Using a Team Game for Richer Retrospectives

Games can bring freshness to retrospectives and enable rich discussions about how things are going. Patterns emerging from the discussions provide insight into the team’s strengths and weaknesses. Considerate coaching or facilitation can allow everyone to contribute.

Laurence Wood spoke about playing the richer retrospective game at an online agile lean coffee for World Retrospective Day, organized by Aginext and the Digital Leadership Meetup.

To play the richer retrospectives team game, teams or groups can gather around a table or near a wall, or use breakout rooms using things like Zoom. They take turns reading out a card that has a statement to make them think about how effective they are compared to how they want to be. Wood explained that you will see people chatting and perhaps disagreeing on how well things are really going. Then you will see them reaching a consensus before placing a card and moving onto the next challenge.

Eventually, you can see the patterns emerging in each team as their answers take shape on the wall or table. According to Wood, these patterns can create a valuable portfolio view of strengths that teams can use to provide insight elsewhere and of weaknesses that they can decide if and how to help strengthen.

People in agile spaces are used to the idea that games help us to learn or to explore important topic areas. They do not always suit everyone but considerate coaching or facilitation usually allow everyone to contribute in their chosen way. Senior management and/or people outside of agile are less used to the idea and can be sceptical if games look too trivial. According to Wood, facilitation is important here to ensure that everyone knows why we are using a game. It may sometimes be better to be referred to as an activity or workshop than simply a game.

InfoQ interviewed Laurence Wood about playing games in agile retrospectives.

InfoQ: What kind of statements are on the cards from the richer retrospectives team game?

Laurence Wood: The statements vary widely and range from simple, generic aspects such as "We are a happy team" which could be asked of any team, to agile-specifics such as "We are proud of the burn-up/burn-down on our team wall". The words have been carefully chosen and refined over a few years’ use.

The idea is that some statements are a good starting point for engaging any team in continual improvement. Perhaps they are considering trying agile for the first time. Other cards are designed to make even the most mature of agile teams really think about improving even more. You progress at the rate you decide fits your way of working.

Instructions are included to facilitate a fast start, but I like to see teams find different ways of using the cards to suit their context. They may eventually add or adjust cards if that is most appropriate.

InfoQ: What should we give attention to when facilitating games?

Wood: I think the key thing is to keep an eye on everyone to see their level of engagement. A game is usually a tool to help us engage people to then think more deeply about a topic or challenge. So we need to change pace or change direction if people are not engaged. Also, it’s good to be brave and let things go in a new and perhaps unexpected direction. These sessions can be the most valuable.

InfoQ: What benefits can playing games bring to agile retrospectives?

Wood: Games can bring freshness to retrospectives that teams tell me can become dull after time. The richer retrospectives team game always creates rich conversations about improvement and people tell me it helps them to think more broadly and more deeply about the specifics of getting better.

Great teams still need to improve or else they can slip backwards, and a game provides an acceptable setting for colleagues to challenge each other more. They can demand more of each other in a game context because the risk of upsetting one another during necessary criticism is greatly reduced.