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As a company that strives to use Agile to work as effectively and efficiently as possible, we at Box UK are big fans of the Agile Manifesto, a key principles of which is:

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly”. 

To ensure we meet this criteria, one of the main methods we employ is the use of sprint and project retrospectives. 

What is an Agile retrospective?

An Agile retrospective is a meeting between any parties involved in the previous development iteration. It is a chance to look back over recently finished development work, to identify what went well and where improvements can be made to make future iterations even more successful.

Retrospectives generally follow the format of answering 3 questions: “What went well?”; “What didn’t go so well?”; and “What have we learned (and what is still an unknown)?”. To add variety to this process, the questions can be tweaked to theme the retrospective. For example: 

  • What has accelerated us?
  • What has put the brakes on?
  • What can we do to change gear?

Or: 

  • What has scored us a goal?
  • Where did we concede penalties?
  • What substitutions could we have made?

Whatever the questions, all participants in the retrospective write down their answers then go around the room one at a time to discuss their good, bad and unsure points. This enables information to be gathered about the current situation so that action points can be identified to improve the next iteration. 

Retrospective fatigue

As each member of the Box UK Quality Assurance (QA) team can be involved in multiple projects at once, this can mean a lot of retrospectives. And very often a lot of similar issues are raised across them. While we can identify trends in some cases and work between teams to address these issues at an organisation-wide level, there usually remains some crossover between the different retrospectives. This can result in ‘retrospective fatigue’, where participants can’t think of new points, so just raise the same ones in each retrospective. 

To help reduce this fatigue, and so ensure the retrospective remains a valuable project tool, I have devised a new format to try and introduce variation and inject life into our retrospectives.

Retros “Against Humanity”

The new format is based on the popular card game Cards Against Humanity - a party game in which players complete fill-in-the-blank statements using the (often risqué) answer cards they are dealt. Due to the popularity of the game, it’s quickly become a recognised format, and its focus on getting people to provide interesting answers to questions makes it ideal for use in retrospectives. 

The point of this approach is to prompt people to think about what points they want to raise from the last iteration, while also presenting the retrospective in a more engaging style. Participants are encouraged to think outside the box when considering and analysing what happened during the sprint, leading to suggestions that may not otherwise have been raised by answering a straightforward “What went well?”.

Complete instructions on how to play Retros Against Humanity can be downloaded here, and there are also card templates available here. (You can also find more fun ways to get to grips with key Agile concepts in the Agile Games section of our site.)

The benefits

When taking part in this style of retrospective, each participant is first given the opportunity to write down the main points they want to raise during the retrospective. They can then write down additional points after hearing the prompt statement, if they think of any that are more appropriate. This encourages participants to play the points that immediately come to mind, while also getting them to think of ideas that may be more obscure. 

For example, a statement like “Aint nobody got time for _____” may remind one of the participants about something that took longer than expected, or something that didn’t have time allocated to it, rather than just relying on them to remember all the points they wanted to raise at the outset. 

Once all participants have provided an answer for a given prompt, these answers can then be discussed, and any action points raised. If any of the points submitted for this prompt have been written down by other team members they can also be collected at this stage, to ensure that the point is only discussed once while allowing everyone to have their say on the topic. This approach should result in the most common points naturally being raised early on, with each subsequent card/statement played focusing on a smaller issue; helping keep control over the timing of the session. 

After all points relating to the prompt have been discussed, the person that selected the card chooses someone else to draw the next card (based either on the best answer given, or at random). By rotating who is reading out the prompt card and subsequent answers, the person leading the meeting changes regularly, to help keep people engaged.

If participants start to run out of original points to discuss, a sweep up of any remaining answers can be done by going round the room and asking for outstanding points individually. By this stage, there should only be minor issues left, and any appropriate action points for these can be raised and added to the list created so far. 

The prompt cards can be drawn at random from a deck of mixed cards, or they can be split into ‘positive’, ‘negative’, and ‘improvement’ mini decks. So if a sprint has had lots of issues, for example, it may be beneficial to draw more negative point cards. If the sprint went well, the participants may have more positive points to raise, so drawing more positive statement cards may help. 

As the cards are used to inspire answers and encourage thought, it doesn’t matter if the point used to answer the prompt card matches the ‘feel’ of the statement or not. If someone wants to raises a ‘bad’ point against a ‘good’ card, it can still be discussed. Indeed, mixing the answers with different statements can result in strange or unusual combinations, which can make a retrospective fun as well as informative; encouraging participants to join in and get more out of the sessions.

Star of the sprint

This retrospective format can easily be tailored to suit your own team or organisation by changing the statement cards; new rounds can also be introduced to cover additional points. For example, at Box UK a new mini deck introduced for a particular team’s retrospective meetings prompts people to suggest who they think has been a ‘star’ during the sprint, featuring cards such as “Nobody puts _____ in the corner” or “_____, not the hero we want, but the hero we deserve”. As with the other prompt cards, participants give an explanation for their nominations, and recognition is given to all the nominees, with the person being given the most nominations named star of the sprint. 

Of course, as an Agile organisation we are continually evolving this idea, so if you have any questions or suggestions (or want any further information about our approach and retrospective techniques) please get in touch with a member of our team today.

Original source: Cards Against Humanity. Variation created via Creative Commons license.

About the author

Ian Newman

Ian Newman

Ian is the longest standing member of Box UK's Quality Assurance (QA) team. During his time at Box UK he’s provided QA on a huge variety of projects, from standalone applications to web portals for enterprise organisations. Ian loves the fast-paced change that comes with developments in technology and is an avid follower of developments in mobile devices, and can’t wait to see what the next big thing will be at all times. 

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