12 retrospective exercises

During Agile Open Belgium I facilitated a session in search of retrospective exercises.

I always try to come up with new ways of looking for improvements.  This way the retrospective doesn’t get to be a boring meeting.

Here’s the list of exercises we distilled:

  1. The classic: ‘What went well?’ / ‘What can we do better?’
    Every team member categorizes his feelings about the previous sprint into these two categories.
    At the end you can use dot voting to come up with a priority in the list of improvements.
  2. Creating a timeline
    This exercise is done before the search for improvements.  It is used to get everybody to focus on the same period and to get back into the mindset of the sprint.
    What happened in the previous sprint, which timeframe, what did we work on,…
  3. Focus on one issue
    If something important really went wrong, you might want to focus the entire retrospective on defining actions to prevent this from happening again.
  4. The starfish
    A variation on exercise 1.  Instead of the two categories, we use these five: Start Doing, Stop Doing, Keep Doing, More Of, Less Of.
    The subtle differences between the categories help the team to think in a different way.
  5. Draw an emotional trendline
    You need a timeline to start with.  Each team member draws a trendline beneath it which represents their feeling during the sprint.
    The more upwards, the happier.  The more downwards, the more frustrated.
  6. Empty the mailbox
    If your team has difficulties to remember things of the previous sprint, you can hang up a carton box in the team room.  This is used to collect ideas for improvement.
    In the retrospective, the box is emptied and each note is discussed and actions are defined.
  7. The line dance (sorry, I couldn’t come up with a better name)
    When your team is divided between two options when discussing an improvement, you can use this technique to come to a decision.
    Draw a line on the floor and mark one end with option nr.1 and mark the other end with option nr.2.
    Then ask everyone to go and stand on a place on the line that represents their preference.
    Main benefit is that the team immediately sees which option is preferred by the majority. (Thanks to Mary for sharing this)
  8. Check-in
    At the start of the retrospective, write down a question on a flip chart and ask every participant to answer it one at a time.
    This helps to open up the shy team members.  If they have already spoken once, they will more likely speak again during the rest of the meeting.
  9. A poll
    If you want to get an hones idea about the feelings of the team on a certain topic, for instance code quality, you can use an anonymous poll.
    First write down the scale on a flip chart.  Ex. 1= very bad, 4= very good.
    Then ask everyone to write down a number on a post it that represents their feeling about the topic.  Fold it and drop it in a hat.
    Take the sum of all the numbers and divide it by the number of participants.  If you did it right, you get a number between 1 and 4.
    This gives you the general feeling about code quality at this time.  You can repeat the same poll after some time to see if things evolved.
    A great tip from Kris: Always use an even number as a scale, this way everybody has to choose a side, they can’t just stand in the middle.
  10. Giving flowers
    Each participant gets a flower which they can give to a team member as appreciation for their work.
    A great way to get your team closer together.
  11. Assign action points
    Before leaving the meeting, make sure every action point has an owner, is prioritized and is visible (for instance on the task board).
    The reason why people find retrospectives a waste of time is because actions never get done.
  12. Invite customer
    Since the customer is closely involved with an agile team, inviting them to the retrospective can have a major added value.
    In the end, we’re trying to improve the entire value stream, not only the work of the team.

I didn’t discover any new exercises, but got some great tips to do the known ones better. Thanks to all participants for their input!

About Nick Oostvogels

Hi, I'm an independent management consultant. My biggest strengths are located in the fields of teamwork, motivation, leadership and continuous improvement. In the IT industry you find a lot of these values in the agile movement, in which I often act as a project leader, product owner or coach. My interests go a lot further, into other industries where we find these values in lean production. Besides that, I try to broaden my horizon as much as possible, always looking for better ways of doing business.


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  2. Hey Nick,

    another exercise we used to do:
    5 minutes of fame:
    Each team member has to stand up in front of the team and has his 5 minutes of fame. He can use that time to zoom in on a particular issue or something that came out on exercise number 1. When his 5 minutes are passed the team can start a discussion on that.
    I like this very much since everyone has got the chance talk for 5 minutes non stop and because of the fact that you have to get up there for 5 minutes, even the most shy team members will try to make the best of their 5 minutes.

    • noostvog


      Thanks for the tip!
      Sounds like a very interesting exercise. I will give it a try in one of our next retrospectives.
      One question: Does the team need time to prepare for their 5 minutes?

      • Yes, otherwise this would be unfair for the first guy to dive in.

        This can be done by just give them 5 minutes of time to prepare themselves. But we used to do it by combining the 5 minutes of fame with exercise 1. Given 5 minutes of time, they can write there own thoughts on those 2 categories on for instance post-its and stick them to the wall.

        When everyone is finished, each team member can use their post-its as a guide for their “5 minutes of fame” but they also can use post-its of other team members to start their discussion.

        good luck!

  3. Thank you for writing this article. It will be helpful to me.

  4. Thank you writing this! I put 2 of these into the Retr-O-Mat: http://www.plans-for-retrospectives.com/?id=47-48
    Hope you like it 🙂

  5. Ben

    Interesting post, anything you can do to make a retrospective more fun and interesting is worth doing. I really struggle to engage people in this session, if we run it all!

  6. Pingback: reading about retrospectives | notes to self

  7. Roger Borges

    Giving Flowers gave me a good laugh. It sounds like a great way to remove the macho from a room of mostly men.

  8. Pingback: Boring retrospectives – part 12 : Story Oscars | SkyCoach

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