7 Ways to Make Retrospectives Fun and Engaging

This article was written by SolutionsIQ India consultant, Madhavi Ledalla.

A good Agile team is always striving to become better than they were before. An effective retrospective enables the team to seize opportunities to improve. Although it’s not a new concept, it bears repeating: it is often challenging to keep the momentum up during Sprint Retrospectives. After performing retrospectives for a fairly good number of teams and projects, I have come to the realization that retrospectives can become monotonous and boring over time, and so they become ineffective. We need to bring something new, fun, or exciting to the retrospective to make it lively. Here are few thoughts that you could use for doing retrospectives. My hope is that my thoughts will trigger your own ability to come up with situation-specific ways to hold retrospectives that are more effective and, just as importantly, more fun and engaging!

What Can Be Done Differently to Break up the Monotony?

To catalyse conversations among team members, retrospectives need to be viewed from a different perspective. Here are a few ways that you can encourage the team to adopt a different perspective and thus disrupt the usual flow:

  1. Put on a creative and innovative hat.
  2. Change the facilitator.
  3. Change the style.
  4. Come prepared with some data.
  5. Follow up on the retrospective action items!

The rest of this blog post is devoted to sharing my own personal experiences with breaking up the monotony of Sprint Retrospectives. I hope you can learn from them.

7 Ways to Make Retrospectives Fun and Engaging


1. Fly High

I was flying kites with my friends at the Pongal festival, and we had a few tangles on the ground, which we could remove by ourselves. But as the kite flew high, it got stuck between some telephone wires. We had to get help from our neighbours and use sticks and other tools to remove these blockers so we could get the kite free. A thought came to me that this experience was relevant to some of the scenarios that we see with teams.

Fly High Kite
    During a Sprint, the team comes across many bottlenecks, which fall into two general categories:

  1. Team-level impediments that the team can resolve if they work together—similar to tangles on the ground
  2. Organizational-level impediments that are beyond the team level and need to be escalated to the next level for resolution—similar to tangles in the hard-to-reach wires

A few days after the Pongal festival, my team had a retrospective and I drew a kite on the board. With the analogy outlined above in mind, I encouraged the team to:

  1. Identify the good work they have been doing so far and that they would like to continue doing—this was the team’s kite.
  2. Identify team-level impediments that they could resolve themselves, provided they really work on them—these were the on-the-ground tangles.
  3. Identify impediments that need escalation to the next level because they require support from the organization or senior management for resolution—these were the hard-to-reach tangles

The teams liked this method a lot, and they were easily able to draw a clear line of distinction between the “tangles” the team could unravel and those that needed escalation to the next level.

Retrospectives are an important team ceremony, but sometimes scheduling team meetings is difficult. Here are 3 helpful patterns for scheduling team meetings:

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Team Launch photo2. Team Craft

Recently, India sent Mangalyaan (Mars Craft) into space, an event that was quite memorable to everyone in the country. One of my teams had a retrospective scheduled for the day following the launch. This made me think of creating a news buzz of sorts, giving an introduction about Mars Craft to the team and saying, “Mangalyaan (Mars Craft), India’s first interplanetary project, launched in 2013! It has about one year to reach its target!” We drew a picture of a rocket on the board and named it “Team Yaan” (Team Craft). While Mars Craft had one year to reach its target, there was just one Sprint left to complete the release of our project. It was the most critical, high-visibility project in the organization, and hence as important to us as Mars Craft was for India. We used this analogy to identify, as a team, the driving forces — i.e., what we need to keep doing to ensure that we hit the target — as well as the blocking forces, the impediments and bottlenecks that are keeping us from reaching the target.

Moral of the Preceding Stories: When you come across something interesting or have an interesting experience in your day-to-day work, or even your personal life, find ways of bringing back that experience or that learning to your teams and use it whenever it makes sense and suits the teams.

3. Team Journey

I noticed that whenever we said that the team has been travelling together, be it in a train, boat, or a plane, it created some special bonding between the team members. I came up with the idea of a “Team Journey”, a metaphor that would help the team visualize how they have been working together as a team.

With this metaphor in mind, the team could come up with data about how their sprints had gone and how they could make their journey a better and more enjoyable ride. The Team Journey concept could be used after the team has completed a minimum of four or five sprints, so that they can really visualize how they have been working together.

Team Journey Train

4. Focus!

After much experience using Like/Dislike to capture team member happiness and discomfort during retrospectives, I noticed that it could benefit from another quadrant focused on—well, focus. Specifically, what areas need more attention and focus so that the team can progress. So I decided to add a focus quadrant to help identify areas they should continue doing or stop doing immediately to meet the objective in focus. This enables the team to come up with a few items that can help them really think and retrospect on items that need immediate attention.

5. Secret box

The secret box is something that newer teams may choose to use to ensure that items to discuss during the retrospective don’t get lost or forgotten. The secret box can be any container into which team members just drop notes about things they would want to discuss in the retrospective. They can put a note into the secret box whenever something strikes their mind. This is especially useful if people are a little reluctant to speak out when the team is storming. As the team develops more rapport and learns to communicate more effectively, the secret box need not be used, as each and every team member should be able to speak openly.

Naturally, the secret box would not be used for an issue that needs immediate attention; these should be brought up immediately with the team or in the stand-up meeting, instead of waiting until the retrospective for inspection and resolution.

6. Open Space

Sometimes leaving the option open to the team to decide what they want to talk about triggers good discussions. An open space platform may help facilitate such a retrospective: team members nominate issues they would like to discuss and/or resolve and everyone dot-votes. The team then discusses the issues in order of most votes to least.

This method is particularly helpful in surfacing which issues are of importance to the most team members. In other words, an individual may consider an issue of considerable importance, but if none or few of the other members vote on it, then perhaps the perceived importance of the issue doesn’t align with its actual importance. Hence, asking the team explicitly whether they would like to have a discussion about specific topics, and facilitating the discussion around those topics, can really help.

7. Retro Radiator

Last but certainly not least, a very important thing to keep in mind is the follow-up on action items that the team identifies in the retrospective. Having some sort of visual indicator of the action items, along with the people responsible for them, always helps the team stay focused. Tracking the retrospective action items can be done in different ways. We can use an electronic tool or a visual indicator, such as a Retro Radiator board, which may have the following columns:

  1. Sprint: Sprint in which the action item was identified
  2. To Do: Action items yet to be worked on
  3. In Progress: Action items being worked on
  4. Done: Completed action items
  5. Waiting: Action items that are waiting on something else

What About Distributed Teams?

I personally had a hard time doing retrospectives for distributed teams. The biggest challenge for geographically dispersed teams is finding ways to leverage the essence of “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” and behind the principle that states, “The most distributed-teamsefficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face communication.” However, by using some good collaboration tools, we can reap the benefits of face-to-face communication to some extent so that the Sprint Retrospective can be really effective! One resource that has been helpful in this endeavour is Innovation Games, which features many good online games that can be used with distributed teams, like Sail Boat, Plus/Delta, Learning Matrix, etc. I went ahead and published Fly High and Team Journey on the site as well, so that they can be played in a distributed setup also. These games use effective metaphors to encourage users to put on a different, more innovative thinking cap while doing the retrospectives.

In my experience, these retrospective games are a Lean way of doing retrospectives as playing them is very quick, effective and very convenient for a distributed team. What I appreciate most about this website is that all the retrospective game data—including the players’ names—is collated into an Excel spreadsheet with a click of a button. The retrospective data can further be analysed to check for any patterns, outliers and surprises.

A Few Closing Thoughts

Teams need to think outside the box when approaching Sprint Retrospectives and appreciate that these short gatherings need not to be done only by using the usual techniques or methods. Instead they can bring their own ingenuity, knowledge, and experiences to the table to create games or to start meaningful discussions that the team drives. The methods mentioned here may not work for everyone; much depends on team composition and on the environment. However, I personally saw visible improvements in productivity, quality, one-to-one coordination, collaboration, and so on after using some of these methods.

The moral of the story is to use actual work and life experiences to innovate new ways of making the Sprint Retrospective fun and engaging, in addition to educational and transformative. The intent of sharing the games and techniques described above is to help you, dear reader, get your juices flowing so you can come up with your own ways to have more effective Sprint Retrospectives. I would be glad to hear from any readers who have tried anything different that has worked out for your teams and retrospectives, so please comment below. Thank you!