Reinvigorated Retrospectives


Have you these statements lately?

“Our retrospectives have dried up.”
“Why are we doing this?  We never do anything about it.”
“Uh, I don’t know – there’s nothing that we need to change.”

Well, this is not uncommon for agile teams to reach the point where their retrospectives become ineffective or the team members stop seeing value in the meeting.  In fact, this occurs with both newly formed teams that just haven’t grasped “Inspect and Adapt”, and mature agile teams that have either lost sight of the need for continuous improvement.  There are multiple reasons why retrospectives may be going south, but there’s three biggies that stand out in the crowd:

  • They’ve Become Monotonous.  Ok, so we’ve been asking the same three questions for the last six months – “What can we Start? What should we Stop? And, what should we continue?”  Although this format is tried-and-true, it takes on Borg-like repetitiveness – especially when it happens every two weeks.
  • No Actions Taken.  “That’s a great idea”, “We should do that”, “We need to make that happen”.  These are all great phrases often exuded during retrospectives and rarely are the items that these phrases share context with are implemented.  In fact, after the fourth retrospective performed – those actions and or issues mentioned in the first retrospective are re-digested.
  • Quiet Majority.  The quiet majority are those in the room that simply never speak up unless called upon.  These folks often are incredibly smart, but there are those in the room that tend to overpower and then those that have just given up on sharing their input because of the first two reasons identified above.

So now you are saying, “this is exactly what’s wrong with our retrospectives, but what should we do about it?”  Well, here are a couple great ideas that work:


sailboat3_webThere is a great game called Speedboat from The Innovation Games Company.  The original goal of Speedboat is to frame up a constructive manner by which customers can provide product feedback without spiraling into a complaint session.  The great thing is that this game can be used by teams for performing retrospectives.   This game has been transformed and adapted to Sailboat (first saw this posted here).  Here’s how it works:

  1. Assemble the team, you’ll need a whiteboard (or sheet of easel paper), sticky notes, and black pens.
  2. Draw an ocean, a sailboat floating on the ocean, and a couple anchors.  If you are the artistic type, feel free to add some flare (I like fish).
  3. Hand the pens and sticky notes to each of the attendees, and ask them to write down the bad things (or issues) and good things (or efficiencies) that have been discovered since the last retrospective.  Give everyone 5-10 minutes to write down their ideas, thoughts, and or opinions – encourage the team to participate.
  4. After everyone is complete, put the sticky notes on the sailboat – the good things represent wind in the sails and the bad things represent the anchors that slow the boat.
  5. Once the sticky notes have been placed, have the team organize them into themes or simply groups of like items (e.g. issues surrounding quality).  Eliminate duplicates and consolidate where possible.  Within each theme, rank the different sticky notes.
  6. Now the team should discuss each top item and identify issues that need to be worked and or stories to add to the backlog.


The 4L’s is a retrospective technique put forth by Mary Gorman and Ellen Gottesdiener.  Teams like this format in that it’s quick and forces all parties in the room to interact.   The 4L’s are: Liked, Learned, Lacked, and Longed For.  As you can see, the 4L’s give people a simple area to focus their thoughts that can easily be translated into issues and or stories for the backlog.  Here’s how it works (taken straight from Mary’s and Ellen’s Blog):

  1. Assemble the team, you’ll need four posters (easel paper), sticky notes, and black pens.
  2. Hang the four posters (easel paper) around the room and title the posters appropriately, one for each “L”.
  3. Ask the team members to individually write down what they Liked, Learned, Lacked, and Longed For since the last retrospective.  They should write down one per sticky note.  Give the team 5-10 minutes and ask them to put their sticky notes on the corresponding posters.
  4. Divide the team up into four subgroups and assign an “L” to each group.  They should read all the notes, consolidate and identify themes.
  5. Have each subgroup report on the themes – this means read out-loud and converse.
  6. As a team, decide how they might use the data.  For example, ask “How can we satisfy the “lacked” or “longed for” items?”  Identify issues that need to be worked and or stories to be added to the backlog.

Both the Sailboat game and the 4L’s encourage full team participation, they are fast and focused, and they can be fun.  No matter which technique you use for your retrospective, always remember a few key rules:

  • Focus on process not individuals.  If there are issues between individuals, have them work it out and if necessary – involve a 3rd party.
  • Involve everyone.  The approaches above help drive this; however, be sure folks are contributing and more importantly they feel their input is important.
  • Do something about it.  The items identified should be tracked and acted upon.

Please share your ideas and thoughts, retrospectives can and should be fun — and they are immensely valuable.

My career journey has had me wearing many hats ranging from Systems Analyst to Programmer to IT Manager to Programmer to Director. Today, I work as a coach and instructor to the leadership and team members of organizations on their agility journey. I'm constantly practicing to be a good learner, aspiring to be an inspiring leader, and I'm constantly walking the line between pragmatism and conviction when it comes to the application of lean and agile principles and practices.

Matt’s purpose is simple, “I believe in working with teams to help them get better, learn, and be successful in building stuff while having fun.”

At the end of the day, Matt believes in integrity, hard work, curiosity, people, and faith.


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