The “Let’s Talk About The Elephant In The Room” Retrospective

Retrospectives are one of the most important Agile meetings — it’s at the heart of the “inspect and adapt” philosophy that enables continuous improvement and ongoing growth for teams.

  1. We’ll take 5 minutes to brainstorm 1–2 things per person.
  2. We’ll present the topics to one another, taking 1–2 minutes to give context and explain each one.
  3. We’ll decide on 1–2 topics to focus our discussions on.
  4. We’ll discuss the topics and decide on action items, if any.
  • Share the agenda ahead of time so the team doesn’t feel blindsided at the start — nothing is worse than being asked on the spot to share your feelings about sensitive topics. Be cool and give them time to to prepare.
  • If your team is working remotely, and even if you’re not, stop killing trees and use helpful tools like FunRetro or Google’s Jamboard.
  • The brainstorming should be done individually and in silence (although my teams like to play music during these moments to ease the awkwardness of the moment). This dedicated time gives people space to write down their own ideas and not be influenced by others. It also ensures that every single person has a chance to contribute to the conversation and be overshadowed by more dominant team members.
  • Time boxing the initial presentation of the ideas forces people to be brief and to the point. Don’t be too hard on the time limits — allow the team to ask clarifying questions to ensure they understand each others’ points— but keep the team from veering into a deep discussion right away.
  • As topics are presented, group the ones that are similar in theme. Perhaps take a moment to point out how aligned they are in their thinking.
  • To choose the focus topics, have the team vote. Tally votes and choose the 1 or two topics maximum to discuss more in depth. For added fun, you can take an “applause meter” approach and get them to clap for the points they want to discuss the most. It’s goofy but could help keep the mood in the room light — an approach that obviously won’t work or be appropriate in many situations, but I’m a fan of keeping my retros full of humour.
  • For the discussions, take your usual moderator stance, and give the team space to hash out discussions. If your team is using video, observe the body language of participants, ask questions if something seems unclear, etc. Only jump in when talks go offtrack or start to feel unproductive. Stimulate discussion with questions that will enhance the conversation. Maybe add some of your own commentary, if relevant.
  • In some cases, these discussions may simply serve as a venting or a “getting on the same page” exercise for the team. As such, action items may not always emerge. If the identified problems are beyond the team’s influence, you may simply share the feedback with people who have power to make change. As the discussion for my team went on, I started to note some possible action points and shared it with them after the conversation winded down. We chose to move on some of them and took a pass on others.
  • This format can obviously be applied outside of Agile retrospectives. You can use this exercise to spark conversation for any team, regardless of whether they practice Agile or not.

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A Canadian from Toronto in Berlin. Agile coach working in tech. Travel blogger @cherylhowardcom.

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Cheryl Howard

A Canadian from Toronto in Berlin. Agile coach working in tech. Travel blogger @cherylhowardcom.