Organization-wide retrospectives? Open Space!

For the longest time, I thought “company-wide retrospectives = “normal retros, but scaled up with activities that work for big groups and lots of breakout sessions”. If you had asked me if it’s a good idea to do company-wide retros every once in a while I would have said yes. Retros are always a good idea in my book – as long as they enable change.

Did sipgate (my place of work for more than a decade) do company-wide retrospectives? No, only on the team level. Was it a problem? Also no – except for a few exceptions. It took me an embarassingly long time to realize that the reason there were relatively few unaddressed problems was that THERE WERE COMPANY-WIDE RETROSPECTIVES. But I didn’t see that because it was a completely different mechanism. It served many of the same purposes, though: The Open Friday.

Open Friday / Open Space in a Nutshell

“Every other Friday, everyone at sipgate is free to do what they think is most valuable for the company. Additionally we hold an Open Space – a spontaneously organized conference. Everybody who wants to take part gathers for the opening ceremony at 10am and participants announce their sessions, bit by bit creating a schedule for several rooms and timeslots. Attendance is 100% voluntary. Participants visit the sessions they are interested in.” – Paraphrased from

How is an Open Space similar to a retrospective?

Actually, it’s not that similar: the Open Friday (OF) fulfills A TON of different purposes. I think that’s why it took me so long to see that it ALSO serves as company-wide retrospectives, because it so much more than that. But hosting company-wide retrospectives is probably the biggest chunk of value the OF adds:

Headline: A circle headlined Open Friday. With in the circle are smaller circles called Research; Show&Tell;  Training; Collect ideas/experiences; Special retros ie post mortems, after an event (these are obviously retros); and the biggest circle is Address problems - Compare observations and ideas - Come up with a plan of action (suspiciously retro-shaped)

That big dark green circle are sessions along the lines of “I’ve noticed that X. I think this is a problem because Y. I’d like to talk about whether it is a problem and if so, what we can do.” These are the sessions that fulfill many of the same purposes that retrospectives fulfill in a team. The topic is set beforehand and everybody interested in it will self-select to attend. With the people there you build a shared understanding with many different views of the topic and explore different solutions.

Where are these sessions different from retrospectives?

  • In a team retrospective it’s clear who is going to attend. In an Open Space this is completely undefined. The upside: Everybody who is there wants to be there. The downside: No control over who is there.
    In some unfortunate sessions all the people, that are aware of a problem, take part but none of the people in positions to fix it, attend. (You can still act! But it will be along the lines of “What evidence do we need to show to whom to affect change?”)
  • You need someone to address a problem before you can work on it. For many people it will be more difficult to speak up in a company-wide event than in a team-sized event
  • Accountability for implementing actions is typically lower in large groups than in small ones
  • The session is facilitated by whoever suggests it whereas retrospectives often have a dedicated (and trained) facilitator. (Rarely a problem at sipgate because the level of hive-mind facilitation skills is really high.


The best way to hold a company-wide retrospective might look different from what you think. It certainly looks different from what I used to imagine.

In hindsight it’s quite ironic: “Open Friday” is easily the “hack” in my / the sipgate book “24 Work Hacks” that people get most excited about. That’s the one they want to copy. I was always a bit sad on behalf of retrospectives, because that would have been my pick. And it wasn’t until years later that I finally realized that people DO pick retrospectives, it’s just that they need something to address company-wide issues a lot more than something usually used at the team level. It makes total sense to me now. Most hard problems are bigger than a single team.

Since it took me so long to get to this major light bulb moment, I thought I’d share with you.

PS: You don’t need start holding an Open Space every 2 weeks to get the benefits. You can start a lot smaller. Find tips on Open (which was also written by me, back in the day).

“Scheduling” retrospectives with a Jenga Tower

“We don’t need regular retrospectives. Can’t we just do them, when we need them?”

In my mind that always translated to “We will not do retros while problems are small. We will wait until it’s way too late and our problems are very big and intimidating and much more difficult to resolve.”

But at Agile Coach Camp Germany 2023 Falk Kühnel told me of an interesting way to “schedule” retrospectives at irregular intervals and it’s the first time I think that it might work. You just need a Jenga tower.

You set up the tower in the team room and play a game of Jenga (pull a brick, put it on top of the tower) drawn out over several weeks. When the tower falls over that’s your cue to schedule a retrospective ASAP. You pull a brick when:

  • Daily standup is over
  • A “disruption” happens – A disruption is something annoying / hindering that the team wants to keep track of. If it happens often, the Jenga tower topples earlier and you talk about the pattern of disruptions. (What is considered a disruption should change over time as old issues get resolved and new ones arise.)
  • Someone feels a retrospective should happen earlier rather than later

There is also an emergency override: If something drastic happens that one of the team members think warrants a conversation right fucking now, they can topple the entire tower to make the retrospective happen ASAP.

This mechanism is the brainchild of Timo Zimmermann and it’s the first time I’m in love with any alternative to regular retrospectives. It has a time component, because at least one brick moves every day and then several ways to speed things up, according to the team’s needs. 

Timo shares that they’ve used the Jenga tower for more than a year and would have continued if Covid hadn’t happened. The tower’s success was underlined by the fact that the table it stood on was cluttered in the beginning and then gradually cleaned up as the tower got pride of place.

Other evidence: When they successfully solved a type of disruption, the team picked new ones. And the utterance “arg, nah, I don’t wanna do a retro” became a thing of the past.

Thank you, Timo & Falk for sharing with us!

Sneak Preview: Miro Templates

[Update: It’s done! Check out the Retromat Miroboard Mega Template!]

Ever since Covid hit, we use Miro at my work. A lot. For all our remote and hybrid retrospectives. To make preparing easier we’ve got a board with templates for about 30ish activities. It’s helpful but the collection is haphazard and they have very different looks to them.

So I got thinking… What if I made a template for each and every activity in Retromat, all 144 of them. Because I use Retromat to prep 99% of my retros. And it would fit my workflow beautifully: Pick activities that I like, find the template by its ID, copy it into a new board for the individual retro, maybe finishing touches like entering names, boom, done!

Behold the budding Retromat Mega-Template:

I’m 50 activities in and have already started using it. As I think it might be useful for other too, I’ll turn this into a product, when I’m done. (Paid Miro plans can export and import boards.)

The nice side effect of designing these as a product is that I build them a lot prettier than I would build a set for just myself. I’m known for my knowledge of methods, I’m not known for pretty boards … Well, until now!

Via the newsletter I found beta testers and have already improved based on their feedback. I think it’s gonna be great \o/

Are you using a digital whiteboard? Which tool? And do you also have a template board for quick preparation by copy-pasting?

Update: It’s done! Check out the Retromat Miroboard Mega Template!

What’s a good action item?

9 points that make follow-through more likely

tl;dr Small, concrete, team has control over it, clear first step, responsible person, follow-up date, success criteria; there are only a few AIs, visualize

Retrospectives are only meaningful if they result in change. Sometimes this change is sparked just by everyone reaching a better understanding of everyone else’s perspective. More often we reach change through experiments, i. e. by trying something new for a set period of time. Obviously, you would like your experiments to improve things, but they won’t always. You have to try out many things to find the ones that are an improvement and discard the rest.

Experiments come in two flavors:

  • Action Items (AIs) – concrete todos; usually one-time-tasks
Examples: “Invite the devops team to our refinement meeting”
  • Rule changes – how the team handles their interactions, routines, rituals or events; usually on-going and repeating
    • “everybody will answer these 3 questions in the daily standup”,
    • “we will groom upcoming stories every Wed 3pm”,
    • “we will prepare the product demo the day before the review”

I’m sloppy and use “action items” to mean both types – yes, also in this post. My recommendations apply to both types.

Okay, so we’re in a retrospective and try to come up with good experiments to try out. But what is a “good” action item?

For me, a good action item is something that has a high chance of actually being implemented by the team. You don’t get brownie points for coming up with ten AIs. You get points for those two AIs that you actually carry out and observe the results of.

Great. And what exactly increases the chances of follow-through for an AI? Glad you’re asking!


Aim for small experiments. Go for the smallest change that could possibly make a difference. Small changes are easier to agree on. They have a higher chance of actually being implemented, because they are not such a big effort. If an experiment works: Great! If it doesn’t you haven’t invested much and can try something else. Rinse and repeat for continuous improvement.

Continue reading “What’s a good action item?”

A Christmas/Holiday Retro

It’s getting christmassy in my corner of the world. Red, green, glittery. Old bearded men in red overalls 😉

So, just in case you are looking for ideas for a Christmas themed retro to end the year with, here’s the bonus Christmas retro from my book “Plans for Retrospectives“.

[Disclaimer: This plan is from a chapter on how to create custom activities and it is tailored to German holiday traditions. Adapt to your culture’s storylines as needed.]

A Christmas Retro

If you are physically in the same space, bring ginger bread, fir branches for the smell and flickering light to invoke the holiday spirit.

If it’s remote, set a cozy background image for the video call. I might go with a fireplace or a Christmas tree. If you’ve got a team that like’s to go all in, ask them to dress up – either truly festive or “Ugly Christmas Sweater” style.

When planning this retro I looked through all activities in “Set the stage” to make one christmassy. None seemed fitting. One search for “Christmas retrospective” later, I see Santa faces and voila:

Continue reading “A Christmas/Holiday Retro”

Improve your retrospectives with this 1 weird trick: Liftoffs

When health is concerned, preventing issues altogether is often easier than treating them once they manifest. The same can be said for retrospectives:

“In retrospectives we often make up for the fact that we didn’t have a liftoff”

Either Deborah Hartmann Preuss or Steve Holyer said that in a conversation and it rings true. Very few teams get a proper liftoff and they lose weeks and months of productivity to initial friction. In contrast, a proper liftoff sets up a team for success by laying a solid foundation of agreements and shared understandings. Then the team doesn’t have to spend their retrospectives patching up problems that could have been avoided.

What are liftoffs exactly?

You might know them as kickoffs, jump starts, launches or project starts – a meeting at the beginning of a team coming together and / or starting to work on something. I’m going with the name “liftoff” because of the book by the same name written by Diana Larsen and Ainsley Nies.

A huge chunk of “Liftoff” describes Agile Chartering as a way to clarify purpose, alignment and context of the team and work. Srinath Ramakrishnan summarises it like this:

“Agile chartering is a lightweight minimum documentation approach to creating initial understandings, agreements and alignment about the work and how it will be accomplished.”

A liftoff is a longer event, lasting from a day up to a week. All the necessary people take part, i.e. the team, the project sponsor and whoever else is needed to provide context and insights. Many liftoffs are also off-site which improves focus.

If you forgo a liftoff you often spend a lot of retrospectives on clarifying things that should have been clear from the get go. Of course, there are retro activities that can help, such as:

But you try to compensate for a lack of alignment in short stretches of time and typically with crucial people & their knowledge missing. You really wanna do liftoffs, trust me. Your retros will go a lot smoother.

So, what if you missed the start? The project is already underway and you find yourself with a team patching up cracks in the foundation instead of “clicking”? Well, it’s never too late to reboot with a mid-project liftoff to (re)gain footing.

Check out “Liftoff” for details on how to run one 🙂

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

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.”

Continue reading “What can you do if retrospectives repeatedly go wrong?”

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.

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