Agile Games

Looking Glass Development provides these Agile games in an effort to further your practice.  They are provided without warranty.  Many of them come from Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great, by Esther Derby, Diana Larsen, Ken Schwaber.  We also recommend you visit the websites listed in our PM Resources section of this site.

Here is how the Triple Nickels works : the team sits in a circle.  If the team is too big, you make 2 or more circles (4 or 5 persons per circle is good).  Each team member writes its ideas about the topic you are brainstorming.  After 5 minutes, everybody give its paper to the person on its right.  That person will then read the thinking of its colleague and complete or responds.  After 5 more minutes, they move again the papers to their right and we continue the process until the papers come back to their original writers.

At this stage, everyone has normally expressed his idea, and everyone has read and reply to the most ideas of the others.   You can then debrief with the entire team, with already a better understanding of the topics and of the ideas on the table.

Use this in conjunction with a timeline to gather data about feelings in a longer iteration, release, or project retrospective.

Purpose

Show how people experienced events on the timeline.

Time Needed

Five to twenty minutes.

Description

Team members use sticky dots to show events on the timeline where emotions ran high or low.

Steps

After all the events are on the timeline and the team has done a quick review, individuals use colored dots to show where their energy was high or low.

  1. Set up the activity by saying “Now that we’ve seen the facts, let’s see how it was to be doing this work.”
  2. Provide each individual with dots in two colors. Start with seven to ten dots per person but have more available. Explain which color indicates high energy and which indicates low energy.
  3. Ask each person to use the dots to show where energy was high and where energy was stalled, flagging, or at low ebb.

Materials and Preparation

Sticky dots 1/2 to 3/4 inches in diameter in two colors. 

Decide which color will indicate high energy and which will indicate low energy.

Variations

Instead of using dots to indicate high or low energy, use dots to indicate positive or negative events.

Examples

When you have limited time, this technique filters topics for discussion: 

  1. Investigate events that have many high energy or positive dots to learn what factors create that state.
  2. Investigate low energy/negative events to learn what precipitated the event, and how the team resolved the situation.
  3. Look at areas where there’s a split (as with Carly’s card in Chapter 1) to learn about the different perspectives.

A basic, “no gimmicks” retrospective plan, with a slight lean towards breadth over depth in terms of discussing issues.

Length of time:

Up to 60 minutes.

Short Description:

Issues, changes or observations made during a sprint are listed by all participants and then categorized as either Glad, Sad or Mad. These broadly represent positive notes about the sprint/team, negative notes about the sprint/team, and “gripes” (which are often more broad than just actions of the team), respectively. Participants then vote on the issues to be discussed and the issues are then discussed from highest to lowest number of votes until all issues have been discussed or there is no time remaining.

Materials:

Index cards, flipchart/whiteboard, pens

Process:

The participants each separately write notes on observations they have made regarding the previous sprint. These notes should be brief and written on small index cards. Examples might be “Renderer optimization completed ahead of schedule” or “JIRA task descriptions are not very clear”. The notes can be on good or bad observations. They can reflect changes in this sprint or a persistent issue. Importantly, they should not be limited to only actions of the team members. For example, an observation might be “Still waiting for IT to grant access to the shared folder”. This activity is time-boxed to 10 or 15 minutes.

The next step is that participants each in turn describe their cards and place each card on the whiteboard. The description of each card should be very brief; only enough so that the team members understand the meaning of the card. Furthermore, team members must not interrupt except to ask for further clarification (i.e. there should be no acceptance or rejection of ideas at this stage).

The whiteboard is divided into 3 columns titled Glad, Sad and Mad (alternatively, smilies can be used), and each note must be placed into one of the columns based on how that observation makes the person feel. Obviously Sad and Mad both cover negative issues, the distinction is useful however because the “Mad” column encourages team members to think of issues that may be external to the team, but which nonetheless impacted the sprint. Even an issue as apparently off-topic as difficulty finding a parking space in the morning, could be something that affects many team members and could potentially be actioned. Placing cards on the board should be timeboxed to 10 or 15 minutes.

The cards are then grouped; issues which essentially refer to the same thing are moved physically together, which should take less than 5 minutes. A single person must take responsibility for performing this grouping.

The next step is that all participants vote on which (grouped) issues to discuss further. The quickest way to perform this vote is that each person marks the cards that they wish to discuss, for example with a circle, and every person can only mark so many cards. A typical limit is 5 cards. This voting can be performed in parallel, so less than 10 minutes should be adequate.

Finally, the “chair” of the retrospective (often the Scrum Master), leads a discussion of the issues in descending order of number of votes. At this point participants can agree or disagree with the observation, but the discussion should primarily be focused on actions that can be performed in the next sprint. Even in the case of “Glad” issues, there may be actions that could build on that success. The discussion ends when the 1 hour is up, or all issues have been discussed (whichever happens first).

Use this to gather data about facts and feelings on longer iteration, release, and project retrospectives. Follow with the Identify Themes activity to generate insights.   

Purpose

Identify strengths so the team can build on them in the next iteration. Provide balance when an iteration, release, or project hasn’t gone well.

Time Needed

Fifteen to forty minutes for the Locate Strengths activity, depending on the number of questions in the interview. Allow twenty to forty more to identify themes. The total for the two activities is thirty to ninety minutes.

Description

Team members interview each other about high points on the project. The goal is to understand the sources and circumstances that created those high point (Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination [WM01]).

Steps

Introduce the activity by saying “We learn by asking questions. We learn the most about the things we ask the most questions about. Since we want to learn about having successful iterations (release/projects), let’s take time to ask each other questions about high points.” 

  1. Form pairs. If it’s possible, pair people who don’t know each other’s job well or don’t work together often. If there’s an odd number, have one trio. Hand out the interview questions.
  2. Explain the interview process:
    1. Stay curious.
    2. Give the speaker your full attention.
    3. Take notes to remember key points.
    4. Listen for stories and quotes to share.
    5. This isn’t a conversation—the interviewer asks questions and listens without interjecting his or her own story.
    6. When the first interview is finished, switch roles.
  3. Have the pairs choose who will interview first. Monitor the time, and ring a chime or make an announcement when half the time has elapsed. Say, “If you haven’t started your second interview, start it soon.”
  4. At the end of the interviews, segue to the Identify Themes activity.

Materials and Preparation

Prepare questions ahead of time, and make enough copies for each person to have one. 

Questions follow this format: 

  1. Ask about what attracted the person to his or her profession or to the company.
  2. Ask about a high point on the iteration/release/project where the person was at his or her best.
  3. Ask what made it a high point.
  4. Ask who else was present and what the circumstances were.
  5. Ask about wishes for future projects.

Examples

 Here’s an example of an interview: 

“Tell me about what attracted you to this company.” 

“In every release (iteration or project), there are high points when things just click. Think back over our last release. (Pause.) Tell me a story about one of your highlight moments.”

“What were the circumstances?”

“Who else contributed?”

“If you had three wishes to make our next [iteration, release, project] better, what would they be?”

A short interview like this one will take about fifteen minutes per person. Adding more questions adds to the interview time. If you do add questions, follow the same general outline, probing for more detail about the high point situation. 

This is a good activity when people are feeling downtrodden. It helps them remember that even dismal iterations have good moments. Focusing on high points helps people become conscious about re-creating the circumstances behind them. The problems will still come out, but they come out with less depression and rancor.

Use this after locating strengths to generate insights in a longer iteration, release, or project retrospective.   

Purpose

Find common threads from Locate Strengths interviews. Discern compelling ideas for experiments, changes, and recommendations.

Time Needed

One to two hours.

Description

After Locate Strengths interviews, the interview pairs form groups and report what each learned as they interviewed the other person. As they report the high points, team members listen for common themes and compelling ideas. After the identifying themes, the group clusters all the cards. Small groups self-select to further define the ideas contained in the cluster.

Steps

  1. After interviews are complete, put two or three interview pairs together to form a group of four or six. Keep interview pairs together.
  2. Explain the process.

 

“Each interviewer will report on what he or she heard during the interview. Don’t worry about reporting the interview verbatim or covering all the points. Report on memorable themes, stories, and quotes heard in the interview.” 

“After all the stories have been recounted, discuss the common themes that came up in more than one interview. Make a note of compelling ideas—even if they came up in only one report.” 

 

“Write each idea on a large index card. Write legibly so others can read the card. One idea per card.”

 

  1. Each group reports on the themes they heard and posts their cards on a wall or spreads them out on the floor.
  2. After all the groups have reported, the entire group sorts the cards in like clusters.
  3. Ask people to select a cluster that they want to work on refining. It’s OK if no one chooses some of the clusters.
  4. Small groups work on further defining steps for building on the strength themes.
  5. Groups report on their work, which will become candidates for further planning, experiments, and recommendations in the Decide What to Do phase.

Materials and Preparation

This activity follows the Locate Strengths interview activity. 

Large index cards and markers. Repositionable tape or tacky stuff to do the sorting on the wall.

Examples

A while back, we worked with a large group who were looking at how to make changes in their organization. One part of the group insisted that the best approach was to list all the problems and then identify solutions. Rather than fight with them, we let them go their way and worked with the rest of the group using interviews and identifying themes.  After two hours, the problem-solving group was drained, depressed, and ready to give up the whole enterprise. 

Our group was energized and hopeful. 

Coincidence? You decide.

Purpose

Highlight how satisfied team members are with a focus area. Provide a visual picture of current status in a particular area to help the team have deeper discussions and analysis. Acknowledge differences in perspective among team members.

Time needed

Five to ten minutes.

Description

Team members use a histogram to gauge individual and group satisfaction with practices and process.

Steps

  1. Introduce the activity by saying “Today we’ll create a baseline measure of our level of satisfaction with the way we work together. We can repeat this activity in future iteration retrospectives to track our progress.”
  2. Show the flip charts to the team, read the definitions, and hand out index cards or other identical small slips of paper, one to each team member. “Please write a number on your card that tells your level of satisfaction on the team right now. Then fold the card, and put it in a pile here.” 
  3. Stir the pile of cards, and ask for a volunteer to color in the graph as you read them. Read the number on each card. Wait for the tally before going on to the next.
  4. Read the results from the graph. Ask for comments.
  5. You may comment on the data yourself: “It seems we have three people who are very satisfied on this team and two who aren’t, and the rest of us are somewhere in the middle. As we continue with our retrospective, we can keep these results in mind as we choose experiments for the next iteration. We’ll check back to remeasure in a few iterations.”

Materials and Preparation

Prepare two flip charts. On one flip chart write numbers 1 through 5 in descending order with the following definitions, or your own variations (see Figure 9, Post the definitions for the satisfaction rating). On the other flip chart, write numbers one through five down the left margin with rows of boxes to fill in as you tally the votes (see Figure 10, Satisfaction histogram).

Variations

Process is just one possibility for a satisfaction histogram. Some other possibilities are quality of the product, interactions outside the team, or engineering practices.

Where We’re At Variation         

Use this variation to set the stage for a retrospective. Change the five definitions to ask about the overall level of satisfaction with the iteration or ask about team member’s satisfaction with how the day has started. 

For example:

  • “5 = The way this day has started, it may be the best day of my life. I’m extremely satisfied.”
  • “4 = I’ve had a good start to the day. I’m quite satisfied with it so far.”
  • “3 = This day has started okay. I’m moderately satisfied with it.”
  • “2 = This day started slightly worse than most days. I’m only a little satisfied with it.”
  • “1 = I got up on the wrong side of the bed and nothing has gone right yet. I am not satisfied with how the day has started.”

The data shown on this histogram creates an opportunity for the team to discuss different perceptions of how well they are working together. 

Examples

This activity is a quick and painless way to uncover emotional data without the F word. It can be interesting to use two histograms on different factors, such as satisfaction with the product and satisfaction with process. One group we worked with was highly satisfied with their process but not satisfied with the resulting product. Another team was the opposite: satisfied with the product but unsatisfied with the way they achieved a good result with the product.      

In the first case, team members had been hiding their dissatisfaction with the product to avoid hurting feelings. After seeing the histogram, the team had frank discussions about how they avoided conflict. Over the next few iterations, they were more direct with each other. When the team rechecked their satisfaction two months later, they were more satisfied on both measures. 

The second team (satisfied with product, dissatisfied with process) examined their engineering practices and how they contributed to defects and extra work. They identified experiments to improve engineering practices.

Purpose

Help the team gauge how well they are doing on a variety of measures, such as, engineering practices, team values, or other processes.

Time Needed

Fifteen to twenty minutes.

Description

Team members track individual and group ratings for specific factors about process or development practices they want to examine.

Steps

  1. Introduce the activity by saying “We agreed on these [fill in the factors] as important to our work. Let’s assess how well we are doing, using a scale of 0–10. Zero means not at all, and 10 means as much as possible.”
  2. Post the flip chart with the blank radar graph. Ask each team member to approach the chart and place a dot or some other mark that shows their rating for each factor.
  3. Lead a short discussion about how the factors affect the work of the team. Consider asking questions such as the following:
    1. Where do you see us following these [fill in factors]?
    2. Where do you not see us following these [fill in the factors]?

Use the short discussion as a segue to generating insights. 

  1. Save the completed flip chart graph. Run the activity again two or three iterations later. Compare the two charts as a progress measure.

Materials and Preparation

This team used the Group Average Radar to gauge how much they were following their team values.

If you know ahead of time what the team will measure using the radar chart, draw the spokes and label them ahead of time (See Figure 11, Team radar). If the team will brainstorm the measures during the retrospective, draw the radar chart during the retrospective.

Variations

You can use this activity to measure many different factors, such as, engineering practices, team values, working agreements, methods, and so forth.

Group Average Radar         

This variation is an ongoing measure of progress on a particular measure. Use the radar chart but instead of collecting individual responses, calculate the group average for each measure. 

Hand each team member a set of colored cards, one for each factor measured. Ask each person to rate each factor from 0–10 and hand the card to you. Shuffle the cards (within colors) as you receive them so it’s not clear which card came from a particular team member. 

Recruit a team member to help with calculating averages. Post the averages on the radar arms. Connect the dots, and color in the area under the line (optional). 

Prepare a set of index cards in different colors for each team member. Write the name of one measure on all the cards of a single color. So if you are measuring team values (as in Figure 11, Team radar), all the green cards would have “Communication” written on one side, all the blue cards would have “Courage”, and so on. Each team member receives a set of cards that includes each factor measured.

Examples

Team Radar is a subjective measure that’s intended to generate discussion. This is especially useful when you suspect there’s no common definition or criteria to measure against.

For example, one team used a radar to examine how team members perceived their use of a number of engineering practices, including refactoring. One team member rated their refactoring 8; another rated it at 3. During the discussion that followed, it became clear that each had different ideas on when to refactor. Further, the team member who rated her refactoring low was upset with the team member who rated his refactoring high because he was “slacking off by not refactoring enough.” By the end of the retrospective, the team arrived at a common definition. Over the next few iterations, the team was more consistent in when they refactored, and resentment faded.

Purpose

Help team members recall their experiences during the iteration (release or project), and hear that others may have perceived it differently.     

Time Needed

Thirty to forty minutes.

Description

Team members take turns judging which events or factors about their iteration are the best fits for quality cards. As the cards are evaluated, team members learn about each other’s perspective on the same events or conditions.

Steps

  1. Ask each team member to write at least nine index cards for playing the Like to Like game: three or more cards with things to stop doing three or more cards with things to keep doing and three or more things to start doing. While team members are writing, shuffle the deck of colored “quality” cards and lay the pile face down on a table.
  2. When the game cards are ready, invite the team to stand around the table. Choose one person to start as “judge.” The “judge” turns over a “quality” card from the pile and puts it face up on the table. All other team members look in their game cards for the one that most closely matches the “quality” card and place their cards face down. The last card down is disqualified and returns to its owner’s hand. This keeps the game moving.
  3. The “judge” stirs the players’ cards, turns them over one at a time, and reads them. He or she chooses the card that makes the best match with the “quality” card. The author of that card wins the “quality” card.
  4. The role of “judge” passes left to the next person, and another “quality” card is turned over. After six to nine rounds (or whenever everyone runs out of cards), the game ends. The person with the most “quality” cards wins.
  5. Debrief the activity with the four-step method.

Materials and Preparation

Buy or borrow an Apples to Apples game, and play it with your friends or family to get the idea of Like to Like.

 

Blank index cards for the participants (at least nine for every person).

 

Prepare a set of approximately twenty “quality” cards on yellow (or other color) index cards. Write one word on each card. These cards have the words Fun, On Time, Clear, Meaningful, Affordable, Integrated, Educational, Talented, Smooth, Cool, Speedy, Collaborative, Awesome, Trustworthy, Dangerous, Frustrating, Creepy, Nasty or others. Include some “serious” words like on time, and some “fun” words like cool or nasty. It keeps the game less predictable, more insightful and more enjoyable.

 

Variations

 

For XP projects, combine this game with the Industrial Logic[1] XP cards. Deal the XP cards, and let people play them instead of writing their own cards, in the sense of “The way we did X embodies this quality” (so a team member might play “Planning Game” on “Frustrating” if that week’s session went poorly, but wouldn’t play “Integrations take too long” if they didn’t.)

 

Example

A storage solutions software team played the Like to Like game in their release retrospective. Team members discovered that game cards about communication and lab procedures were consistently matched with undesirable quality cards. As the “judges” considered their choices and team member advocated for game cards, they told stories about how decisions got made and communicated.

 

In planning action items for the next release, team members listed their top three priorities: improve communication with the core team about expectations, increase contact with internal customers, and bring new team members up to speed more quickly. They also made a recommendation to their managers to start new distributed project teams with an initial face-to-face meeting.

Purpose

Focus people on the work of the retrospective. Understand people’s attitudes to the retrospective.

 

Time Needed

Ten to fifteen minutes.

 

Description

Each participant reports (anonymously) his or her attitude toward the retrospective as an Explorer, Shopper, Vacationer, or Prisoner (ESVP). The retrospective leader collects the results and creates a histogram to show the data, and then guides a discussion about what the results mean for the group.

 

Steps

  1. Explain that you are taking a poll to learn about how people view their participation in the retrospective.
  2. Show the flip chart and define the terms:
    1. Explorers are eager to discover new ideas and insights. They want to learn everything they can about the iteration/release/project.
    2. Shoppers will look over all the available information, and will be happy to go home with one useful new idea.
    3. Vacationers aren’t interested in the work of the retrospective, but are happy to be away from the daily grind. They may pay attention some of the time, but they are mostly glad to be out of the office.
    4. Prisoners feel that they’ve been forced to attend and would rather be doing something else.
  3. Distribute slips of paper or small index cards for people to record their attitude toward learning in the retrospective today. Instruct people to fold their paper in half for privacy.
  4. As people finish writing and folding, collect the slips and shuffle them.
  5. Ask one of the participants to make tick marks on the histogram as you read the slips. After you read each slip, put them in your pocket. When you’ve read all the slips, tear them up and throw them away. Be conspicuous about this so people know that no one will try to identify who responded with what from the handwriting.
  6. Ask the group, “What do you make of this data?” Then lead a brief discussion about how the attitudes in the room will affect the retrospective.
  7. Debrief by asking “How are these categories like our attitudes toward daily work?”

Materials and Preparation

Voting slips or index cards and pencils or pens. 

A flip chart prepared for the histogram.

Examples

Here’s a completed histogram from an iteration retrospective. Most of the team is interested in learning from the retrospective (Explorers and Shoppers). There’s one Vacationer—and that’s OK.

If the majority of the people in the room are Vacationers, that’s interesting information about how people feel about their work environment. You may want turn on a dime and make that the major topic of discussion for the retrospective! 

In the example in Figure 6, ESVP activity, no one feels like a Prisoner. If you do have Prisoners in the room, suggest that they can choose how they will spend their time… they can engage or not. If they don’t engage, the group will be the poorer for it. 

If you plan to take a break in your retrospective, suggest that if people choose to return after the break, they are choosing to attend the retrospective—they aren’t Prisoners anymore.

If you’ve done your homework, chances are you won’t be surprised by finding a room full of Prisoners. As in the situation with many Vacationers, if the majority of the group feels they are Prisoners, that’s what you need to deal with: you won’t get anywhere in the retrospective if you don’t.

Purpose

Establish a set of behaviors that will support the team in having productive discussions. Establish that team members are responsible for monitoring their interactions. Provide candidates for day-to-day working agreements if the team doesn’t already have them.

Time needed

Ten to thirty minutes, depending on the size of the group.

Description

Team members work together to generate ideas for effective behaviors at work then choose five to seven agreements to guide team interactions or processes.

Steps

After the retrospective leader welcomes the participants and reviews the goal and agenda, the team works in pairs or small groups (no more than four in a group) to develop candidate working agreements. Going around the room, each group reports their most important proposed working agreement. When all the unique proposed working agreements are collected, the retrospective leader helps the group make needed amendments and select three to seven working agreements that will set the standard for behavior during the retrospective. 

  1. Explain the activity: “We’ll develop a set of working agreements for the retrospective so that everyone will know our expectations for working together. It will be each team member’s responsibility to follow the agreements and the job of the whole team to notice and bring it to the team’s attention when an agreement is violated. The purpose of the agreements is to help us have the discussions we need to have during the retrospective.”
  2. Form pairs or small groups, no more than four per group.
  3. Ask each group to develop three to five working agreements that, if followed, would help the team have productive discussions during the retrospective. Remind the group that these are not for business as usual—they should be new behaviors or ones that aren’t yet normal behavior for the group.
  4. In round-robin fashion, ask each group to report their most important agreement and write it on a flip chart page. Write down the exact words used by the team member. Continue until you’ve captured all the unique proposed agreements.
  5. Explain that for the retrospective, the group should choose three to seven agreements. Having more than seven is too hard to remember and follow.
  6. If there are fewer than three proposed agreements, ask for clarifying questions for each agreement. When everyone understands, use a consensus “thumb vote” for each agreement. Thumb up = I agree. Thumb sideways = I will support the will of the group. Thumb down = I veto.
  7. If there are more than seven proposed agreements, use dot voting to prioritize. Give each team member three color dots to vote with. Each person can put one dot on three separate items, or all dots on one. Use a consensus thumb vote to ratify the top five to seven vote getters.

Materials and Preparation

Flip chart, markers, sticky dots.

Examples

We’re often asked for examples of typical working agreements. But we don’t see a pattern of agreements. Each team develops working agreements that reflect their unique concerns.

Specific – Vague promises of improvement usually don’t generate results. Think of the 5 W’s: who, what, when, where, and why. Instead of “we’ll try to get stories done earlier in the iteration,” how about “the developers will deliver at least one story every two to three days to QA, who will complete testing of them within a day of delivery, so that we can ensure stories are ‘done done’ by iteration end.” (And don’t forget that “try” is a word you want to banish.)

Measurable – Attainment of our specific example goal might be validated by answering some questions: What was the average number of stories completed within two to three days? How many stories did not complete in this time? You can think of iterations as fixed time periods in which to run experiments; you can express a hypothesis that validates or disproves the value of each experiment by capturing relevant data.

Attainable – It’s important that a team can check off completed goals, to reinforce the sense of achievement. Obviously goals that your team can complete in an iteration best meet this criterion, but you don’t want to have only short-term goals. There’s nothing wrong with long-term goals; just make sure there’s a way to measure incremental progress.

Relevant – Too many trivial goals can give a bloated sense of achievement. Shortening daily stand-up meetings by limiting them to five minutes might seem beneficial, but does it really change anything? What’s the real problem? Don’t hesitate to attempt dramatic changes, and don’t hesitate to think outside the box that pseudo-agile dogmatists might otherwise paint you in.

Time bound – Like stories, many teams tend to have a problem with letting things creep past iteration boundaries. “We just need a little more time.” Set up the experiment, define completion and success criteria, and grade the experiment: it was either completed or abandoned, and the hypothesis either held true or was disproved.

Purpose

Develop detailed plans for experiments or proposals.

Time needed

Forty to seventy-five minutes depending on the number of experiments and the size of the group.

Description

Team members work individually or in pairs to brainstorm all the tasks necessary to complete an experiment, improvement, or recommendation. After brainstorming, team members eliminate redundant tasks and fill in gaps. The task are arranged in order, and team members sign up for tasks they will complete.

Steps

  1. Introduce the activity by saying, “We’re going to work on generating all the tasks needed to have our experiment succeed.” Then recap the experiment (improvement, or recommendation).
  2. Describe the process:
    1. Work individually or in pairs to generate all the tasks.
    2. Form pairs of pairs to compare tasks, eliminate duplicates and fill gaps.
    3. Cluster the tasks and again check for duplicates and gaps.
    4. Order the tasks.
  3. Form pairs (or not, if there are fewer than eight people do this individually). Hand out sticky notes or index cards and markers.

Ask the group to write one task per card or sticky, leaving the bottom half blank. Show an example (see one below). 

 

  1. Form pairs of pairs (or pairs if the previous step was done individually). Reiterate the instruction: Compare tasks, eliminate duplicates and write any new tasks you realize are missing. It’s okay to re-write or consolidate as needed. If the group is larger than 16, have the groups of four form groups of eight and do another round of comparing, adding, and eliminating duplicates before proceeding to the next step.
  2. Invite the group to post and cluster the tasks on a whiteboard or wall. If they’ve used cards, they can cluster them using a table. Once again, compare, look for duplicates, and add any new tasks that the team realizes are missing.

Leave room on the left side of the wall or whiteboard. The team will use this in the next step when they order the tasks. 

 

  1. Order the cards. Start by asking: “Which task must be done first?” Move that task to the extreme left of the working surface. Then ask, “Are there any tasks that can be done simultaneously with this task?” Place those above or below the first task.

Ask which task needs to be done next. Place that to the right of the first task. 

 

  1. Invite team members to sign up for tasks by writing their names on the bottom half of the task cards. Or if it’s more appropriate, bring the tasks into the next iteration planning meeting.

Materials and preparation

Sticky notes or index cards. Markers. A wall, whiteboard, or other flat working surface. 

If your team hasn’t done this kind of planning before, prepare an example of a task card.

Example

The Retrospective Planning Game activity helps teams take vaguely stated goals for improvement and turn them into concrete tasks and action steps.

In the retrospective for their second release, a team developing software for scanners decided to work on new ideas for reviewing their 1400 automated tests. Their current approach was too slow and stalling team progress. They brainstormed and determined a few possible approaches. The retrospective leader invited team members to choose which approach interested them the most. Groups of two or three interested volunteers worked to identify action steps and wrote one action each on several large sticky notes.

They put the sticky notes on the wall for sorting. The retrospective leader asked them to look for duplications or missing steps or tasks. When the whole team agreed the right set of actions were on the wall, they began to look for dependencies between tasks. They used lengths cut from a ball of yarn and bits of tape to make a visual link between dependent tasks.

They discussed which actions were the best fit with their next iteration plan, which would make the most difference and what risks they could anticipate. The team left the retrospective with a clear idea about what tasks to include in planning the next release. They had created manageable actions out of a huge improvement goal and knew what they had to do to reduce the risks.

Purpose

Help team choose an experiment or action steps for the next iteration, particularly when team members need to listen to one another.

Time Needed

Thirty+ minutes, depending on team size.

Description

Team members engage in a question asking and answering process to reach consensus on next steps.

Steps

  1. Invite team members to sit in a circle. Introduce the activity. “Sometimes the best way to find answers is to ask questions. We’ll ask questions to find what we want to do as a result of what we’ve learned in this retrospective. We’ll go around the circle until we are satisfied with our answers or until at least [timebox] minutes have passed.”
  2. Turn to the person on your left and ask a question. You might start with “From your perspective, what is the highest priority for us to try in the next iteration?” The team member answers, from his or her perspective, to the best of his or her knowledge and ability. Then that team member becomes the questioner, turning to the person on his or her left to ask a question that extends the previous discussion or starts a new one.

 

The new respondent answers and, then in turn, asks a question and so on around the circle until the group is satisfied that their questions about the topic have been heard and considered, and a consensus for action has emerged.

Materials and Preparation

Set chairs in a circle with no table in the middle. Have a flip chart nearby for recording outcomes.

Examples

When leading Circle of Questions in a team, we stop the activity only at a point when the whole circle has been completed at least twice. Whether you go around two, three, four (or more) times, continue until each person has had the chance to ask and answer a question. Stopping short of completing the circle sends a message that some folks’ views are more important than others.

Powerful insights and direction for action emerge from this activity. Encourage everyone to pause for a few seconds before asking or answering a question. The experience of focused attentive listening, and being listened to by the team, provokes team members’ best ideas.

Trust is an important factor on self-organizing, Agile teams. The Circle of Questions activity can be one of the few times that a team devotes equal attention to each of its members. Honoring each other’s words this way helps to build trust in team working relationships.

Purpose

Help to discover differing perspectives on how the team is doing and provide variety in very short retrospectives.

Time Needed

Twenty to thirty minutes.

Description The team brainstorms lists of ideas for action, in response to prompts on the 2–3 flip charts. Titles may include:

  • What Worked Well/Do Differently Next Time, a.k.a. as WWWDD
  • Keep/Drop/Add
  • Stop Doing/Start Doing/Keep Doing (a.k.a. StoStaKee)
  • Start/Stop/Stay
  • Smiley/Frowny
  • Mads/Sads/Glads
  • Prouds/Sorries
  • Plus/Delta (on the iteration)

Steps

  1. Post the flip charts. Give team members 3-5 minutes to reflect privately on the iteration and write notes.
  2. Lead a brainstorming and record ideas. Keep going until all the comments team members think are important have been posted on the charts. Remember to wait through one or two silences for the next burst of comments.
  3. Ask the team to identify the top 20% of the items-those items they believe have the potential for the greatest benefit. Lead a short open discussion, then vote with dots. (See Priority Dots.)
  4. If there are more than 2–3 high priority items, reduce the remaining number of issues for action to a manageable few.
  5. Keep the brainstormed lists for historical review at subsequent iteration retrospectives to help identify areas of persistent issues.

 

Materials and Preparation

Prepare a flip charts with titles for discussion, changing the titles from iteration to iteration. As the team becomes over-familiar with one format, move on to another.

Variations

Use any of these in Closing to reflect on the retrospective processes and outcomes. 

Give sticky notes to team members to fill out and stick on the corresponding chart instead of brainstorming lists. Sort notes into clusters of like ideas and name the clusters.

Examples

Teams have an unfortunate tendency to choose one of these schemes and use that activity as the only activity in their retrospectives, or b) choose one and use it time after time. It’s a fine activity in its place, but doesn’t provide rich ideas when used as a stand alone retrospective.

We’ve heard iteration retrospectives referred to as “heartbeat” retrospectives—part of the regular rhythm and lifeblood of the project team. Listening to a heartbeat or taking a pulse gives indicators about the health of a person, and iteration retrospectives diagnose the health of the team. That said, listening to heartbeats, even our own, can become monotonous.

When you’re holding retrospectives iteration after iteration, particularly when the iterations are short, one or two week increments, teams get bored when the same activities or approaches to discussion show up week after week.

Use the variety provided by Short Subjects to change the perspective on discussions. Add your own flavor. Make up categories that fit for the team. (Continue, Integrate, Refactor?)

Purpose 

Help establish a mind-set for productive communication. Help participants set aside blaming and judgment—and fear of blaming and judgment.

Time Needed

Eight to twelve minutes, depending on the size of the group.

Description

After welcoming the participants and reviewing the goal and agenda, the retrospective leader describes productive and unproductive communication patterns. After describing those patterns, the participants discuss what they mean for the retrospective.

Steps

  1. Draw attention to the Focus On/Focus Off poster (see Figure 5, Focus on/Focus off activity) and briefly read through it.
  2. Form small groups, with no more than four people per group. Ask each group to take one pair of words to define and describe. If there are more than four pairs/groups, it’s OK if more than one group has the same pair of words.
  3. Ask each group to discuss what their two words mean and what behaviors they represent. Have them describe the impact each would have on the team and the retrospective.
  4. Each group reports on their discussion to the whole team.
  5. Ask people whether they are willing to stay in the left column (Focus On descriptions).

Materials and Preparation

Prepare a flip chart with the Focus On/Focus Off terms ahead of time.

Examples

This is a great activity to focus attention on behaviors and how they affect the people on the team. 

For a release or project retrospective, use this activity as a lead-in to establish working agreements for the retrospective. Many teams carry forward the Focus On behaviors as working agreements to improve their day-to-day communication

Purpose

Help the retrospective leader get feedback to improve skills and processes.

Time Needed

Five to ten minutes.

Description

Retrospective leader gathers feedback from team members to discover what helped team members work and learn together during the session, find out what hindered them, and get ideas about what else to try in future retrospectives.

Steps

  1. Show the three flip charts, and hand out sticky notes to the team members. “Please help me to become a better retrospective leader. Give me feedback on this retrospective. These three charts represent things about this retrospective that helped you to think as a group and learn about the iteration, things that hindered or got in the way of your thinking or learning, and what hypothesis you might have about things I could do differently to improve our next retrospective.”
  2. “Use the sticky notes to write your feedback. When you are done please put your initials on each note, and stick them on the appropriate flip chart.”
  3. End by thanking the team for helping you to improve. Ask whether you may contact team members later if you need clarification or have questions about what they’ve written.

Materials and Preparation

Prepare three blank flip charts with titles at the top: “Helped,” “Hindered,” “Hypothesis.”

Examples

The Helped, Hindered, Hypothesis (HHH) activity highlights team learning and encourages team members to think about how and what they learn best. As teams focus on whole-team learning, they get better at it.

When a team ended its retrospective with HHH, they noticed that about half the team wanted more individually focused activities and the other half of the team wanted more pair and small group activities. As team members discussed this split and what it could mean for future retrospectives, they realized these differences had implications for their daily work as well. The discussion alerted retrospective leaders to pay attention to what activities they chose for their designs. The team also changed their midweek, hour-long, free-for-all status meetings to fifteen-minute, focused, daily stand-up meetings that better suited the needs of both groups.

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