Agile retrospectives may have been born into the world of software development, but these short, deliberately reflective meetings can be put to productive use in any team setting.
A pitfall of having these sessions regularly, though, is that they can become a bit stale. People become desensitized to the routine, and may start to check out mentally.
So how can you prevent retrospective boredom?
One way is to vary the exercises you use to brainstorm ideas and build team rapport.
Here are 10 retrospective ideas that have helped reinvigorate these crucial meetings for my teams. Whether you are breaking the ice with new employees or digging deeper with a veteran team, these exercises will help you break out of entrenched behaviors and see the task ahead with fresh eyes.
- Car Brand
- Back to Back
- Letters to the Future
- 2 Truths and a Lie
- One Word
- Mad, Sad, Glad
- Rockin’ Rita
- Balloon Battle
- Fishbowl Conversation
Here are the instructions, step by step.
Exercise #1: Car Brand
Relax the room without avoiding the issue using Car Brand, one of the simplest but most powerful ways to visualize potential problems. It’s perfect for groups that might be expecting a little tension or have a hard time articulating ideas.
Explain that you want each person to choose a car brand that characterizes their idea of the last iteration or project milestone. Whatever it is you need to focus the retrospective on, have them associate it with the qualities and expectations of a specific brand. And be prepared for a range of descriptions.
For example, one person might conceive of the last sprint as a Tesla—sleek and fueled by innovation—whereas the next one describes it as a beat-up Ford that’s barely chugging along. You’d be surprised how perspectives vary. To understand them, have folks explain their rationale for choosing each car brand.
As you discuss, keep to the metaphor to avoid starting a complaint session. If the Ford needs repairs, what are they? Is it speed, stability, or safety that folks feel is lacking? What fixes can be made? With this retrospective idea, you will prime the inventive part of people’s minds for a productive discussion about what to do next.
Exercise #2: Back to Back
Energize the room instantly with this quick and fulfilling team builder.
Here’s how it works:
- Ask folks to pair up with someone of similar size.
- Have them sit on the floor with their backs touching.
- They should then reach back with both arms and link with their partner.
- Without breaking the link, each pair has to stand up at the same time.
It’s harder than people think, but coordination always is. Some pairs might really struggle, but there’s a lot of satisfaction for the room in seeing people reach inside themselves and believe in one another.
You may be thinking, I’ve seen this before and so has everyone else. Not an issue. Are there any skeptical folks among the group? Try pairing someone who knows the ropes with someone who has never tried the back-to-back. Is everyone a back-to-back expert? See which pair can do it the quickest. Start keeping records and challenge the room to swap partners each time.
Some people are not going to want to do this, and that’s OK. If you are worried about someone, try asking for participants first, or move on to another exercise.
Exercise #3: Letters to the Future
Part of being reflective is imagining future outcomes and possibilities. Look back by looking forward. And don’t just imagine it—write it. This exercise forces people to articulate their expectations and assumptions in a safe and thoughtful way.
There are a few different variations of this exercise you can use depending on your desired focus. Here is an easy version of this retrospective idea you can tailor as need be.
- Pick a point in the future. The date could be for the next meeting or after a major milestone—choose your date based on the focus your retrospective needs.
- Have each person draft a letter to someone connected to the group’s goals. They could pick someone else in the group, a stakeholder from another team or department, or a manager. Tell the group to draft their letters to the person as if it were the date you selected. Letters need not be longer than 1-3 sentences.
- When everyone is done, share your letters with the room.
It’s really interesting for the group to get a sense of how different people picture the future. Who are they writing to? Why does it seem important? Use this simple retrospective idea to excavate major concerns that are tough to see in the present.
Exercise #4: ESVP
Instead of pretending that people are walking in the door without assumptions about the upcoming retrospective, spend a few minutes analyzing those expectations.
Ask people to think about how they feel about the meeting. Have them write down whichever of the following personality types best identifies their outlook:
- Explorer: is prepared and excited about the prospects of what lies ahead. They are ready to learn new things in service of the mission.
- Shopper: will hear what you have to say, read what you bring, but they’re really only in the market for one new idea.
- Vacationer: considers time in a meeting as time they are not working. They are here in body, at the beach in spirit.
- Prisoner: is forced to be here. If they could be anywhere else without penalty, they would be.
Collect the results and display them on the board. Put up the totals. Preparing a chart with a quick bar graph while people are choosing their answers is not too hard.
If you ask for honesty, be ready to get it. Be open to the feedback that the results generate—your immediate reaction may not be as valuable as your team’s. See what they think about the breakdown, and try to generate ideas that will make this and future meetings more valuable for all.
Exercise #5: 2 Truths and a Lie
This is a retrospective idea folks might be familiar with, but there’s a reason it has endured across so many different contexts. In this one:
- Give everyone three sticky notes and have them write two true statements and one false statement. Tailor this to your needs by focusing the team’s statements as need be—they could be about the last meeting, the most recent project, or about themselves.
- Let people write for a few minutes, though a simple sentence is fine.
- When everyone is finished, have people present one by one, putting their three statements on the board. Can the team identify which is the lie? Continue sharing until everyone is finished.
Wrap up with a discussion. What lies slipped past the team? What truths did people doubt? Were there commonalities or stark differences between the statements? Use this retrospective idea as a quick way to get people’s analytical side fired up before the team has to do a little self-scrutiny.
Exercise #6: One Word
Not everyone’s head is in the same place the minute they sit down. This quick activity will focus the group, and help you gauge the room.
- Have everyone write one word that describes how they feel about the present meeting on a sticky note.
- Invite each person to share their word.
- From there, you can group the words on the board. What patterns emerge? Ask for people to say a little more about their word.
This is a simple introduction to the meeting, but it evokes genuine responses and gets people thinking about the task at hand.
And let folks know that it’s totally fine not to share. They can just pass. Making this option available is important for creating a safe environment where people can open up.
Exercise #7: Mad, Sad, Glad
This is one of the most popular retrospective ideas because it helps your team think critically about their feelings. What are the root causes of emotions that are getting in the way of the team’s progress?
- Before people arrive, have the board divided into three sections: Mad, Sad, and Glad.
- Provide sticky notes for each person to write down specific aspects of the last project or meeting that made them: Mad: “We wasted so much time on x.” Sad: “No one valued my work on y.” Glad: “I received productive feedback about z.”
- After people have generated a good number of notes (10-12 minutes should be fine), group them under the Mad, Sad, and Glad headings on the board. Some notes may address the same issue or theme. Be creative in how you organize these notes and let participants help.
Conclude with a discussion based on the results. With everyone’s emotions on the board, come up with collective solutions to issues that have become way bigger than they need to be.
Exercise #8: Rockin’ Rita
Here is a rapid-fire retrospective idea that helps new hires introduce themselves on their own terms. It’s a low-stakes, safe way to get people talking early.
- Give people a minute to pick an adjective that shares the same letter as their first name. Rockin’ Rita, Dependable Dave, and so on.
- Go around the room in a circle and have everyone share their alliterative name.
- Once everyone has spoken, ask the last person to say the alliterative name of each person in reverse order.
- Allow everyone an opportunity to try to recite the entire circle.
This idea is always a lot of laughs, and the bonus is that by the end of the meeting, everyone will know each other’s names.
Exercise #9: Balloon Battle
When people have had it with sticky-note exercises, here’s a quick activity that will energize the room and set the stage for discussions about teamwork and strategy. You need nothing more than balloons, string, and a little bit of ambition.
- Have each person tie one balloon to their left ankle.
- Break the group into smaller teams (3-5 people works well).
- When everyone is ready and knows who is in their team, begin the game.
- The game lasts three minutes, and the objective is for each team is to protect the maximum number of balloons possible. Simple as that.
The outcome of this game is unpredictable—sometimes the team that thinks it’s sure to win ends up with no balloons! Why is it so hard to work together? How do we define success? This fun competition gets the blood flowing and offers the perfect opportunity to jump off into more serious discussions.
Exercise #10: Fishbowl Conversation
If you need retrospective ideas to accommodate a large group, stop searching—the fishbowl conversation is ideal. Use it as part of the analysis stage of your retrospective.
- Set 5 chairs facing each other at the center of the room.
- Have everyone gather in a larger circle around the chairs.
- Explain what the topic(s) of the discussion will be (based on problems to analyze).
- Ask for 4 volunteers to start the discussion. They will take their seats in the “fishbowl” of seats at the center of the room. Only participants in the fishbowl can take part in the discussion.
- Whenever someone wants to join the discussion, they take the empty seat in the fishbowl. Whenever someone joins, one of the discussants has to leave.
- Allow enough time for all volunteers to circulate through the fishbowl.
- When you are finished, have a discussion that includes the entire room, if possible, to talk about reactions to what was said.
Put social pressure to good use and allow people to express themselves in front of their colleagues. This retrospective idea gives the meeting direction without the scrum master having to be the one talking, and provides a productive on-ramp to the rest of your agenda.
Simply cycling through these same 10 retrospective ideas works well for me. There are so many others you might want to try or design for yourself, of course. I’ve written more about how to run great retrospectives here.
Either way, know that introducing a little energy into the meeting can disrupt unwanted tension. At base, each of these retrospective ideas allows you to address serious issues from an organic reference point guided by a little laughter and fun.