A Retrospective on Listening (and Talking)

Photo by Britt Reints

Photo by Britt Reints

Do you know how to design a retrospective to be engaging, produce new thinking, and lead to clear actions for the next sprint?  I find it to be an exciting challenge to facilitate great retrospective, so much so that one of my friends refers to me as the “Retrospective Diva.”

This week I had the opportunity to design and facilitate a retrospective for one of my teams, and I wanted to share not just what I did but how and why.


The team is working on a very large and important project, which has kept them feeling busy and overwhelmed.  In meetings, team members are often multitasking to keep up with the workload.  Talking to team members one-on-one, I found that they have ideas about how to address some of the project challenges better and feel like they talk about the same problems in retrospectives only to find that nothing changes.  Team members are ready to adopt changes, but there are some destructive conflict behaviors (both active and passive) that need to be addressed.

Defining the Retrospective Goal

After talking to individual team members about what they wanted to address in a retrospective, I found it difficult to identify a common theme.  I reflected on the situation more and realized that they were talking to their manager and me… and I wondered what it was like to not talk as a team about how things were going.  I recognized the indicators of unhappiness present in their body language and tone of voice, and I realized that they were too distracted in meetings to recognize what was being said and not said.  It was clear: the team needed to think about listening and talking more openly.

Designing the Retrospective Agenda

Now that I had selected the goal, it was time to outline the retrospective itself.  How could I provide safety for everyone to participate?  What activities should I use?  Where did the team need to look for future actions?

Set the Stage - 5 minutes

I would only have one hour for the retrospective, so I had to plan my time wisely; knowing how important it would be to have everyone participating, I wanted to engage them within the first five minutes.  In Set the Stage, I would explain the retrospective goal and how I selected it to gain their buy-in and approval to explore it for the hour.  To establish a light tone and invite participation, I decided to open with a quick show of hands--who liked to talk?  Who liked to listen?  Who liked to work alone so they didn't have to talk or listen?  I made sure to laugh as I said the last one.  

Gather Data - 10 minutes

As I thought about what kind of data I wanted to have the team reflect upon, I kept coming back to the question: what is it like to not talk as a team about how things are going?  I wanted them to recognize the differences between the open flow of communication and the communication they’d been experiencing.  The metaphor of a traffic light came to mind.

  • Green – Speaking honestly and fully what’s on your mind / hearing what is being said and how it is being said
  • Yellow – Guarded or cautious in what you say / hearing the words being said but distracted as a listener
  • Red – Not speaking at all or advocating strongly for your ideas / checking out or being closed to other ideas

To gather data, I described the red/yellow/green metaphor and gave each team member a piece of paper with a traffic light image on it.  They indicated on the paper which color best represented the last sprint for them and collected them; I shared the overall results on the whiteboard at the front of the room by putting a check mark next to the color indicated on each paper.  What did they notice about the results?  Were there any surprises?  

Generate Insights - 15 minutes

To generate insights, I wanted them to discuss in pairs what it was like to be in a particular color—red, then yellow, then green.  This way each person would be encouraged to participate and speak more openly.  Rather than let the pairs discuss all of the colors for a long timebox, I wanted to break it down into separate timeboxes for each color with some group sharing in between.  

Decide What to Do - 20 minutes

After reflecting on what it felt like to be in a particular color and what caused them to be in that place, the group could brainstorm options on how to get more green in the next sprint (decide what to do).  I made a note to myself to be prepared to ask questions so it would be clear what the actions are, who the owner is, and how the team would know they succeeded at the end of the sprint.  

Close the Retrospective - 5 minutes

To wrap up, I would recap the action items and how they would be reviewed periodically during the sprint and in the next retrospective, thank everyone for their participation, and invite them to give me feedback outside of the meeting.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.