Visual Retrospectives - Skills for Team Development


Team development is important in every organization, business or group. The question is: How do you structure your development sessions so they make a positive impact on your employees and teammates?

Depending on how you structure your meetings, they can be productive or just a common annoyance. Information absolutely needs to change hands. The most productive meetings occur when everyone involved leaves feeling like they contributed and learned something.

This might sound like a futile effort where, once given a voice, a team of 10-40 people could turn into an all day invitation to stand on a soapbox and get something off his/her chest. We’ve all been in room where one person takes over and people start faux coughing and sneezing “shut your pie hole”. Visual retrospectives disrupt this leather-couch-venting-effect common in other meetings.

Team Development and the Visual Retrospective

As software developers, we build in teams. We use retrospectives to work on what we have done in past iterations. Retrospectives are used to focus on the tasks we are doing well and brainstorm how to improve them. We focus on the good, the bad, and the “Wow”.

The “wows” are tasks that are completed with a better than expected outcome. For example, a few members of the team may figure out an issue we thought would take longer or a solution pops up that no one saw coming.

To begin our visual retrospectives, we draw three emoticon faces on the board: a happy face, the wow a.k.a. “O-face”, and a sad face. The “happy face” represents things we are doing well. The wow face represents things we’ve done that blew our minds. The “sad face” represents things that need improvement. Two good and one bad is important. It rigs the session to have a positive overtone.

Bad issues need to be addressed but not harped on. It’s also extremely important during the retrospectives/team development meetings not to place all the blame on any one person.

We focus on the positive and then turn those into action items. Action items are things we say we’ll do to improve the team. For example, one action might be for the team leader to set up code reviews, a weekly lunch where they have a review of code for the project.

In these meetings team members might share things they have been doing, so the junior devs can learn from their experiences. Since that is an action item, you would write that down for the retrospective and see to it that it’s accomplished for the next retrospective.

Stage One: Inquiry

The way I usually conduct the visual retrospective, is once the faces are drawn on the board, I then hand out sticky notes. Sticky notes have proven to be the quickest and easiest way to get everyone’s thoughts onto the board. As soon as this is done, I allow everyone (usually up to ten minutes) to think about each of the three faces and list thoughts and ideas about the last retrospective. This covers a time frame spanning the last week, usually no more than two.

Stage Two: Probing

As we’re filling out the sticky notes, I ask the team members to draw the corresponding face (happy, wow, sad) on the bottom right hand corner, so they know exactly where to stick it on the board. This has proven to be a simple time saver.

Stage 3: Recognition and Weighting

After all the notes are written and stuck on  the board, each team member takes a pen and marks a line next to the points they agree with. You’re allowed to make up to five lines next to an item on the board. 5=highly agree. 1= not so. We usually allow 2 minutes for this.

Stage Four: Prioritizing

Next, I head up to the board and shuffle the sticky notes around. The items with the most weight, by way of lines next to them are rearranged, so they’re at the top of the board, just under each of the three faces.

Stage Five: Discussion

This process gives us an extremely organized way to talk about all the responses. At this point, the retrospective takes off.

Now, we’re about 15 minutes into the retrospective. With a large team of 40+ you’ll see there’s no way to talk about everything. That’s where the organization and the sticky notes really help us prioritize.

The key is to keep the retrospectives to 30 minutes. Allow the smiley face to guide you and encourage teammates to write pertinent issues on the sticky notes. From there, you have your roadmap. Enjoy the ride!

This way of team development, through visual retrospectives organizes and facilitates productive dialogue in numerous ways.

  • it gives a focal point (the board)

  • it provides some humor (the O face)

  • it gives each person a voice and feeling of contribution (sticky notes)

  • it assigns order and importance (active team recognition through the board again)

  • it favors positive feedback (happy face and wow face) while addressing the negative (sad face)