6 Best Retrospective Exercises

While it might be tempting to wrap up a big project and immediately switch to the next exciting endeavor, taking a critical look at the process, and running a retrospective is essential.

When teams talk about setting up their projects for success, the majority of the focus lies on the planning and execution. But what if we told there’s one more step that teams often overlook that’s just as important for hitting your targets? Yep, we’re talking about RETROSPECTIVES!

While it might be tempting to wrap up a big project and immediately switch to the next exciting endeavor, taking a critical look at the process, and capturing key results and learnings is essential for improving your fallacies and solidifying successes!

There are loads of ways in which you could run a retrospective with your team, but which one is the most effective? Here are our 6 all-time favorites.

1. The Classic Retrospective

This exercise is great for evaluating a big piece of work or project that has involved many people. It not only allows you to take stock of what’s been done and achieved, but also gives your team a sense of closure.

If the project has been successful, it gives you one more chance to celebrate the team,  internalize the success, and give credit where it's due. If your project was more of a bumpy ride, retrospective is the perfect opportunity to turn past mistakes into learning opportunities! Either way, a classic retrospective is a great tool and should be part of every team’s toolbox!

Here’s how you run this exercise:

  1. Before the Retrospective starts, write down the list of questions you want to gain the group’s feedback on. It’s a good idea to have a set of key questions that you go through after each significant project. These questions could include: “How valuable were the outcomes of this project for the client?”, “How smooth was the process of working together as a team?”, “How manageable did the deadlines and expectations feel?” etc. 
  2. Underneath each question on the whiteboard and draw a scale from 1 to 10 under each question. Write each number left to right, with a small space between each. Under the scale, draw a line from 1 through to 10, where 1 is low and 10 is high. You should have something that looks like this:
Retrospective exercise rating scale

  1. On a separate part of the whiteboard, draw two columns: a ‘+’ and a ‘-’, approximately 50cm apart. You should have a table that looks something like this:
Retrospective exercise template
  1. Read out all your  questions and ask the team to silently note their rating (a number between 1-10) on a sticky note. One answer per sticky note. Set the timer. Time will vary depending on how many questions you have. A rule of thumb is to give 1 minute per 2 questions. 
  2. Once the time is up, ask each person to come forward and stick their sticky note  on the scale under the number they chose. So if the sticky note says six, stick it under number six on the scale. Once everyone has put up their answers, you will have a nice visual overview of the groups overall impression of each question.
  3. Now it’s time to move to the next phase in the retrospective: summarising the positives and negatives in a project. Set the timer to 5 minutes and ask your team to write down all the positive things about the project, with one positive thing per sticky note. 
  4. Once the time is up, each person presents their positives and puts their sticky notes directly in the ‘+’ column that you drew up earlier.
  5. Repeat the same with the negative aspects for the ‘-’ column.
  6. So far, the group has posted their initial judgements on the project. They’ve seen their colleagues score and they have had time to consider the positive and negative aspects of the project. Now it's time to reflect on these learnings and take action to ensure future improvements. 
  7. Set the timer to a few minutes (5-10, depending on the amount of sticky notes you’ve gathered), ask your team to read through both the positive and the negative comments their teammates shared, and vote on the things that jump out to them. It’s up to you whether you want this vote to be more of a Heat Map (meaning unlimited voting dots), a Straw Poll (with personalized voting dots), or a simple Dot Voting session (where you carefully measure the amount of dots every participant has to narrow down the amount of stickies)
  8. After the time is up, gather all the stickies that got voted on. You now have a comprehensive overview of tall the aspects that went well, and all the aspects that would need some improving the next time around. 

Optional: If time permits, and you want to make sure your Retrospective is turbo effective, we highly suggest you pair it up with another round of exercises that will help you determine what to do with the things you uncovered during the Retrospective. For the positives you can run a quick “Idea into Action” round, ensuring you keep up the positive outcomes for the next rounds. As for the negatives, they’re great material for a rapid How Might We session on how to avoid them for the next project. 

2. What? So What? Now What?

This is a great tool if you want to engage your team in a more in-depth, critical analysis of the completed project. 

The exercise is super easy to run and consists of three consecutive phases. During each phase your participants will be reflecting on the project, and structuring their thoughts and ideas on sticky notes. 

What makes this particular technique so effective is its iterative and phased nature. You’ll start out by collecting facts in the “What” stage, then move along to making sense of these facts in the “So what” phase, and finally, define the next steps within the “Now What” phase. 

To run the exercise, simply follow the steps below:

  1. Set the timer to 5-10 minutes and ask your participants to note down facts about the project on sticky notes (one fact per sticky note). Start with the “What?” phase by asking your participants to recall the completed project. Use these leading questions to help your participants come up with their facts:
  • What role did you play in this project?
  • What were your expectations before the start of the project?
  • What part of the project  did you find challenging?
  • What part of the project did you find enjoyable or  exciting?
  • What did you find surprising?
  • What did you learn?
  1. After the timer goes, off, move on to the next stage, “So What?”. Questions that might help the team move along:
  • How did this project impact your everyday work?
  • Do you think this project had a positive or a negative effect on your career?
  • What conclusions can you draw from this experience?
  • What did you learn about the problem you were working on?
  • What did you learn about the team in the process?
  1. After that phase is completed, set the timer anew and move on to the final phase–”Now What?”. To fill in this section, ask your team something along these lines:
  • How will you apply what you have learned from this experience?
  • What do you need to do to address any challenges that arose during this project?
  • What tools do you need to keep up the positive momentum of this project?

And there you have it, in under one hour you not only recapped your project experience, but also defined clear next steps and learnings!

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3. User Observations

This exercise is great if you’ve decided to go the prototype route with your solution and want to gather direct feedback while testing your prototype. This exercise is borrowed straight out of Design Sprint, and what can we say...we love it for its efficiency and strong outcomes! 

Here’s a video explaining how to run the exercise in detail:

...and a step-by-step instruction for you to refer to if needed:

  1. Explain the exercise by telling the group that they will be observing an interview (or presentation). Their task is to collect user feedback from this interview to take this as a basis for the next exercises. 
  2. Before the interview starts (or the prototype feedback is presented), ask the participants to take two stacks of sticky notes  with different colours. Tell everyone which colour is meant for all the positive feedback, and which colour they will take for all the negative feedback. 
  3. Ask the participants to collect all the feedback that they hear or observe on the sticky notes during the interview. Each new piece of feedback gets its own sticky note. 
  4. The format for this is to start with a headline with the feature or aspect that the feedback is about. For example, if  you observe a tester having a look at a new social media app for the first time, examples for this could be “notification” or “first impression home screen” or “categorization of info on feed”. 
  5. Under the headline comes the actual feedback on this feature or aspect: this can be emotional impressions like “I love this!”, or comments “I don’t understand this notification”.
User Observations exercise layout
  1. Since observing user tests provides an enormous mass of impressions, it’s a good idea to set a focus for the participants beforehand. One example could be that you circle back to the original goal of the problem-solving workshop and ask the participants to keep it in mind while listening to feedback.You can also put sticky notes with categories that the participants are supposed to focus on on the wall, e.g. “Notification”, “Idea of instant comments”. Remind the team to focus on high-level questions and not get into too much detail, to avoid this exercise transforming into in-depth usability testing. 
  2. If participants want to write down solution ideas they might have during the interview or presentation, they can put them  in a third pile of sticky notes and keep those for later.
  3. After the interview, ask everyone to put their sticky notes with the positive and negative feedback on the wall. You can also use the Sailboat exercise format for this or create different columns for the different features of the product.

4.  Presentation of Outcomes

Now, this is not a retrospective in the classic sense of the word, but this exercise is great if you need a shake-up for your team, something that will leave them motivated and excited for more. Presentation of outcomes requires no input form the group (other than the work they have already completed), but it allows to solidify the process positively in the minds.

Here's how to prepare this session:

  1. Take 5 - 10 minutes to go through the whole workshop again. Make a short recap of the problem or misalignment that was stated at the beginning, and go through the most important steps in the progress and outcomes. 
  2. Choose 3-5 digital or non-digital materials that signify the progress and content of your workshop. These can be pictures of a collection of sticky notes on the wall, a piece of flip-chart paper, a photo of the group smiling when an important progress was made etc. 
  3. Compile these materials  into a presentation (e.g. in Keynote) or  you can even just prepare the sequence of things you want to show the group. 
  4. Ask the group for a final 10 minutes at the end of the workshop and start presenting the outcomes to the participants. 
  5. Try to tell a story about the progress your workshop group has made and point out the positive aspects.

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5. Starfish

Starfish exercise is another great way to gather feedback after a project has been completed. It builds on the typical questions of a retrospective session, and expands on them. With the starfish exercise, teams can get a good overall picture of what’s going on within the team, what is working and what is not.

The starfish exercise doesn’t only look at things that went well, and  things that went wrong, it considers 5 aspects of the project:

  • Keep Doing – This section encompasses all the tools and activities that are a solid part of your workflow and that bring reliable constant results. It’s a good starting point for the exercise, and allows the team to list all of the things that have gone well. 
  • Stop doing – All of the things that went wrong, and clearly need to be eliminated before the start of the next project. 
  • Less Of – These are all the activities that require effort, but don’t produce the desired outcomes. These are often legacy rituals that have been in your team for ages, but no one is quite sure why. Zooming in on this section helps ensure your team is constantly evolving, instead of going through outdated rituals that bring no benefits. 
  • More Of – These might include some experiments you’ve run that have shown great outcomes, and that you’d like to see more of in your future work. These might also include some practices that are a solid part of your workflow, but that you haven’t been using to their full potential yet. 
  • Start Doing– This bucket includes all future suggestions that the team hasn’t yet tried out but would like to in the next project. 

The exercise is easy to run and facilitate, here’s the step-by-step process you can follow:

  1. Draw out the Starfish matrix, just like so:
Starfish exercise matrix
  1. Set the timer to a couple of minutes, and let your team note down ideas for the first quadrant - “Keep Doing”. The exercise is done in a together alone manner, so no talking or discussing should be taking place! 
  2. After the time is up, tell your participants to paste their sticky notes up. Set the timer anew and repeat the process with the next steps, until the entire matrix is filled.

6. The 4 L’s

This is yet another variation of retrospective, that allows the teams to take a look at the current situation from a factual perspective.

Here’s how to run the exercise:

  1. Show the team the whiteboard divided into 4 areas labeled Liked, Learned, Lacked, and Longed for:
The 4 L's Retrospective layout
  1. Set the timer to a couple of minutes and ask the team to write down on sticky notes everything that they liked. 
  2. After the time is up, ask the participants  to place the sticky notes on the respective areas.
  3. Repeat the steps until all quadrants have been filled.
  4. Once that’s done, split up the group into four sub-teams, one for each L. Give the sub-teams time to analyze the sticky notes on their board and to group them according to similar themes.
  5. Each group reports on their findings, and then all participants discuss together what they can do to address the individual themes. A quick How Might We session is a perfect follow-up exercise for the 4 L’s session.

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Anastasia Ushakova

Brand Strategist, Digital Marketer, and a Workshopper.