Are your retros running a bit flat? Need something to spice them up and make them more effective and also more interesting for your team? Join us as we walk through a collection of techniques from psychology and applied neuroscience to give your retros that edge you need.

Recording of this session from the Discovering Agile Community group in Feb 2021

Introduction and Context

Some of these tips will contradict each other. Consider the context for each.

Each of these tips will fall into one of the various steps of the retrospective so we’ll start with a walkthough of what those steps are. Note that if you follow the retrospective format outlined in the excellent “Agile Retrospectives” by Diana Larson and Ester Derby then you’ll notice that this is not the same. We use a slightly different structure that we find easier.

Stage Description
Preparation / Logistics Activities that are done prior to the official start of the retrospective.
Opening Any activities that might be necessary to get the team in the right state. This is where ice-breakers would be placed if there are any. This step is optional and we often don’t do anything explicit here beyond welcoming the team
Review This is where we review anything that will provide feedback to the rest of the retrospective. In the case where this is a regularly recurring “improvement” retro then this will be a review of the actions that came from the last one and the results that came from that. In the case where this is a one off retrospective at the conclusion of some event (ie a production deploy that went poorly), this is the review of what we know about that event at this time.
Diverge During the diverge step, we are using some kind of brainstorming approach to come up with a large amount of possibilities. What exactly that looks like will depend on the type of retrospective.
Converge Now we converge to a smaller set of possibilities. Perhaps we remove duplication here or cluster like things together. We might vote to identify which are more important than others.
Actions Considering all that we now know, we select a small number of actions. These are typically phrased as experiments that we will run to see if we can improve what we’ve been doing.
Closing Lastly there may be a formal closing. Like the opening, we rarely have a formal closing but will have one if we feel the team needs it.

Tips for Preparation and Logistics

Tip: Move to a different space

The doorway effect is the reason that we sometimes can’t remember why we just entered a room. It has to do with the way our brains store and retrieve memories and while most of the time it works to our advantage, sometimes it doesn’t. In the case of a retrospective, we deliberately want to step away from our day to day thinking to look at what we’re doing with a more strategic eye.

Tip: Fear shuts down the prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for high level, strategic, thinking. Fear shuts that down and leaves us reacting, not thinking clearly. A retrospective requires us to be thinking at our best so having the prefrontal cortex shut down is a real problem.

If some people in the room report to other people also in the room then there will be fear of sharing openly. This is why we don’t invite managers to retrospectives as a normal course of action. That doesn’t mean that we can’t ever invite them - we just have to do so consciously, recognizing the problems that come with a power dynamic.

If notes from the retro are shared indiscriminately after the meeting then there will be fear of repercussions. This is why we often invoke the “Vegas Rule”. Any time something is shared outside, it should be with the full agreement of all participants.

See also:

Tip: Allocate more time than you think you need

We need to get to the point where we decide on actions to take away. If the meeting runs out of time before we get to actions then we just wasted everyones time.

We cannot “pick up” a retro at a later time to finish it off. The momentum will be gone and the team won’t come up with anything useful

Tip: Bring things for people to fidget with

Many people think better if their hands are busy so give them something to fiddle with. For in-person meetings, we often bring pipe cleaners, sticky notes, LEGO, etc. For a remote meeting, sometimes it’s enough to give people permission to fiddle. They may not feel they’re allowed to if they’re on camera.

Even doodling has been shown to improve memory, focus, and memory retention, even when the thing you’re doodling has nothing to do with the subject at hand. Are people doodling during your meeting? You may want to encourage that.

In 2009, psychologist Jackie Andrade asked 40 people to monitor a 2-½ minute dull and rambling voice mail message. Half of the group doodled while they did this (they shaded in a shape), and the other half did not. They were not aware that their memories would be tested after the call. Surprisingly, when both groups were asked to recall details from the call, those that doodled were better at paying attention to the message and recalling the details. They recalled 29% more information!
The Thinking Benefits of Doodling - Harvard Health Blog

Tip: Encourage playfulness

Want to innovate? Science says to be playful.

We are all made up of different personalities (ego states) with a healthy person developing about 150 over their life (most are developed in childhood). Our most powerful learning states are our playful ones and we can use priming or nudging techniques to help switch people into those powerful states. Putting LEGO out on the table or using paperclips shaped like cats or dogs can help prime someone into one of those ego-states.

Tip: Consider whether you are participating or facilitating

If you try to do both then you’ll do at least one of them poorly. Probably both. Each of these activities requres a different ego-state (see above) and you really can’t do both well at the same time.

If you want to participate then ask someone else to facilitate. You could ask someone else on the team or ask an outside person to step in. Be careful not to introduce a power dynamic by inviting a manager in though.

Tip: The person who holds the pen, controls the conversation

The person who is drawing on the whiteboard, tends to control the conversation. In general, it’s best if one of the participants is doing that, rather than the facilitator.

Whoever takes the notes of take-aways really owns those notes. If the notes are taken by a facilitator who isn’t considered to be part of the team then the team won’t feel ownership of those notes or any actions inside. Ensure that a participant takes those notes.


Tips for Opening

Tip: Calibrate the team

In this context, calibration refers to knowing what is normal behaviour for the team. You need to be able to adjust what you have planned based on the state the team is in when they arrive. If you don’t know what’s normal for the team then you’ll have no way to know if you need to change what’s planned.

Be prepared to drop whatever you had planned in that case where the team arrives in a different state than you had planned. Always have some kind of a fallback for this situation, even if its as simple as “tell me what’s on your mind”.

Tip: Consider if you even need an opening / icebreaker

This isn’t team building. If the group doesn’t know each other then this is the wrong time to start doing team building exercises.

What we should be doing in this opening is getting the team into the right state for the rest of the retro. If they’re already in a good state then we don’t need to do anything here. Move on to the rest of the retro.

Remember that not everyone enjoys these. Some people find “icebreakers” to be very unpleasant and using them in appropriately can actually make things worse.


Tips for Review

Tip: Avoid who and why questions

When reviewing things that hadn’t gone well then be very careful about the words you use. Who and why questions, can trigger someone’s amygdala (fight or flight reflex), making it more difficult for them to perform high-level, critical thinking.

  • Who caused the server outage?
  • Why wasn’t this reviewed?

What, when and how questions are always safer. Use them where possible.

  • When did the outage happen?
  • How did we get to this point?

Tip: Light up the neural network

Get people back into the right state to address the problem. Ask questions that bring them back to the time or state that things had happened. Make the experience real.

  • Where were you at that time?
  • What did you notice first?

Talk about what did happen rather than what should have happened


Tips for Diverge

Get people moving

“Brain plasticity and cognitive function are significantly 
improved by physical activity”
Mualem R, Leisman G, Zbedat Y, Ganem S, Mualem O, Amaria M, Kozle A, Khayat-Moughrabi S and Ornai A (2018) The Effect of Movement on Cognitive Performance. Front. Public Health 6:100. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2018.00100

Anything that can get participants to move is a positive. Collect sticky notes in a place that requires people to move to get to it or have physical objects that need to be reordered in front of them

Caution: Always be aware of mobility challenges faced by your participants. Not all people can easily stand up or move around.

Tip: Use novelty during divergent thinking

“…novelty may benefit creative performance when divergent thinking is required, but it could inhibit creative performance when convergent thinking is required.”
Marleen Gillebaart, Jens Förster, Mark Rotteveel & Astrid C. M. Jehle (2013) Unraveling Effects of Novelty on Creativity, Creativity Research Journal, 25:3, 280-285, DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2013.813781

Retrospectives use both divergent and convergent thinking, at different stages. Use novelty when brain storming and coming up with new ideas. Avoid using the same retro approach twice in a row.

Tip: Insight requires a resting state in the brain

“Individual differences in the tendency to solve problems insightfully rather than in a deliberate, analytic fashion are associated with different patterns of resting-state brain activity.”
Kounios J, Beeman M. The cognitive neuroscience of insight. Annu Rev Psychol. 2014;65:71-93. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115154. PMID: 24405359.

In todays hectic world, we’ve all trained ourselves to be busy all the time. To move to a new activity the moment we’ve finished the previous with no gaps. We reach for our phones to check social media or the web if we have any spare moments.

All of this prevents us from having those brain pauses where we get the real insights. In the retrospectives, more than any other agile ceremony, we need participants to leverage those insights for real improvement. This means removing the distractions that are affecting us the rest of the time.

Suggest that people ignore their phones. Allow for uncomfortable silences. Ask people to work without talking. Remove the distractions so that our brains can rest.

Tip: No critizing during the diverge step

Creativity is a right hemisphere activity and criticism is a left hemisphere activity. Once we start to criticize ideas, the flow of creativity will stop. No idea is too crazy - write down everything that comes to mind

Tip: Diverging is mostly head brain

Neuroscience tells us that we have three distict brains - one in our head (cephalic), one in our heart (cardiac) and one in our gut (enteric).

The head brain is focused on self talk and imagery. When people are speaking from the head brain then they’ll say things like “I think” or “I’ve considered” or “this makes no sense” or “looks like”. To encourage head brain thinking, you might ask “What are you thinking?”

The heart brain is focused on values and emotion. Phrases from the heart brain might be “I feel” or “following my heart” or “this is more/less important” or “I’m connected to”. Questions you might ask to get people into the heart brain might be “How do you feel about that?” or “What is important here?”

The gut brain is focused on action. Phrases from the gut brain might be “I’m doing” or “I’m following my heart”. Phrases to get people back into the gut brain are all action related such as “What’s the next step?” or “What will you do?”

Diverging is primarily a head brain activity so using language for the head brain will assist with this. If you hear the conversation drifting into heart or gut brain language then you can pull people back by asking head brain questions.


Tips for Converge

Tip: Avoid novelty during divergent thinking

“…novelty may benefit creative performance when divergent thinking is required, but it could inhibit creative performance when convergent thinking is required.
Marleen Gillebaart, Jens Förster, Mark Rotteveel & Astrid C. M. Jehle (2013) Unraveling Effects of Novelty on Creativity, Creativity Research Journal, 25:3, 280-285, DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2013.813781

During the converge step, we want to reduce the novelty so following the same approach every time is a positive step.

Tip: Converging is mostly heart brain thinking

See the different language patterns for each brain in the divergent step.


Tips for Actions

Tip: Put actions on your board

If we discussed actions and theb didn’t talk about them again, those actions are almost guarenteed to not be done. Put your actions as cards on your board to ensure they are complete when we agreed.

  • Scrum: These go into the sprint backlog before any work from the PO. We want them before to ensure that there is always a place for them.
  • Kanban: These must be placed into ready within a reasonable timeframe

Talk about them every day at standup, just as you would for any other work.

Tip: Pick a small number of actions

If you select 50 actions to complete, human nature suggests that we won’t do any of them. Yet if we only pick one or two, they’re almost guaranteed to be done. Since we want them done, pick only a few. One is enough and we recommend no more than three.

Tip: Pick an experiment, not “the new way of doing things”

Suggesting the new way of working requires a high level of commitment and makes it less likely that we’ll come to any agreement in a reasonable time. Instead, we suggest running an experiement with an explicit timebox. “Let’s try this thing for the next two weeks and then we’ll stop and reflect on how well it worked.”

Tip: Reintroducing Why

We talked about some of the negatives of using the word why in an earlier tip. During the action step, why can be a valuable question as it helps reinforce a point. When we ask “why is this the right action?”, our brains will attempt to justify it and will make it more likely that it actually gets done.

Tip: Question limitations

Many of our limitations are self-imposed. Teams won’t take actions that they think they can’t do and they’re often wrong about what is possible. Ask the team to consider things they want fixed but don’t think they have any control over.

Tip: Actions are all gut brain thinking

See the different language patterns for each brain in the divergent step.


Tips for Closing

Tip: Ensure the team is in a positive state

Sometimes the topics discussed during a retro can be demoralizing or depressing. Don’t let the team leave while they’re in this state. Change the subject to something more positive.

The power switch from Clean Language is a powerful technique to get people back into a positive step. See the Clean Language page for more on how to use this.

Power Switch: “And when X, what would you like to have happen?”

Tip: Providing accountability with ‘who’ and ‘when’

Just as with why, questions around who can be useful in other places. In particular who can be useful to create some accountability around the actions. We want to ensure the actions will be done and some accountability helps with that. For example Who will ensure this item is done?” or When will we check back in?”

Tip: Learn about Cognitive Bias

In order to make faster decisions, our brains create all kinds of shortcuts. If we didn’t have these shortcuts then we’d have to think through every decision from first principles and we’d be completely overloaded. As powerful as our brains are, they don’t have the capacity to process every though from the beginning.

These shortcuts are collectively referred to as cognitive bias and we have thousands of them, running all the time. Most of the time these shortcuts work to our advantage but they often don’t. It’s worth learning something about cognitive bias to better understand why people do the things they do.

The Cognitive Bias Codex is a brilliant visualization of our biases and will give you the terminology to start looking into this topic.