I’ve written in the past that I believe that retrospectives should be a creative process, and I like to engage the brain using interesting visuals and ideas. I’ve attempted to employ this philosophy at Shutl (an eBay Inc. company) by trying to use a different theme for every retrospective I’ve run. (A recent example of a theme I found through funretrospectives.com is the catapult retro.)
Then a few weeks ago, I made a comment to one of our engineers, Volker, that you could pretty much take any situation you can think of and turn it into a retrospective idea; thus the challenge of a Zombie Apocalypse- themed retro was born!
Limitations of more “traditional” retrospective formats
I was first introduced to retrospectives in 2007. Back then, a typical retro would follow the starfish format (or some variation). However, over the past few years I’ve started to see some limitations with such formats. In an attempt to address the more common anti-patterns, I’ve been moving towards a slightly adapted format. I now try to incorporate action items into the brainstorming section, both to streamline the time taken and to focus the group on constructive conversation. This format achieves a few things:
- Shortens the overall time taken by having the group identify not only what’s helping/hindering the team, but also what they can carry forward to improve their performance in the future
- Ensures a more constructive mindset by increasing focus, during the brainstorming itself, on suggestions that address hindrances
- Helps create more achievable solutions by modifying the typical “action item” phase of the retro to instead be a refinement phase, where previously suggested actions are analyzed and prioritized
Exploring the idea
With the above goals in mind, I started by scribbling and sketching out some ideas in my notepad; after a short while I had come up with a basic draft for the structure of the retro:
I bandied the idea around in my head for a day or so. The finished product looked like this:
The picture above was drawn on a large whiteboard and divided into three color-coded columns (with a fourth column for action items, complete with a reminder that our final actions require a “what,” a “who,” and a “when”).
Green stickies (column 1)
This is you, huddled in the corner, with your stockpile of weaponry at the ready, bravely fighting off the ravenous horde crashing through your doorway.
What’s your ammo? On green stickies, write down all those things that are fueling your team’s successes and working in your favor.
Pink stickies (column 3)
This is the zombie horde—a relentless army of endless undead marching towards your destruction.
Use pink stickies to identify the problems that you are facing (including potential future problems).
Orange stickies (column 2)
This is your perimeter—the security measures you’ve installed to resist the horde and ensure your survival.
As you’re identifying the issues you face and the current behaviors that are fueling your success, think about what actions you can take today to either address these issues or ensure continued success. The idea is to try to come up with a solution or suggestion for every problem that you can see on a pink sticky.
I tried out the format on the team. I gave them about seven minutes for the brainstorming, with the usual guidelines around collaboration: encouraging people to talk to each other and to look at each other’s suggestions. As a countdown timer, I personally use the 3-2-1 dashboard widget, but there are plenty of others you can use.
We then had a round of grouping and voting (each team member got three votes), with a reminder to vote on things you want to discuss, not just things you agree with (e.g., you could strongly disagree with a point on the board, and vote for it to start a discussion). Due to the nature of the board (if things go well), groups of pink stickies should have corresponding orange ones to direct the discussion towards action items.
I wrote down all action items that came up, and gave the team a caveat that we’d have five minutes at the end to review the actions, prioritize them, and pick the ones that we actually wanted to address; this keeps the discussions flowing. We ended up with some conflicting action items—which was fine; the idea was to get all the potential actions down, and then at the end decide which we felt were the most valuable. During this final review of the actions, we also assigned owners and deadlines. Then we were done!
Here’s what the final board looked like after our 45-minute retro was complete:
Next challenge: what crazy (yet effective) retrospective formats can you come up with?