Why I love ‘I like, I wish, I wonder’

... and which popular activities I never use

This week I ran another workshop on retrospectives, during which participants plan a retrospective (usually the first time they are doing that). While I was hopping through the breakout sessions, I got a super specific question: “When do you use ‘Start Stop Continue’ and when do you use ‘I like, I wish (I wonder)‘?” (I had introduced ‘I like, I wish, I wonder’ earlier in the workshop but not ‘Start Stop Continue’.)

To me, that question is very easily answered because I never use ‘Start Stop Continue’. That’s weird right? It’s one of the best known activities out there and I never pick it. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Start Stop Continue’ is not a bad activity. It’s perfectly adequate and will get results. I just know other activities that I think yield even better results so that I never fall back on ‘Start Stop Continue’.

And why is that? Well, when I see ‘Start Stop Continue’ in action, there’s often duplication: topics that appear in both ‘Start’ and ‘Stop’ just differently phrased. But that’s not unique to this activity and also not a big deal. The better question is perhaps why I love ‘I like, I wish, I wonder’ so much more:

To me, both ‘I wish’ and ‘I wonder’ are invitations to raise issues in a way that is non-threatening. It makes it easier to address hard topics without antagonizing someone and thus easier to talk about. There is no such nudge inherent in ‘Start Stop Continue’. And that’s why I find myself picking ‘I like, I wish, I wonder’ a lot.

PS: Another popular activity that I use even less than ‘Start Stop Continue’ is ‘Starfish‘. IMO it leads to soooo much duplication (way more than ‘Start Stop Continue’) to the point that it makes clustering difficult. But it is undoubtedly popular. If you love using ‘Starfish’, what’s the benefit that I’m missing?

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books

Cause-Effect-Diagrams (#25)

Problems in the real world often have more than one root cause. Worse, the causes tend to be intertwined and reinforcing (aka vicious circles). It’s easy to get caught in circular thinking, unable to begin implementing any changes. A neat way to overcome this are cause-effect-diagrams:

Henrik Kniberg wrote an excellent description on how to create these diagrams. I highly recommend it. In the meantime, here are the instructions in a nutshell:

  • Take a “problem” that’s currently bugging you as the starting node
  • Go up – Try to find the real problem by repeatedly asking “So what?
    (Your starting node will often turn out to be a midway symptom and not a problem in itself.)
  • Go down – Try to find root causes by repeatedly asking “Why? How come?
  • You can have more than one cause and/or effect per node and may end up with a complex graph
  • Look out for vicious circles; breaking them should help a lot

I’ve done several diagrams and so far, they’ve always helped me:

  • to better understand how everything is related
  • to discover new effects / causes through the methodic approach
  • to find a starting point for changes, when I was paralyzed before

Groups can use a whiteboard, sticky notes and markers like in the photo.

Actually the diagram in the photo is a good example for finding an unexpected cause (and consequently solution):

Our sys admins had “Lack of visibility – The board doesn’t reflect what we do” as a starting point with “Stress” as its ultimate effect. The unexpected cause turned out to be: “No shared understanding of what tasks a story entails”. Transparency and using the board had been the topic of several retrospective and the aspect of “shared understanding” had never been mentioned before. So instead of coming up with a solution centered around the board, the team committed to daily joint task breakdowns to achieve a shared understanding of the stories. 3 weeks later, that had already solved a number of problems! Hooray, for cause-effect-diagrams and the sys admins 🙂

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books

Postcards (#42)

[This post was first published in 2012 when Retromat was tiny and new. Seems like a lifetime ago.]

I’m always looking for inspiration for retrospectives e.g. over at Thorsten Kalnin’s or in the retrospectives wiki. Time to give back! This is a format I tried out some time ago: The basic idea is to let the participants describe the issue with a metaphor.

A metaphor is a literary figure of speech that uses an image, story or tangible object to represent a less tangible object or some intangible quality or idea; e.g., “Her eyes were glistening jewels.”
(Source: Wikipedia)

There are several ways to have participants come up with metaphors, e.g.

  • “Which movie title would best describe our sprint?”
  • Drawing the sprint as described in this blog entry
  • Or… Choose a postcard as a representative!

There are two reasons to use metaphors in a retrospective:

  1. It gives a shared understanding of someone’s perspective
  2. It can open a path to find new solutions. It’s similar to an approach you sometimes take in math: Say, you have a problem and don’t know how to solve / approach it. Some problems can be transformed into an analoguous form in a different field of mathematics, where it can be solved. Afterwards you transform the solution back to the originating field and have a solution to the original problem. Tada

Enough theory, this is how the session went down:

Situation: The developers and PO were going through a rocky patch back then and I wanted to help them overcome this.

Preperation: I selected about 30 postcards for 5 participants and 2 rounds. For most postcards I had a loose association how they might relate to the topic. On top of that I stacked a few random and / or abstract images for good measure. (Who would have thought my impressive collection of postcards would come in handy for my agile endeavours?) I scattered the postcards all over the room on the floor, so that the participants have to get up and wander about.

Session plan: The postcards were part of the Information Gathering phase:

  • Pick the postcard that best resembles how you see the team right now.
    (No shared postcards. If you’re not fast enough, pick another one.)
  • Write down 3 keywords that describe how you see the team (with regards to the postcard)
  • In turn everyone hangs up their postcard and keywords and explain their choice

Usually you’d only have one round but we had a second round on the question “How would you like the team to be 3 months from now?”

Followed by:

  • Brainwriting: How could we get from the Now-state to the Wish-state?
    (I often do written activities to level the playing field for quieter team members.)
  • Collect all Brainwriting ideas, cluster and dot-vote which 3 suggestions to talk about.
  • Create action items (preferably as SMART goals)

It was the most productive brainwriting session I’ve ever seen.

[This Change Management training gave me the idea with the postcards.]

PS: Need more ideas for retrospectives? Try out my very own Retr-O-Mat 🙂
The Postcards are Activity #42, Brainwriting is Activity #66 and SMART Goals are Activity #13.

Activities for Checking up on Action Items

There are a lot suggestions for Retromat that I can’t  include. Sometimes because the strict 5-phases format can’t accommodate them. One example: Anja Schwarzpaul developed the  following activities for “the new Phase 2” (that I used to call “Phase 0”) aka “the phase in which you check what happened to last retro’s action items”. So far, there are very few activities for this new phase described out there. That’s why I’m extra excited to have Anja’s permission to share these two with you!

Her reason for coming up with these?

I feel it’s important to analyze successful or completed experiments in at least as much detail as failed or incomplete ones. Success doesn’t just happen. There’s always a reason. Real life success example in my team: The phrasing was clear and concise, leaving little room for misunderstandings and making the item easy to follow.

And here are Anja’s activities in her own words:


Flow Chart

Use a good old fashioned flow chart to dissect a single action item. (Probably scales to 2 or 3 actions). Duration is flexible and largely depends on the number of questions.

Photo courtesy of Anja Schwarzpaul

From a start node, draw an arrow to a decision node labeled “Done?”or “Success?”. Now branch to “yes” and “no” paths along one or more boxes containing questions to be asked. Near the end of the diagram, merge both branches into a final box “Anything else?” and end in a final state.
Follow the path that the team indicates. If the result is ambiguous, use the “no” branch until just before the merge, then the “yes” branch.

You can either display the entire diagram at once or draw it as you go along. I outlined the start and decision nodes with a marker and sketched everything else with a pencil, in real time outlining only the path we used. This allows for adapting the question(s) to the situation.

Possible Questions:

  • Why did / didn’t it work?
  • How did / didn’t it work?
  • What could we have done to make it work?
  • What does it do for us as a team?
  • Is this something we can use / try again…
  • on a regular basis?
  • in a different context?
  • at some point in the future? (for non-continuous activities, e.g. release estimation)

Improve the Improvement

Suitable for 2 or more action items. Duration depends on the number of items and questions.

Write each hypothesis / item / experiment on a large-ish index card or sticky note. Lay them out on the table or stick them to a wall or board. Let the team rank them from most to least successful, top to bottom. Now ask a few strong questions to help the team analyze the outcome of the experiments. The goal is to get some general ideas of why and how experiments work, and put these ideas to use during the “decide what to do” stage, thus improving the improvement.

Possible Questions: What would have had to happen in order to…

  • make the least successful item come out on top?
  • reverse the order?
  • make all items an equal success?
  • move item <no.> move up a spot?

And maybe:

  • Under which circumstances would you not be able to rank the results?
  • How do you feel about the success to priority ratio?

If I ever have more time (fat chance…) I’ll figure out a good UI to include the new phase in Retromat. Until then, thank you Anja for sharing these with us!

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books

Activities to say farewell and reminisce in a retrospective

Teams go through stages. They form, clash, perform well, quarrel, perform, and so on. Until they  eventually disband. Tuckman called this stage “Adjourning”.

A while ago, Stephane asked for activities for a retrospective for an adjourning team. Here are some suggestions:

My team is awesome” would be a great opener.

Appreciative Inquiry” would also work well, if the questions were tweaked a little to serve the purpose.

If you’ve got a budget to take the team out to eat, “Retrospective Cookies” are an excellent option.

I guess it depends a little on whether you’d rather the team takes away a farewell lesson that they can carry over to the next team or you’d rather let them bask in their team spirit and appreciate each other.

What activities do you recommend for an Adjourning retro?

PS: Did you know there's a Retromat eBook Bundle? Ready-made retrospective plans for beginners and all activities from Retromat for experienced facilitators. Check out the Retromat books