The Best Retrospective for Beginners

(Don’t know what a retrospective is? Start here!)

Are you new to facilitating retrospectives? Then you’re probably wondering how to best get started. For what it’s worth, here’s my “Given that I know nothing about you or the team’s situation here’s my best shot at a multi-purpose, easy to facilitate retrospective plan”:

Positive & True
Why: Create a positive vibe and give everyone an opportunity to speak.
How: Ask your neighbor a question that is tailored to get a response that is positive, true and about their own experiences, e.g.

  • What have you done really well in the last iteration?
  • What is something that makes you really happy?
  • What were you most happy about yesterday?

Then your neighbor asks their neighbor on the other side the same question and so on until everyone has answered and asked.

This will give everyone a boost and lead to better results.

Learning Matrix combined with Lean Coffee
Learning Matrix is a great multi-purpose method that has “appreciation for others” built-in. I use it to gather topics and then use Lean Coffee to structure and time box the conversations about these topics. I rely on Lean Coffee a lot!
How: Show a flip chart with 4 quadrants labeled ‘:)’, ‘:(‘, ‘Idea!’, and ‘Appreciation’. Hand out sticky notes.

  • The team members can add their input to any quadrant. One thought per sticky note.
  • Go around the team and let everyone put up their stickies on the flipchart. The person also  describes their topic in 1 or 2 sentences. Group stickies that are about the same topic.
  • Hand out 5 dots for people to vote on the most important issues, the ones they’d like to discuss. They can distribute the dots any way they like, i.e. they can also put them all on one topic if they want.
  • Order the stickies according to votes.
  • Say how much time you set aside for this phase and then explain the rules:
    We’ll start with the topic of highest interest. We’ll set a timer for 10 minutes. When the timer beeps, everyone gives a quick thumbs up or down. Majority of thumbs up: The topic gets another 5 minutes. Majority of thumbs down: Start the next topic with 10 minutes on the clock.
  • Stop when the allotted time is over.

Worked Well, Do Differently
Keep track of suggested action items
How: In preparation for the retrospective head 2 flip charts with ‘Worked well’ and ‘Do differently next time’ respectively. Write down suggestions for actions that people mention during Lean Coffee. State clearly that these are only suggestions for now. The team will vote on these later.

When all Lean Coffee time is talked up, ask if there are any more suggestions for actions. If so, let them write in silence for a few minutes – 1 idea per index card.. Let everyone read out their notes and post them to the appropriate category. Lead a short discussion on what the top 20% beneficial ideas are. Vote on which action items to try by distributing dots or X’s with a marker, e.g. 3 dots for each person to distribute. The top 2 or 3 become your action items.

Why: Demonstrate the usefulness of retrospectives by asking for learnings.
How: Throw a ball (e.g. koosh ball) around the team to uncover learning experiences. Give out a question at the beginning that people answer when they catch the ball, such as:

  • One thing I learned in the last iteration

Depending on the question it might uncover events that are bugging people. If any alarm bells go off, dig a little deeper.

You need at least 1 hour of time.

If you’re new to facilitation in general, not just for retros, check out this 1-pager on ways to vote.

In many, many situations the above plan will result in a nice, effective retrospective for you and your team.

To get a better understanding of retrospectives, make sure to read Agile Retrospectives. (If you prefer reading in German, check out Erfolgreiche Retrospektiven.)

Facilitate a few retros to gain experience and when you run out of ideas, Retromat is always there to help. Just don’t use the first random plan you get. Adapt it to your and your team’s needs! For example the above plan in Retromat looks like this.

PS: Interested in retrospectives? Sign up to the Retromat newsletter to get related news and tricks!

7 Comments The Best Retrospective for Beginners

  1. Martin Burger

    I think in your “best shot at a multi-purpose, easy to facilitate retrospective plan”, you accidentally swapped activities “Generate Insights” (Learning Matrix) and “Gather Data” (Lean Coffee), didn’t you?

    1. Corinna Baldauf

      Not really. I sometimes find it very hard to decide whether an activity is “Gather Data” or “Generate Insight”. “Learning matrix” kind of contains both phases. It could also have gone into the “Gather Data” bucket 🙂

      That’s actually why I think this concrete plan is valuable: It shows that phases are not fixed and that activities can be combined.

  2. Rick Waters

    I believe that, like all discussions, great Retrospectives float back-and-forth between the phases at times. As we Generate Insights we may Gather (more/new) Data; as we Decide What To Do we may Generate (more/new) Insights. As long as the Retro provides value in Continually Improving, I wouldn’t get too caught up in which exercises are geared toward which phase(s).

    That being said, I have tremendous respect for the 5 Retro phases and believe that inexperienced teams should practice giving each phase attention in order.

  3. Banks Dada

    Its actually pretty awesome when we can make the scrum ceremonies interactive, fun and engaging.

    Love this, will have to get the retromat.
    Thanks for getting this started Corinna

  4. Stanley

    Now that we all know how to conduct a “retrospective”, how would a newly qualified Scrum Master, not from a development or design background understand what is technically important to the software industry? This is where i found a lot of difficulty running a retrospective as a scrum master with a digital marketing background without software development

    1. Corinna Baldauf

      Hm, when I facilitate I see myself as content agnostic. I hold the space, I do not need to understand the subject matter the team is talking about.
      Additionally, retrospectives are there to talk about how we work together as people. Sometimes that includes technical practices but not that often.

      That being said, I do have a technical background so I may be unaware if I use it.

      So I don’t see a lack of a tech background as a problem in retros. I do think it might become a problem during the other SM work if one is not able to see which technical practices would help the team and get them coaching for it (I’m thinking pair programming, TDD, …).

      Which problems exactly do you encounter?


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