Agile/Scrum blog

How to Conduct a Large Retrospective

Rob van Lanen Door: Rob van Lanen,  02-11-2012
Onderwerp: Scrum Master  Scrum Teams  

A well-structured retrospective that generates change is vital to improve and grow as a team. When you facilitate a retrospective with multiple teams, you have a challenge to face. Do you have ineffective large meetings? Are these meetings slow, one-way, chaotic and not changing anything? Have you been thinking about conducting a large retrospective? After reading this blog, you will have a practical reference for facilitating effective retrospectives with a large crowd. You will have this post as a sample format to customize to the needs at hand in your situation.

It is wise to discuss the vision for such a session with your client beforehand. You could argue to organize several retrospectives when you have a big crowd. You could proceed by organizing a retrospective of retrospectives with a fraction of the crowd, however this would diminish the value of everybody’s participation in the retrospective. This post therefore describes how to do a retrospective with a large(r) crowd. With my client, we agreed on the following:

  • A timeframe of 1 hr and 45 minutes
  • Everybody has to have a chance to participate (25-30 people expected)
  • Cross-department interaction should be stimulated
  • We want a positive vibe (right before Christmas dinner)
  • The outcome of the meeting will be an explicit part of the business plan for next year
  • Upper management agrees on the outcome and commits to follow-up

Based on these boundaries and the ideas I gathered from other sessions, a structure was prepared. Allow me to go in more detail of the stages:

Introduction & Set the Stage

Explanation of the goal of the session and the schedule. Let everybody speak briefly and “check in”. If people speak up at the start of a meeting, chances are higher that people speak during the meeting.

Self-organize into cross-functional groups

Ask everybody to go to a corner of the room with their department colleagues. Every corner had a big colored post-it and several small post-its of that color taped to the wall (4 different colors total). Tell everybody to take a small post-it of their corner color and hold it in their hand. Ask the people to self-organize in 4 new groups while holding their post-it in their hand. Tell them you want multi-colored (cross-functional) groups of the same size, one (newly formed) team in each corner. Ask each group for a facilitator, who will commit to sharing the result of the upcoming exercise afterwards.

Gather data in groups

Ask every group to find a quiet space outside the main room and discuss the topic of the retrospective. In our case, I asked them to discuss and agree on a prioritized top 5 of highlights of last year, 1 per post-it. Give the facilitators markers and post-its of their group’s color (referring to the color will help you keep track of the groups).

Sharing insights & converging into themes

Invite the facilitators in the inner circle and all other participants to the outer circle. Ask the people of the outer circle to remain silent. Ask the facilitators to explain their group’s #1 item and to place the post-it on the chart. Members of the inner circle may ask questions if they do not understand the item (disagreement is no reason for discussion). After everybody presented their group’s #1, proceed with #2, then #3 etc. until all items are presented or the timebox ends. Ask the facilitators to converge overlapping items jointly, so unique items remain on the flipchart.

Private voting & Selecting the topic

Label each unique item with a character (A-Z). Ask everybody to vote privately (on a post-it) by spreading a number of votes on the items. Give them boundaries by telling them their total number of votes (and maybe even a maximum they can put on one item). I chose for private voting so there is less influencing compared to public dot voting. In the latter method, early voters can set a trend and late voters can make decisions for the group. I wanted to prevent trendsetting.
Ask for one or two people to count the votes publicly. Do not do it yourself because you want to watch the group and facilitate if necessary. Thank them afterwards. Restate the “winning” item from the votes. Tell them the rest of the session is focused on this very topic. Some people do not like you removing the waste of the non-winning items and feel attached to the other items. This is OK. Tell them they can still pursue this later if they want to. Explain that this session focuses on the item with the most votes, as this is most important to the group right now.

Explain the fishbowl

Explain the format of the fishbowl (source: FishBowl Retrospective)

Discussion and task selection

Agree on actions to address the topic. In our case, we wanted to relive our highlight of last year. We discussed actions to reach this goal. As a facilitator, your role is to stay invisible. If people have a hard time creating actionable tasks you may want to summarize, sharpen and ask powerful questions.

Slack on the schedule

With a group this big, you need some slack time. The group will be unpredictable in moving around between the different exercises. I used the slack time to lengthen the fishbowl discussion.

Close the retro

As a facilitator, you can restate the outcome and firmly close the retrospective. Simply tell the crowd it is over.

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