilitated honest and creative feedback from the team.

Story Cubes Retrospective

The idea for the Story Cubes Retrospective was borrowed from the website, Tasty Cupcakes (www.tastycupcakes.org), a great resource for agile ideas and innovation.  While the approach on the site didn’t quite fit our needs, with some adjustments I came up with my own version.  Using story cubes (we used Rory’s Story Cubes), each team member selects a cube, draws the picture from the cube on a sticky note and places it in one of three categories: What Went Well, What Went Wrong or What Needs Improvement.  Each team member then says what the picture meant to them and why they put it in that area.  To add a collaborative aspect to the activity, I encourage other team members to contribute their thoughts on the picture.

When we did this activity I happened to get a cube with a picture of a bee.  I put this in the What Went Wrong category and explained that a recent meeting with stakeholders was poorly attended and this neglect stung (hurt).  In the same meeting, another team member selected a cube with the image of a footprint.  He assigned it to the What Went Well category and explained that it represented moving forward and that the team was making good progress.

The benefits of this approach are that it creates a relaxed environment, encourages creative thinking and can generate items that the team wouldn’t have normally considered.  Due to the number of available cubes, this approach isn’t always suitable for large teams. As well, important items can occasionally get overlooked, so once we finished discussing the pictures, we solicited open input from the team.

Random Words Retrospective

Another, somewhat more scalable, approach is the use of random words instead of story cubes.  Using the Random Words website (https://www.randomlists.com/random-words), each team member selects a random word, writes it on a sticky note and places it into one of three categories: What Went Well, What Went Wrong or What Needs Improvement.  Each team member then explains their rationale.  As with the story cubes retrospective, I usually facilitate more collaboration by soliciting input from other team members on the selected word.

In one instance, a team member selected the word “guide.” She put this in the What Went Well category and explained that it meant leadership to her and that our team had received positive support from our department director.  Another of our team members selected the word “smell” and he put it in the What Went Wrong category.  He explained that something smelled fishy and related it to mixed signals we had received from our stakeholders.

The benefits of this exercise are similar to the Story Cube Retrospective, with a couple of exceptions.  This activity can accommodate larger groups as it’s not limited in quantity.  As well, for some team members, it may be easier to relate to a word instead of a picture.  This largely depends on your teams’ learning styles and their comfort with creative forms of expression.  Over time, you’ll find the approach that works best for your team.

I don’t do these activities for every retrospective and have used other exercises to keep the process fresh, innovative and engaging.  Nowadays, instead of dragging themselves to the weekly retrospective, most of our teams look forward to a fun, engaging hour with their teammates to find new ways to improve our project.

If you would like to learn more about how I ran these activities, please free to contact me at Kevin.Konishi@aspirent.com.

– Kevin Konishi, Senior Manager

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