Story Cubes for Retrospectives

In a guest session at one of our Open Fridays Cynthia Hohlstein and Kevin Plechinger hosted an inspiring session on and with Story Cubes. Because neither of them blogs, I get to share their idea with you: Story Cubes are sets of 9 dice with images on them. The images cover a wide range of motives, such as speech bubble, sheep, star, hand, walking stick figure, … The idea is that you roll 3 dice and then tell a story that contains the 3 motives you rolled.

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Visualize time with TimeTimer

How do you keep track of time when you facilitate a retrospective or other meetings? How do you make sure you keep timeboxes? A timer on a smart phone is one way to do it, but for me it lacks visibility. I forget the timebox and only remember it, when it’s used up. And it’s even less visible for participants.

What works beautifully are TimeTimers. With a TimeTimer you set the timebox by pulling out a red disk. As soon as you let go, the red disk slowly starts retreating back below the white parts. That way you always have a pie chart of the remaining time. Elegant, easy to use and it communicates time very effectively!

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

New Book: 15 Plans for Retrospectives

A few years ago, someone told me that they had witnessed several newly minted Scrum Masters take a random plan from Retromat and run a retrospective with it. The plan that was displayed when they opened Retromat. Or one they got hitting the “New random retro”-button. The resulting retrospectives had been confusing.

At first, I was unbelieving, that anyone would do that: Just take the five activities that were randomly combined and call it a “plan”? No way!

Then I was shocked: A random combination doth not a plan make. It wasn’t surprising that these retrospectives were trainwrecks.

Upon reflection, I realized that for a beginner it is really hard to see that a random plan will not work. In order to protect new SMs and teams from a terrible first retro experience, I wrote “Retromat is not meant for beginners” and added clarification on the Retromat homepage.

It didn’t feel like enough, because I couldn’t point new facilitators to something readily helpful and applicable. That’s why I came up with the Best Retrospective for Beginners. The name is exaggerated but the plan is solid. The people using it have gotten great feedback from their teams.

But I didn’t stop thinking about how to better support beginners. Because all the books out there contain building blocks, not a finished stable building. Makes sense, because the books (and Retromat) are by experienced facilitators for experienced facilitators. We love to mix and match activities. But how is a beginner supposed to mix and match with the same level of confidence and success?

Today, four years later, I finally improved on that single plan: I assembled 15 plans for retrospectives + 1 bonus plan so that newly minted facilitators can hit the ground running. The plans cover a variety of common situations in agile teams: Dealing with reluctant participants; helping complainy teams take responsibility; working on better stories and requirements; talking about expectations; increasing follow-through; …

Maybe you can spread the word among the budding facilitators in your life 🙂

PS: There’s also a bundle for this book + the book with all 135+ activities in Retromat.

Give feedback to new team members with SaMoLo (#17)

Many of the activities in Retromat are also useful outside of retrospectives in other meetings or workshops. Point in turn: SaMoLo (#17) is how we first started giving feedback to new colleagues at sipgate.

It’s helpful for newbies to hear how they’re doing in order to adjust to their new workspace. In traditional companies this might be done by a team lead or superior. At sipgate, this is the team’s job.

Although new members tend to come up as a topic in the team retrospective, it’s usually as a side note and only when they’ve just started. We felt that onboarding new colleagues is important enough to give each their own dedicated meeting with the following structure:

All team members except the new one meet and collect feedback in 3 categories:  “Behavior we’d like to see the same amount of”, “More of” and “Less of” (SaMoLo). They discuss the issues, group them and decide who will present the feedback. Then the new colleague joins to hear and discuss what they’re doing great and where they can improve.

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A Retrospective for Many Participants

Every once in a while, there’s an opportunity to involve more people than 1 team in a retrospective. Could be a second team that you’re working with closely; managers that don’t usually see each other; stakeholders and customers; people up the hierarchy; representatives from other teams and departments; … You name it.

This plan works for up to 25 people. Maybe 30. For anything bigger, look into World Cafe or OpenSpace. Once you facilitate for more than 12-15 people, things get a lot harder. And everything takes much longer:

  • Lots of clarification is needed. There will always be someone who didn’t catch it the first time. Or the second time.
  • If you want everyone to be heard, well, there are now lots more people to speak.
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“I just can’t get her to engage!” – Retrospective Problems

A Scrum Master from the financial industry shared a gnarly retrospective problem with me:

My gnarly problem is that I have one member of my team that doesn’t like to participate in our ceremonies. Her body language shows it, but her words never do. She doesn’t really talk during any of the ceremonies, just tells our manager that she thinks they are a waste of time.

I keep trying to play games and spice things up and I’ve tried the boring, to the point method of: works well, not so well, and needs improvement …

I just can’t get her to engage! Any help on this?

I hear this problem a lot and I’ve certainly had it myself. That’s why I want to share an edited version of my answer here. I try to keep a focus on retrospectives although it seems to be a larger problems.

In a live coaching situation there are loads of good questions to ask: How does the team react? Was there ever a retrospective during which she was engaged? What is she like outside of the retros?

Without knowing many of the specifics, here is some generic advice.

Prologue: We can’t force agile on people

In general, I’ve stopped forcing people. As Marshall Rosenberg said, you cannot make people do anything. We certainly can’t make them “be agile”. If she doesn’t want to be there, she won’t engage. What would happen if she didn’t have to come? How would that affect the team? How does it affect the team now that she’s not engaging?

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What can you do if retrospectives repeatedly go wrong?

Not all retrospectives go well. When you support a team as a Scrum master, there are all kinds of strange behaviours or team dynamics that can make retrospectives go sideways, time after time. A facilitator can’t always prevent that. At least I can’t. Not always. Got lots better, though. Over the years I’ve picked up several different angles to get retros back on track (what I think is the “track” anyway). Enjoy:

Choose specific activities

When I started out as a Scrum master I thought my only option was to carefully choose activities to nudge people into the direction I thought they needed to go. And for some situations that works well.

The team acts the victim. Others need to change, there’s nothing they can do? Try Outside In, Circles & Soup, If I were you, …

There is a specific “weak” area they don’t like to look at? Communication Lines for (surprise!) flow of information, Quartering for Tickets, Company Map for Power Dynacmics, …

Talk to individuals

Then I started to address individual behaviour in spontaneous 1:1s whenever I could snatch the person alone. For instance: “I’ve got the impression that you often address me during the retrospective (/standup/…). The information is not for me, it’s important for the others. I would love for you to try to look at the others more.”

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How to transition from Set the Stage to Gather Data

Here’s another interesting question about retrospectives I got in my inbox, this time from Claudia: 

I just became a Scrum Master and will have my first Retrospective ever. What I find difficult for the beginning – I’m sure this will change after doing some Retros – is the transition from Set the Stage to Gather Data. After setting the stage, how do I go the Gather Data? Do I simply say “thank you, now, we’ll continue to gather data…“ or do I comment anything from Set the Stage to Gather Data.

[If you are new to retrospective and have never heard about the phases you can find out more here.]

Questions like these are great, because they make me examine something that I don’t consciously think about and “just do”. So yeah, how do the heck do I frame the transition? As always, the answer is: It depends 😉

It depends on what I want to achieve with “Set the Stage” (StS). Let’s look at the different cases:

Default case: I want everyone to speak, preferably about something positive and true and relevant to the last iteration

In this case, yes, most of the time it is close to “thank you, now, we’ll continue with gathering data…“ I wouldn’t use that exact phrasing because it implies that the 1st phases content is throwaway, when it reveals something about the last iteration. I can’t remember ever picking a starting activity solely for the fun of it… 

My default opening method is a question that goes around the circle. Here are some of these questions and a transition to “Gather Data” that lends itself to that question:

Of course, the transition has to also match the activity you’re leading to in “Gather Data” (GD). But yeah, usually the sticky notes from StS just keep hanging on a board and are not re-used. If people have the same point again for GD, they can rewrite the sticky or re-hang the existing sticky note. I don’t care either way.

Special case: Testing the waters – with a new team or in a conflict situation 

When I facilitate for a team for the first time or in a conflict situation I like to test the waters with ESVP: Do people want to be here? How much engagement can I expect from them?

If I expect problems, I might use Constellation or Team Radar to explore questions like “How likely are you to speak openly?”. It might be necessary to adapt these to a written form that participants fill in anonymously.

The important thing is that you have to be willing to deal with problems that come up. What if half the participants are Prisoners – How will you handle it? What if nobody dares to speak openly – What will you do?

In short, you’ll have to have at least a rough idea of a Plan B. The more problems you expect, the more solid your Plan B needs to be.

Btw, “normal” opening rounds and retro activities can also derail, either because something “traumatic” happened to a single person (divorce, sick loved one, …) or the team as a whole (someone being fired, new boss, …) that you hadn’t been aware off. In these cases, don’t try to follow your original plan. The retro is not an item to tick off a list. Stay calm, sometimes it’s okay to just let people talk. But I digress …

Special case: Outcome Expectations

Related to the previous case: Some activities are about the retro on a meta level, e.g. asking for Outcome Expectations. I’ll try to help meet the expectations or at the very least check if they’ve been met or not throughout the retro.

Special case: StS is already data heavy

There are some data heavy StS activities in Retromat that can easily be fleshed out for use in GD, e.g. Amazon Review or Postcards. Don’t be limited by the phase that is assigned in Retromat. There are many activities that also fit into a different category.

Actually, when you look at my retrospectives individually, you’ll usually find only 4 to 4.5 distinct phases in them. The middle three phases kind of bleed into each other. Which one I stress varies. But whatever I do, you can spot Lean Coffee in each one of them, just rarely as a standalone technique.

(If you plan your retrospectives with Retromat, you can get around the strict “5 phases” layout by manually changing the IDs in the URL and hitting enter.)

Anyway, the above are all the special cases I can currently think of. Do you have any to add? How do you transitien between StS and GD?

Thank you for the question, Claudia! It was fun to think about this!

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

My most important retrospectives were horrible

I’ve got a confession to make: I think fun in retrospectives is overrated. And I never bring cookies, when I facilitate.

Don’t get me wrong, I prefer having a good time to moping about and yes, I prefer participants to be in a good mood. Light hearted people are more creative and willing to try new things.

But all my most important retrospectives – the ones I still remember years later – were horrible! Or at the very least deeply uncomfortable. That holds true regardless of whether I facilitated or was a regular participant.

The important retrospectives, the ones that really counted and made a profound difference were about troubling topics: When something or someone wasn’t working out despite everyone’s best efforts. These retros had a big impact like teams dissolving; people leaving teams or even the company. That’s category of events I’m talking about.

Something like that is decidedly not fun. But it’s necessary to have these conversations. I’m grateful to people who have the guts to bring up the crucial topics even if it hurts in that moment. After the dust has settled everyone is better off, because a harmful situation has turned into a new beginning. And work in general, not just retrospectives, has a chance to be fun again.

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 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