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Running a retrospective with large teams

Everyone knows the importance of retrospectives when it comes to agile working: it’s an essential meeting to reflect, gather feedback and identify how to improve continuously. A good retrospective strengthens the team and creates a spirit of shared identity. Typically, retrospectives are held within a delivery team or a small team working on a specific topic. But sometimes, you have to run a retrospective session with larger teams — for instance, a whole project team that consists of multiple delivery teams. That might mean your retrospective involves dozens of people; you might also be looking at time frames longer than the typical sprint. In this article, I’ll explore various ways facilitators can deliver useful retrospectives when dealing with large groups.

Listen to all voices

One of the biggest challenges in running a successful retrospective for a large team — that results in usable feedback and produces meaningful feedback — is to ensure that everyone is heard.

Facilitating a retrospective with a large team requires more preparation and work than for a ‘standard’ retrospective — especially when it comes to keeping the focus on the participants, content, format and time.

The facilitator helps achieve this by:
  • Creating a secure environment and empower the participants to speak without restraints
  • Planning and following up on the retrospective purpose
  • Keeping the team discussions stay on point

Create a secure environment

If you want to generate useful feedback, your team members will need to feel they can give their opinions freely. Not everyone is extroverted and likes to speak in front of large groups; some people might not feel free to express their views in front of clients or managers, and sometimes people are just simply reluctant to share their opinion with others.

Keep these natural reservations in mind and try to find ways to break these boundaries — that way, you’ll likely get better results.

The following activities can foster a safe environment for participants:
  • Use your introduction to make the everyone’s aware of the importance of participation and explain the necessity of respect and friendly contact. Be open about the challenges as the group size increases.
  • Highlight the ‘prime directive’: Read it out loud. Let one of the participants explain the meaning of the prime directive. Print it and put it on the wall, put it on the desks, make it visible for everyone to remember at all times.
  • Run a ‘safety check.’ If there are signs that people don’t feel open and secure to speak, you have to act. Stop the planned agenda and run an activity that allows the participants to bring up whatever was making them uncomfortable. You can let them collect and discuss suggestions for improvement. Afterwards, run a second safety check to see if the level of safety is increasing (at least to medium). If yes, you can follow up your retrospective agenda. If the level is still low, you should stop your session and plan activities to improve the project climate.
  • Do an ‘icebreaker activity’ or energizer to warm people up, help them to get to know each other.
  • Choose the right activity format. Try to not force the participants to speak in front of everyone if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Ask them to work in smaller groups to collect ideas and feedback — volunteers can summarize and present the results in front of the whole team. If you need to gather information more quickly and don’t have time to split into groups, let them work anonymously: use only one sticky color and one sharpie color.
  • Try to create a familiar, relaxing working area. Avoid a too-formal speaker-audience-presentation wall set-up. Make sure that all participants can see you (as the facilitator), the presentation walls, as well as each other. Encourage eye contact. As a facilitator, you should be able to see everyone so that you can moderate the activities efficiently.

Choose the right format to gather the desired content

As the facilitator, you have to be clear about the main purpose of the event and plan your activities to align them with your goals. Most retrospectives are run to examine how well a team is delivering; that can mean it’s trick to discover how well a team is (or several teams are) working together. A retrospective can initially be open in topics, or it can be very focused on just one or a limited number from the start.

Think about the main purpose, the team participating and time constraints. Select the best format accordingly.

The following considerations can help you to select the right retrospective format/activities:
  • Think about the idea for the retrospective. Why did you want a retrospective with multiple teams or a large team? Use this information to set your focus.
  • Identify the time constraints. How much time do you have for the retrospective? Can you use half a day or only an hour? If you’re time-limited, you’ll need to work harder to keep the participants focused. Think about predefining categories or topics to talk about. If you don’t want to be too restrictive, why not outline a few topics and let the audience vote. Think about if and when long group discussions could be helpful and when they aren’t.
  • Analyze the group. Are there several people with the same role (in a software delivery projects it is mostly the developers) or with more similar experience levels (e.g., more lead positions) who would probably dominate the retrospective? Will this help or prevent you from achieving your goal? You can think about splitting the whole group into smaller ones, perhaps sorting by roles, or mixing them. Be aware; the group set-up will influence the session outcomes.  

What should the format look like? We think these two approaches can help:
  1. You split the group into smaller ones and let each smaller group decide on the topics they care the most about: they should do a mini-retro activity to collect, discuss and prioritize their topics. Afterwards, the teams present their outcomes to the whole group, who vote and prioritize the issues that matter to them. The whole group can then discuss and find action items.
  2. Identify a range of topics, display this on a wall and let the team add their comments anonymously, using stickies. Make sure to give enough time for everyone to think about each topic. Once comments are in, split the group into smaller groups and let them summarize the collected input, if necessary add comments, and define action items. Each group will present the outcomes to everyone. Leave room for group discussions as the larger group may identify more actions.

No matter which format you use, you need to give the audience the context and be transparent about your ideas and agenda. Make sure that the tasks are not too complicated to accomplish and the rules are easy to understand. Use simple models like the starfish model or a simple team barometer.

Be respectful with the time of your colleagues

A retrospective with a large team can easily run out of time. It’s up to you to keep the team focused and productive. A clearly defined agenda will help, as will good time management skills. Long breaks are best avoided, and non-constructive discussions need to be parked. As the facilitator, you’ll need to guide the team through the sessions.

It can be helpful to:
  • Identify a ‘timekeeper’ responsible for monitoring and managing the time in the retrospective. This frees you up to concentrate on the topic/content.
  • Set your agenda and always add a time buffer. Even with a diligent timekeeper, it’s easy to overrun — and often necessary, where vital points need additional exploration.
  • Prepare the room before the session starts. You save time by having markers, stickies or other material on the chairs before the participants arrive. If the team needs to work on a wall (e.g., they should read something there, or put notes on it), put the posters on the wall before the session starts and make sure that there is enough space for the group to work.
  • Let the participants work with you. Even though you facilitate the retrospective, you don’t need to do everything on your own. Ask for help. Either while putting stickies on the wall, grouping stickies or something else.

Running a retrospective, especially with large teams, is challenging. However, with good preparation, it’s a useful tool to gather feedback and improve team spirit. Retrospectives should always be an integral part of our work. We should never forget the importance and potentials this tool gives.

This article refers several times to Paulo Caroli’s and TC Caetano’s amazing catalog of ideas and activities for retrospectives, which is always an inspiring source.