How to Fight Retrospective Fatigue

Inspiration, facilitation techniques, and tooling for your next retrospective!
Yawning cat

It’s the end of a sprint. You’re sitting in a barren meeting room. Small stacks of colorful, still empty sticky notes and black markers lie on the desk that occupies most of the room. The moderator opens the Sprint Retrospective by asking their never-changing questions in the usual calm, routine manner: “What went well this past sprint? What didn’t?” One team member joins the session seven minutes late, another doesn’t show up at all because of a conflicting, supposedly more important meeting. As the session continues, you notice colleagues secretly glancing at their watches or yawning. No comment sparks a real discussion. No one cracks a joke. The meeting finishes ahead of time. The team has filled a mere dozen or so sticky notes. One colleague in the back has neither said nor written a single word the entire time. Just before leaving the room, the team half-heartedly commits to a few actions for further improvement. You expect these actions will be forgotten already tomorrow when the busyness of the new sprint kicks in.

Does this sound familiar to you? Then, you and your team might be suffering from Retrospective Fatigue. In this post, we are going to show you how you can fight it!

“What went well this past sprint? What didn’t?” are popular questions for running Sprint Retrospectives. In our team, we discarded them more than a year ago and never looked back. While our Sprint Retrospectives were never as dull as the introduction above suggests (that was just click bait to get you to read this article 😈), we found ways to make them tremendously more engaging and effective.

What helped us was introducing variety and creativity to the sessions. Over the past 1.5 years, in our Sprint Retrospectives, we went sailing, visited a circus, traveled to Tanzania, fought zombies, and embarked on many other adventures.

Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all its flavour. (William Cowper)

At the same time, we established a structure that ensured actionable outcomes regardless of how crazy creative the theme of the session was:

  1. Set the stage
  2. Gather data
  3. Generate insights
  4. Decide what to do
  5. Close the retro

Note: We borrowed this structure from Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great.

Below, we share three examples of our team’s past Sprint Retrospectives. We close the blog post with some remarks on facilitation techniques, tooling, and useful resources. It’s a dense read, packed with inspiration for your next sprint retrospectives! If you are impatient, you may skip ahead to example 1 “A Visit to the Circus”, example 2 “Voyage on the High Seas”, example 3 “Dramatic Failures”, or the closing remarks on facilitation techniques, tooling, and resources.

Example 1: A visit to the Circus

Setting the Stage

This was the first retrospective, in which we relied on the participants’ imaginative powers: We imagined our diverse and interdisciplinary team to be a group of artists performing together in a circus. 

The facilitator then asked every participant to choose what artist or act described their work over the past cycle the best and to give a brief, verbal explanation:

  • Knife Thrower – “I worked with precision.”
  • Juggler – “I was multi-tasking a lot.”
  • Clown – “I created a good atmosphere.”
  • Lion Tamer – “I dealt with threats.”
  • Tightrope Walker or Equilibrist – “My work was well-balanced.”
  • Spectator – “I made no contribution.”
A flip chart with six circus artists and the team’s votes

Note: Inspiration for this was the ESVP exercise of the Retromat.

Gathering Data

Participants were asked to write the Internet reviews, including a star rating, that our performance would have gotten from spectators that attended our show. The review cards were collected, shuffled, and “dealt out” again. Each participant shared the review that they got dealt by reading it out loud.

A review of the "circus performance"
A review of the “circus performance”
A second review of the "circus performance"
A second review of the “circus performance”

Note: Inspiration for this was the Amazon review exercise of the Retromat. Pictures and names of the spectators on the empty review cards were created with random user generators.

Generating Insights

Each participant was asked to propose 1 – 3 actions that they thought would get the review they had been dealt to the best possible rating of 5 stars.

Deciding What to Do

The participants were asked to collaboratively cluster the proposed actions and dot-vote on the clusters. They then refined the top 3 most voted clusters into actions and committed to implementing them until the next Retrospective.

Closing the Retro

To close the Retrospective, the facilitator gathered feedback from the participants on the session itself. They were asked to throw knives (metaphorically speaking, of course 😇) on a flip chart with two targets. The placement of the “knives” indicated whether the discussed topics were important to the participants and whether they felt they could speak openly during our session.

Two feedback targets with "knife marks"
Two feedback targets with “knife marks”

Note: We found this feedback exercise, Retro Dart, on the Retromat.

Example 2: Voyage on the High Seas

Setting the Stage

In preparation of this session, the facilitator drew a map with a dashed red line that represented the team’s journey. As the destination of this journey, the facilitator chose our team’s mission statement.

The participants were asked to place a mark anywhere on the map (yes, even off course), indicating how far along they felt we were on our journey towards implementing our team’s mission.

A map of the team’s journey with their markers

Gathering Data

The moderator then presented another drawing. Participants were asked to write statements that fit into one of five categories and place the sticky notes on the drawing.

  • wind = speeds us up
  • sun = appreciation
  • island = opportunities
  • anchor = slows us down
  • rocks = risks
A drawing of a sea voyage
A drawing of a sea voyage

Note: We found this exercise in the Spotify Retro Kit.

Generating Insights

The participants formed five groups, one for each category. The groups were asked to propose at least one action that the team should take to address one or more statements in the respective category.

Deciding What to Do

The participants dot-voted on the proposed actions and committed to the top three most voted ones.

Closing the Retro

We adapted the exercise from the previous retro. This time, though, the facilitator handed out sheets with the targets printed on them. This allowed the participants to provide their feedback anonymously. We continue to use this feedback sheet until today.

Example 3: Dramatic Failures

Note: The Liberating Structure TRIZ served as inspiration for this Retrospective.

Setting the Stage

The moderator gave the group three pictures:

  1. a model of the Swedish warship “Vasa” from the 17th century
  2. a photograph of the German airship LZ 129 Hindenburg from 1936
  3. a painting of the British passenger liner Titanic from 1912

The participants were asked to identify the vehicles and find a connection between them. The Vasa foundered after sailing for roughly 20 minutes on its maiden voyage. 14 months after its first flight, the Hindenburg was destroyed by fire while attempting to land. The Titanic collided with an iceberg and sank, also on its maiden voyage.

The connection was apparent to everyone: All three were high profile projects that people had high expectations towards – and they all failed quite dramatically.

For this Sprint Retrospective, the facilitator invited the participants to embrace failure. More specifically, we were encouraged to embrace the failure of the project our team was working on at the time.

Gathering Data

The participants were asked what actions they can deliberately take so that their project would certainly fail. They formed pairs and brainstormed possible actions, writing one action statement per sticky note.

Next, the participants were asked to identify behaviors that the team was displaying in past cycles and which resembled the actions listed before in any shape or form. Again, the participants formed pairs and wrote sticky notes.

Generating Insights

The participants were then asked to propose steps that the team could take to stop these disadvantageous behaviors. They noted down their proposals on sticky notes.

Deciding What to Do

The participants were asked to collaboratively cluster the proposed steps and then dot-vote on them. They refined the top 3 most voted clusters into actions and committed to implementing them.

Closing the Retro

The participants filled out the anonymous feedback sheet introduced in earlier Retrospectives.

Facilitation techniques, tooling, and resources

For running your Retrospective, you can employ many different facilitation techniques. As much as the variety of themes helped to keep our Retrospective sessions engaging, a variety of facilitation techniques supported this. Here are some examples:

  • For quick decision-making, we usually use dot-voting. When dot-voting, you need to watch out for its potential caveats, though!
  • We borrowed from Improv Theatre and encouraged participants to build on the comments of others by forcing them to begin every single statement with “Yes, and …”.
  • We asked participants to draw pictures of the past cycle.
  • We asked participants to create mood timelines, depicting how they experienced the past cycle.
  • We borrowed from feedback trainings and asked participants to categorize their statements according to faces of playing cards (hearts = positive, but general and vague feedback; diamonds = positive, specific feedback; clubs = negative, but general and vague feedback; spades = negative and specific feedback). We then supported them in transforming their hearts into diamonds and their clubs into spades.
  • We ran silent retrospectives, in which all discussions were held in written form. This can help to get quieter folks to contribute equally (if all participants have comparable writing skills in the corporate language).

Honestly, it does not need much tooling to run effective Retrospectives. Flip charts, sticky notes, and thick markers are usually sufficient. If you do want to go beyond that, we have found the following tools helpful:

  • Mentimeter for conducting a silent Retrospective
  • The Scrum Check List by Henrik Kniberg can serve as a guide to review your implementation of Scrum
  • The Zombie Scrum Symptoms Checker by the Liberators helps to evaluate whether your implementation of Scrum is healthy and effective and provides you with actionable feedback

As you have seen in the notes scattered throughout this blog post, we draw inspiration from many places when preparing a Sprint Retrospective. These are the resources we refer to most often:

Last but not least, we found that the room in which we conduct the Sprint Retrospective session can influence the engagement of the participants. Traditional meeting rooms with a large desk as its centrepiece, comfortable chairs, and tech that unnecessarily occupies space (such as conference phones, big screens, and monitor cables with adapters) can be impedimental. The room pictured below provides space for the participants to move around more freely, whiteboards to draw on, and a standing desk with bar chairs to the side of the room to sit at when needed.

A meeting room that fosters collaboration
A meeting room that fosters collaboration

A note of caution

When you made it through this long blog post, we hope you found some inspiration for your next Sprint Retrospective.

One note of caution, though: All the creative themes, the engaging facilitation techniques, and the best tooling are to no avail if the team does not follow up and implement the actions that were agreed on during a Sprint Retrospective. We quickly realised that the implementation afterwards can be even harder than conducting an effective Retrospective session. We certainly got better at this but still struggle from time to time.

Photo by Tim van der Kuip on Unsplash

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