World Retro Day — running 12 retrospectives in less than 2 hours

Lessons learned from organizing a multi-team retrospectives workshop with the Agile Munich community

tl;dr

In this blog post I am sharing my experience of organizing, preparing and running the World Retro Day @ Agile Munich workshop for multiple teams, using different facilitation techniques and addressing different topics. If you are here only to download the instructions for the workshop — just scroll down, you cannot miss them.

Did you know what strawberries, polar bears, Pokémon and Kahlua have in common? Neither did I until I checked what was being celebrated around the world on February 27th. And that’s not even mentioning the Inconvenience Yourself Day, a day dedicated to getting out of bed, putting on a happy face and being nice… Suddenly the concept of a names day for agile retrospectives appears rather mainstream. Indeed, why not celebrate the twelfth principle behind the Agile Manifesto that many Agile Coaches (myself included) consider to be the most important practice of self-organizing teams?

World Retrospective Day is a volunteer-based, globally coordinated effort to share in the power of retrospectives

If my investigative researches (= scrolling back a Slack channel) are correct, the original idea of organizing a World Retro Day belongs to Toby Baier, David Horowitz and Dana Pylaeva. Apologies if I failed to mention other WRD pioneers — who knows, maybe one day they’ll find their place in history books, or at least on the Agile Practices Timeline of the Agile Alliance.

I did not hear about the World Retro Day until January 2019. The idea immediately resonated with me, and soon after I was already musing about possible formats for my own event. My company had recently rented some shiny new office spaces, the perfect location for a workshop-style meet-up. I reached out to Taghi Paksima, organizer of the Agile Munich community, and soon after World Retro Day @ Agile Munich became one of 31 registered world retrospective events across the globe, from Melbourne to Los Angeles. “Follow the Sun as we Retrospect Around the World” is the motto that the initiators of the World Retro Day came up with, and it is indeed very well chosen.

Retrospectives are not just an essential part of the Scrum framework, they are a fundamental practice for any group of people willing to learn from past experiences. It is hard to overestimate the inspiration that can be drawn from pausing to look back, reflecting on what happened and what was possible, and drawing conclusions for the future.

However, without facilitation and a certain level of creativity, retrospectives can turn into dull ceremonies with little outcome. Most Scrum Masters have experienced the frustration of a failed retrospective, when you just don’t seem to find the switch for injecting energy into the meeting. Luckily, there is a treasure trove of openly available retrospective methods and facilitation techniques that help to avoid this kind of scenario.

I decided from the start that my WRD event would be purely hands-on, and offer the opportunity to try out more than one retrospective technique over the course of one evening. After a fruitful brainstorming session with my colleague and friend Gustavo Soares, the following workshop format was born:

  • Split participants into groups of up to eight people
  • Assign each group a facilitation technique and a topic to retrospect, with visual step-by-step instructions that are easy to follow
  • Ask each group to agree on a facilitator
  • Let the groups conduct the retrospectives, keeping precise timeboxes: 5 minutes to set the stage, 20 minutes to gather data and generate insights, 5 minutes to reflect on takeaways and 5 minutes to wrap up
  • Rotate participants, so that everyone joins another group and gets to try a different facilitation technique with a different topic

A practiced coaching eye may recognize certain similarities to the World Café method or some Liberating Structures formats such as Shift & Share. A more than welcome side-effect of the workshop format was the opportunity to use the visual outcomes of the retrospectives (drawn on flip-chart paper) to create a nice picture gallery over the course of the evening.

With the general format defined, the next step was to decide on appropriate facilitation techniques and topics. With ten years of experience of facilitating retrospective meetings, and fantastic resources such as the Retromat or the TastyCupcakes collection of agile games at hand, this seemed like an easy exercise. However, it quickly became clear that it was not that easy after all.

There are quite a few constraints you have to consider when you prepare a retrospective not for the team you work with on a day-to day basis, but for a group of people that you don’t know and that doesn’t know each other. What is the common ground for meet-up participants randomly put together in a group? What can they retrospect when they have different roles, work in different companies and follow different methodologies? And what facilitation technique is suitable for gathering data and generating insights in only 20 minutes?

It took two more brainstorming sessions and the added brain of another wonderful colleague (thank you Priya Tom Prince) to decide on six techniques and topics that seemed to fit the bill.

The most labour-intensive part of the workshop preparations was preparing step-by-step instructions for the different retrospective techniques. If you ask a group of people randomly thrown together to self-organize, get accustomed to a new method and deliver result within 40 minutes, you better make sure that your instructions are clear and concise. At the same time, it was really important to me not to kill creativity by creating instructions that are overly explicit and leave no space for interpretation. It was always going to be a balance act. Below, you can browse the gallery with the six resulting instructions. Please do “steal” them for your own purposes if you find them helpful.

So the workshop required a lot of preparation — coming up with the format, choosing appropriate techniques and topics, and especially preparing the instructions. And that is not to mention the organizational overhead of hosting 50 people, preparing the rooms and making sure everybody is welcomed and does not have to “retrospect on an empty stomach”. I am very grateful for the support I received from colleagues before and during the event — without it I would not have been able to pull it off.

The event itself, on the other hand, was easier to facilitate than I had anticipated. With all preparations complete, the teams proved that self-organization works, and keeping strict timeboxes in sync in six parallel teams was indeed possible. The instructions turned out to be clear enough for anyone to follow, so that rather than being torn between answering questions for six different groups, I found myself without a task during the first retrospective round, and ended up quietly enjoying a sandwich.

At the end of the day, we had conducted 12 retrospectives in 2 hours, created dozens of takeaways, and produced a long and colorful flip-chart gallery, parts of which you can find below. Moreover, we had twelve groups of people, randomly thrown together, share there views on a range of relevant topics, laughing, arguing and sharing new ideas and insights with each other.

My own takeaway is that bringing people together, giving back to the community and “spreading the goodness” repays all the invested efforts. Some techniques and topics worked better than others, but at the end of the day everyone could look back at two hours well spent and take away something useful. I was humbled by the warm feedback, the positive buzz of engaged conversations and the support I received from wonderful colleagues and other members of the community. I am already looking forward to the third edition of the World Retro Day in 2020.

Agile Coach | Organisational Thinker | Munich, Germany

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