Gather Data: Pyramid Building

I use this retrospective activity when the team I am facilitating needs help focusing on the items in their control.  This activity is for the Gather Data phase.

Have the group break into groups of 3-5 members.  EVERYONE gets a pen and sticky-notes, thus, everyone can write.  Within their group, they will discuss the last iteration (or whatever your retrospective is covering) and write down events, issues, and general happenings that have occurred, one per sticky-note, falling into one of these two categories: “Holding us Back” and “Pulling Us Forward”. The events can be personal or work related that affect teammates individually or as a team.

Its up to the each teammate to decide how much they want to share. Let them know at the start how much time they will have to get their comments jotted down. I generally give them about 10 minutes but, it will depend on the subject and number of team members. As with any activity, keep an eye on people getting board or off topic. Its a sure sign time should be up. Let everyone know when they only have about a minute left and if they are ready, they can begin placing their notes on the board.

While the groups are breaking up and having discussions, I draw the following on the white board.  Artwork is clearly not part of being a good facilitator 🙂


After everyone has settled back down, let them know you are adding a new category, Gravity.

Gravity are the things out of the team’s control. If we have any kind of control, even if it is relativity small, it doesn’t fall into gravity.

Reading each aloud, review the sticky-notes with the team.  Ensure everyone knows what the comments mean by asking questions like:
“Does everyone know what this means?”
“Does anyone agree/disagree?”
“Why do you think this is true?”

Ask your own questions if you feel the team is just ‘going through the motions’.  Ask for clarity on blanket statements like “We communicated great!” What does that mean? Communicated with who? How?

Following the close of each sticky-note, ask the team: Is this in our control or out of our control? If its out of their control, for example, the weather sucked this week, then move it to the gravity category.

When all the notes have been covered, ask if we have missed anything else? Then, using the Four-step method, debrief the activity and transition the the next part of the retrospective.

The Four-Step Method?  I learned about it from the Agile Retrospective book from Esther Derby and Diana Larsen.  They reference it from the following:

The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access Group Wisdom in the Workplace:
1. Start by asking for observable events and sensory input. “What did you see and hear?”
2. Ask how people responded to those events and inputs. “What surprised you? Where were you challenged?”
3. Ask for insights and analysis with questions, like “What insight do you have about this?” followed by “What does this tell you about our project?”
4. After you’ve established the link between the activity and the project, complete the learning cycle by asking group members how they will apply their insights: “What’s one thing you might do differently?”

Here’s a couple of examples of the board after the team has completed the activity. I’ve had the team break the sticky-notes into themes for the ‘Looking for Patterns’ stage of the retrospective.

Let me know if you have any questions!

Terry T




Managers in Retrospectives

It’s a topic that has come up many times, should managers attend retrospectives?    There are some concerns that appear and need to be discussed by the team.

How will this influence the team?

So how will this positively and negatively affect the team?  The first thing that pops in my head is trust.  As self-organizing teams, we need to have boundaries and the same is true with managers.  As a manager, you should be asking yourself, “When should I step in?” and “when do let the team fail on their own without affecting the company?”  It’s a balancing act of staying involved with the team without getting in the way.  (As a side note, I hope teams know that maintaining this balance is not easy.  It reminds me of developers pairing.  An expert developer has to be willing to let a novice make mistakes; otherwise they will never learn anything.  Now complicate the issue by adding 3 to 7 team members.  No amount of training can prepare you for that. )

At the individual level, management influence can have an effect in two ways.  First, important topics may never come out because no one wants to make any teammate look bad.  This defeats the purpose of the team retrospective completely.  Getting these issues out in the open helps the team become better and builds trust.  The alternative is letting issues fester until the team implodes.  Second, teammates could use the retrospective to make an individual look bad, leveraging the manager to make themselves look better.  It sounds a bit high school but believe me, it happens.

Still not convinced?  Think about how employees read into every action managers make.  Have you ever heard a buzz around the office because two managers were having a conversation behind closed doors?  We hear:  Someone is getting fired!  Raise are going to suck this year!  The company is getting bought out!  Turns out, they were just talking about the baseball game last night.  For some reason, employees become paparazzi and all eyes are on the managers.  They always smile when talking to one individual.  They must like them better!  He sent an email when Billy Bob left but called a just-in-time meeting for Phil.  They must hate Billy Bob!  It’s a bit ridiculous.  With examples like this, I can’t imagine how a manager in a retrospective could influence the team.

Why does the manager think they need to be there?

In the past when I have asked this question to managers the response I always seem to get is, “I need to know what is going on with my teams”.  I agree managers should know what is going on with their teams; however, there are more effective ways.  As discussed before, what is really going on with the team is most likely not going to come out with them sitting in the room.  It gives me the image of a group of teenagers trying to discuss an issue at school while mom and dad are in the room.  Not going to happen…in most cases.

Ok, then how do managers find out what happened during the retrospective?  I asked Esther Derby the same question.  The answer was simple, ask the facilitator.  It’s disappointing to me that the many times I’ve passed this on to managers and only been asked once.  I can only assume they think know already or don’t really need to know what happened in the retrospective.  But what about the good notes we take at every retrospective?  Notes, just like emails, only tell half the story.

Who makes the final decision?

The best thing to do is for management to get in a room and make that decision without any input from their teams. /TROLL.

In order to answer this, I think we need to ask ourselves why we are doing retrospectives in the first place.  Take it to the team.  There is a level of comfort and maturity that must be attained before a team can accept managers in a retrospective. Every member of the team must be at that level.  Your teammates and managers are all human

Words Retro for Team Building

Once and a while I add some team building activities to my retrospectives.  I find it lightens up the mood for the team and uncovers some issues we never seem to get to in a typical iteration retrospective.  The idea is a simple one: free space to ask any question to anyone in the team and everyone gets a turn.  I like the start the retro with a checkin, like most of my retros, so it breaks the silence contract (everyone participates).  I then bring up the following power point document: WordsRetro.

The order goes like this:

  1. Pick an available theme word from the words list
  2. Pick someone in the team or a customer (no directing a question to everyone in the room)
  3. Ask your question
  4. The answerer responds
  5. Everyone gets a chance to respond whether they agree or disagree
  6. The word is removed from the list
  7. The person to the right is next
  8. Rinse and repet

Its important everyone gets a chance to ask a question and its best if you can go around the room twice but, once can be good enough.  I like to think of this activity as a set of mini-retros put together with the format of gather data, look for patterns, and decide what to do all within asking the question to ending the discussion.  Although, I tend to avoid making decisions.  The idea of this activity is to understand each other better, not make tweaks to the team.  I do something similar when forming the team, however, I spend more time guiding the questions and getting everyone to answer the question before having a discussion (I’ll cover that activity in another post).

In facilitating this activity, its important to keep the meeting moving forward.  I find its a good idea as a new member begins their turn to give the next person at heads up to start thinking of their question.  Another strategy I use if dealing with remote customers is to start in the middle of the group you are physically in the room with, giving the offsite members a chance to figure out how the activity works.  Then, I rotate the turn to the offsite people.  Breaking up the group like this seems to create a everyone is included feel and keeps the discussions from becoming a us verse them senario.

I’ve used this activity on several teams and had some great feedback not only about breaking up the monotony of our Agile ceremonies but, also learning about their co-workers opinions and concerns.

Let me know what you think.


Terry T

Team Building Thoughts Take One

This week  I tried something different while facilitating a retrospective for a team in my department.  I asked them if instead of conducting a normal retrospective, if they would enjoy some team building exercises.  I’m glad to report that they said yes because it’s something I’ve wanted to try for a while now.

I used an activity from Lyssa Adkins Agile Coaching book about value words.  The activity is explained for starting up new teams, however, I saw no reason it could not be taken advantage by an active team.   I had to make some modifications for time and to account for video conferencing to a remote site.  I created a value word poker game which will need some refinement before sharing.

After the hour ended, I got lots of positive feedback from the team.  Great success!  It got me thinking, was the team just starving for team building or was it just a pleasant diversion from the weekly retrospective?  It could be both.  I’ve found most teams believe in team building but, besides going to lunch, no one really knows how to do it.

In the weeks ahead, I’m going to spend time coming up with team building activities that circumvent the remote location issues and move them into the monthly or bi-monthly rotation of team retrospectives.  Besides, what better place to learn about your teammates and use the time wisely given to teams then in a retrospective?


Terry T